Thursday’s Dish: Recipes from the Past

I love old recipe books. I have a collection of pamphlet-like books from the ’40s and ’50s published by GE, Imperial Sugar, Sunbeam and other companies. The recipes and headnotes (description at the beginning of a recipe) are fun to read, and the artwork runs the gamut from kitschy-cute to outright bizarre.

When I worked for a Texas lifestyles magazine, I had the privilege to edit a cookbook of recipes drawn from the magazine’s archives, which went back to the ’40s. It was such fun to read through those old recipes, household tips and “womanly advice.” Sometimes, though, the vocabulary of the recipes tripped me up. They called for things like “a slow oven,” “a half-gill of yeast” or “a teacup full of sugar.” I had to do a little research to find out what these meant and be able to test the recipes for the cookbook in a modern kitchen. (Slow oven = 250-300 degrees; half-gill = 4 tablespoons; teacup = 1/2 cup)

I also like how old recipes are often personalized, with the author leaving notes for herself. It gives a small window into her life and time. I’ve had to call my grandma before to get her to decipher certain notations on her handwritten recipe cards. Paying attention to personal details like these has made me more willing to scrawl in cookbooks, mark things out and even rewrite recipes in a way that makes sense to me. I hope my grandchild has to call me someday to figure out what I meant.

My mother-in-law also collects old recipe books and recently bought one called, “An Army Wife’s Cookbook.” Put together by the granddaughters of Alice Kirk Grierson, the book presents her recipes and household hints in her own words, then translates them for modern use. Grierson lived from 1828-1888, moving from Ohio to Illinois, then following her husband and the 10th Calvary west to Texas. Her voice is still very well preserved in her recipes, as you can see below in italics. (This recipe is for cookies, which were often referred to as “cakes” or “teacakes” in Grierson’s time.)

Lillian King’s Little Nut Cakes

One pint of sugar–to which add four unbeaten eggs and cream. Then one pint flour and one pint of hickory nut meats mixed and added. One spoonful cinnamon, and grated nutmeg, mixed half and half. No milk, no butter. Nothing to raise them but the eggs. Butter long pan and drop on far apart. One teaspoon full for each cake. They bake very quickly and spread the right size. Buy nuts all picked out at confectioners.

Converted recipe:

2 cups flour

2 teaspoons ground cinnamonAdvertisement
1 tablespoon ground nutmeg

2 cups sugar

4 eggs

2 cups walnuts or pecans

Sift flour with cinnamon and nutmeg. Set aside. Cream the sugar and eggs together until mixture is thick and creamy. Add dry ingredients to the creamed mixture and work until thoroughly blended. Work in the nuts. Drop by heaping teaspoons onto buttered cookie sheets. Bake in a 350 degree oven for 10 to 12 minutes. Makes 8 dozen.


I’ll be giving a talk on “Cookbooks of the Past” this Sunday at 1:45 at the Heritage House Museum in Pflugerville. I’ll give away a few of the archival cookbooks mentioned above as doorprizes. If you’re in the area, come by and say hello!


1 Comment on Thursday’s Dish: Recipes from the Past

  1. Best of luck at the event on Saturday! Wish I could be there. You’ll have to do another when I’m in town…..

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