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Cookbook culture: A personal history in grease stains and pencil marks Add to ...

This article was originally published September 29, 2012.

As a food historian, I'm a collector of old, dusty, food-stained cookbooks of all descriptions, but one I come back to time and time again is a 1930 edition of the Good Housekeeping Institute's Meals Tested, Tasted and Approved: Favorite Recipes and Menus From Our Kitchens to Yours, bought for $12 from a Toronto vintage shop.

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It's well worn, smelling vaguely of mildew and flour, with its spine broken and held together with clear tape. Its pages are stuffed with dozens of handwritten recipes on cards and others cut from newspapers and magazines, including a fading recipe for dandelion wine written in pencil on scrap paper and a Campbell's soup-can label with a recipe for oven-glazed chicken.

In other words, it's like hundreds of other cookbooks in kitchen cupboards across the country.

But what makes this particular cookbook remarkable to me is the set of inscriptions in the front cover left by its original owner who, for the sake of her family's anonymity, I'll call Jean Stephenson:

My first cookbook, I was 18 yrs. old, living on my own employed, as an artist. This book was sent to subscribers of the Good Housekeeping Magazine that was full of information for the young, starting life together in the 1930 yrs.

Jean Stephenson

Still very good in 1997.

Then, with a different pen, likely written on a separate occasion:

Engaged to Ben at 19

Married at ... 21 in 1932.

We had 57½ good years. Together...

And, finally, with yet another pen:

Ben [passed] away

No illness at 84½ yrs.

In 1989.

It's an example of how even the most utilitarian cookbook is often much more than simple directory of recipes. Community cookbooks, for instance - the kind produced by church groups, voluntary associations, political parties or workplaces - tell us much about how their authors wanted to define themselves to the broader community.

And, particularly in the middle decades of the 20th century, mass-market cookbooks typically included extended meditations on women's appropriate behaviour in and out of the home through chapters on etiquette, table manners and economical and scientific shopping practices.

But, as Ms. Stephenson's notations suggest, cookbooks can also tell us something much more personal about their readers. Even when they are not so poignantly inscribed, most of them offer at least a few tantalizing clues: In the Good Housekeeping book, the pages showing the most use - stained, dog-eared, discoloured and heavily annotated - are primarily in the baking section.

Above the recipe for Popovers, for instance, the penciled-in question "Yorkshire Pudding?" appears to have been answered later with a more confident "Yorkshire Pudding" written overtop in blue ink, and "beat very well" is written in pen over the original instruction to "beat eggs slightly."

Ms. Stephenson adapted recipes over time and was willing to experiment with some that did not seem to work. There's a tucked-in day-planner page filled with the results of Jean's research on how to improve Good Housekeeping's recipe for fruit cake, with handwritten notes on the variations she found in the American Woman's Cook Book (1947) and Ana Lee Scott's Cooking Secrets (1934). It seems clear she was always looking for better recipes, particularly for holiday baked goods.

But the book meant more to her than a handy source of tested recipes, as her short biography in the front pages makes clear: Reading it was a trigger for memories of her youth, of her long and happy marriage and of her husband's death.

I imagine that they flooded back to her every time she picked up the book from her shelf, just as my own do when I look through the cookbook that I helped my mother put together using recipes from my childhood.

A neglected trove of history

I have seen enough similarly well-loved, tattered cookbooks for sale at thrift stores and flea markets to know that, in general, our society does not attach much value to these kinds of cookbooks.

And because so much of their meaning is attached to their individual owners, the memories begin to fade as soon as they leave the hands of close friends and family. Ms. Stephenson left a few hints about her life in the front pages of the book, but this is quite rare.

It's unusual that a cookbook contains even the name of its owner, let alone information such as when they came into possession of it or how long they used it.

This lack of recognition is reflected in the way cookbooks have been treated by the various repositories of Canada's print heritage. Leading culinary historian Elizabeth Driver, for instance, found in the course of her research for Culinary Landmarks: A Bibliography of Canadian Cookbooks, 1825-1949 (2008) that more than 1,000 of the 2,275 cookbooks she was able to identify were not in libraries or archives at all, but could be found only in private collections. Often, there was only one known copy in existence.

Some libraries and archives are working to remedy this situation. But our failure until now to protect Canada's culinary heritage is a reflection of the lack of respect afforded to women's work in the kitchen. Cooking has been a key component of a broader set of expectations placed upon women as wives, mothers and daughters. It's a form of seemingly unending labour that sustains the household but usually receives little acknowledgment, particularly when it is being done well.

I do not know how Ms. Stephenson felt about cooking but, after a bit of online sleuthing, I can tell you it was a big part of her life.

After having children, she gave up her career as an artist and, in all of the obituaries and tributes I read, there are references to her warmth and hospitality.

She was well known for welcoming with open arms the guests from around the world that - because of her husband's unusual and fascinating line of work as a magician - regularly passed through her home.

I feel lucky to have found this cookbook and, through it, learned more about her fascinating life and times. And it also has spurred me to get a hold of my own grandmother's heavily annotated 1940 Blue Ribbon Cookbook.

It was given to her as a wedding present by her mum and, like Ms. Stephenson's, it is filled to bursting with loose recipes, menus and handwritten notes. It once was promised to an uncle's ex-girlfriend, but I knew I could not let this piece of my grandmother's history leave the family. Through it, I've gotten to know her better than ever before.

Ian Mosby is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Guelph. More of his work is at http://www.ianmosby.caAn earlier version of this essay appeared on http://www.activehistory.ca.

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