Books have always fascinated me, especially old ones since they tell so much about the previous readers. Dog eared pages, margin notes, bookmarks, and newspaper clippings tucked between pages are always great finds. Few things in life are better than finding century old pressed four-leaf clovers. But books are only so useful, since a person can’t reasonably eat them for breakfast.
Cookbooks are a compromise, and my favourites are splattered with bits of recipes, whipped up in a hurry, perhaps 60 years ago. This is important trace evidence that the recipe might be good.
Cookbooks provide me with laughter since recipes are often so much of an era, rather like how sun-dried tomatoes and pine nuts remind me of the mid-1990s and pomegranates of 2007. Whether it is the microwave cookbook that claims that you can roast a chicken using only a microwave oven (surely one cannot) or a pamphlet called “Let’s serve shellfish!” printed by the Department of Fisheries Canada that notes in the recipe for Hot Lobster Bluenose, “Heat mayonnaise in a frying pan. Add milk slowly, then add vinegar, stirring constantly.” Making jokes about the past has the ease of gathering low-hanging fruit. With any luck, many of our current culinary atrocities will soon transmogrify into old jokes. Asparagus foam? I’m laughing already.
My favourite cookbooks are the ones owned by family members. It would be amazing to speak with my great-grandmother about her recipe, but circumstances prevent that. Instead, I took her only cookbook cleaning out her house after she died. Although obsessed with neatness, she thankfully left traces in the cookbook so that I can tell which recipes she liked. Pages 80 – 81 about two-crusted fruit pies are covered in stains, apple probably. This particular cookbook shows the austerity that tempered cooking. Butter was a luxury, as were many fresh fruits and seasonings. As much as I enjoy this 1945 copy of the Purity Cook Book (a publication of Purity Flour Mills) it did not have Nana’s biscuit recipe, which had become something of a family mystery.
Some books speak clearly about social goals and the expectations of women. My grandmother’s maiden name is written in neat cursive inside Glamour and the Hostess. Written by the director of the Chatelaine Institute and costing two dollars, it has black and white photos tinted with unexpected colours showing elaborate table settings for improbable occasions, such as “Rumpus Room Parties.” One diagram shows 28 different kinds of knives, forks, and spoons, plus sundry cutlery such as a tomato server and iced tea spoon. This much is clear: Nanny read the book very well since my mother also knows about inane types of spoons, as do I. Some things get passed along while others are lost. Best still are when they are re-discovered, such as a recipe for biscuits.
My grandmother kept a notebook where she wrote out her favourite recipes by hand. Others are written on sheets of teletype paper and inserted between pages. Ann Landers’ famous (horrible) recipe for meatloaf is pasted in. Some have hilarious names like “Hello Dollies” and “Church Windows.” The recipe for banana bread that my mother uses, and got from my grandmother, is in its original form, on a mimeographed sheet of paper in unknown handwriting and with no attribution except “school.” Two casserole recipes (chicken & broccoli and vegetable & cheese) are written on the back of a blank cheques. I can only imagine the exigency that led her to do that. Did she realize that it was badass and that 25 years after her death I would love her for it? Like many recipes, this one comes from a time when cans of condensed soup were ingredients and when pineapple and mushrooms were also seen as canned goods. Each recipe has a title and a source. Tucked in this book I eventually found the prize, a recipe for biscuits labeled “Mom.” When I make them, they taste close enough to know it’s the same recipe, but they don’t taste the same. How could they?