Cookbooks and recipes will often tell you to pay attention to what you’re doing. Pay attention so you don’t burn the butter, overwhip the egg whites, overdevelop the gluten. In my case, I should’ve been paying attention to the cookbooks themselves. You never know what they will show you.
When my mother gifted me the family notebooks that would go on to become the basis for Pantry and Palate, she also handed me a series of seemingly random books and small pamphlets along with the handwritten family notes.
My mother had told me that her father - as well as her grandfather - had run a small general/dry goods store for decades in the village of La Butte where she was raised. In the house where I was raised, all sorts of leftovers from that store could be found. A shelf for motor oil from the 40’s was used to store tools, a pencil in a cup would be emblazoned with slogans like, “Don’t say salt, say WINDSOR SALT” (I still have the pencil). When I received the pile of cookbooks and pamphlets, in my head, I simply though, “Ok, cool, more promotional items.”
At the time I was so thoroughly focused on writing Pantry that I didn’t pay much attention to the rest of the pile. Two of the books ended up on a shelf as decorating accents, with the gentle promise of “I’ll get to you later.” In a procrastination-based cleaning flurry the pamphlets ended up being bundled up with random papers, put aside, and somewhat forgotten.
But as I started digging further and further into the recipes for Pantry - let alone all the cookbooks and culinary history tomes I was reading at the time - the more connections I kept seeing. And I’m not talking about specific dishes being found in random community cookbooks. So much sameness that it was interesting onto itself. That pie recipe in my book? I’m pretty convinced it used to be on the side of a box of shortening.
This is nothing new, really. Culinary historians have pointed this out before, as have food writers and chefs. Swedish chef Magnus Nilsson pointed it out while doing press interviews for The Nordic Cookbook. You see, the thing is that we all love a good recipe, and we love a recipe that works for everyone.
And that’s what a lot of these pamphlets tend to be; trends, notwithstanding.
The cookery books of the early 20th century - tempered by war rationing, nutritional science, technology, and so much more - have a lot to contribute to today’s foodstuffs. Can’t find any recipes in your latest cookbooks on what to do with all those random foodstuffs you’ve bought because you saw them on Instagram? I’m looking at you, my beloved quinces. Bored by the same old ideas on what to do with all those blueberries/apples/tomatoes/insert random seasonal item? Five will get you ten you’ll find something unexpected and beautiful in one of those books.
This is not to say that there aren’t strange and arguably unpalatable duds. No, we don’t need another recipe for an overly sweet punch, and the cooking times for some of those meats may be debatable, but that recipe for Irish Moss Blanc Mange is kind of interesting. Coffee Jelly wouldn’t be out of place on a modern dessert plate. What is old is new again, and worth examining.
And don’t forget about the visuals. Yes, that colour plate by today’s standards seem anachronistic at best, unappetizing at worst, but those typefaces are beyond beautiful, as are some of the illustrations placed higgledy piggledy on the pages.
But the beauty for me in all of these books, the thing that sparks my interest in them, is examining them for what they are: conveyers of convenience, archives of alimentary apocrypha, and testaments to taste. They tell you how and what people were truly eating, all the way down to the specific brands - who else was going to teach early 20th century women how to use Magic Baking Powder? And who else would tell you which apple is best to use in what manner like a pamphlet on Nova Scotian apples.
I’ve decided to praise these old cookbooks and pamphlets over on my Instagram feed, under the title Old Recipes, New Recipes (#oldrecipesnewrecipes). The idea is to show that there really is nothing new under the sun, and that sometimes, the old guard is the most interesting guard of all. Check out the hashtag #oldrecipesnewrecipes, and feel free to send me any of your fave old cookbooks at firstname.lastname@example.org.