Some years ago, I embraced the principle of serendipity when it comes to creative interests. No longer do I yank the choke chain on my curiosity or stop an impulsive desire to learn more about a topic. Instead, I see where it will lead me.
Sometimes, I end up with nothing more than a collection of dusty items that I quickly tire of. Other times, however, I’m inspired to develop a story. Like a prospector panning for gold, I sift and sift, never knowing what will come of it all.
Since April, I’ve been on a serendipitous quest to gather old cookbooks. My criteria are as follows: They can’t be musty. They can’t smell of cigarette smoke. They must mention oleo.
Let me back up a bit.
Psychologically, this sudden yen for vintage cookery probably began in January, when a doctor put me on a modified Paleo diet to help me throw off the lingering after-effects of a long bout of walking pneumonia. As some of you may know, the Paleo diet nixes flours, grains, potatoes, dairy, and sugar. In fact, it’s easier to say what the diet allows … meat and vegetables. It was harsh. It was horrible. It was effective. I kicked the pneumonia. I lost a lot of weight.
However, like an exile banned by Caesar from living in ancient Rome, I crave the comfort foods of yore. Foods from my childhood before fast food, packaged, and convenience food became epidemic.
In April, I was out shopping with a friend who must now live gluten and dairy free. We stopped to browse in an antiques mall, and she went digging in the cookbook section for something published before 1975. Her reasoning was this: she wanted recipes of foods from before the invention of pre-packaged convenience. With the actual recipes for things like Dijon mustard, mayonnaise, or crescent rolls (did you know they used to be made from scratch in the days before Pillsbury?), she could then substitute problematic ingredients with those she’s able to eat.
She struck pay dirt with a Junior League cookbook from Jackson, Mississippi. As we drove away, I flipped through the cookbook idly and discovered wonderful dishes within its covers. It was, in effect, a treasure trove of delicious food.
But what struck my writer’s imagination even more was the quaint formality of the original contributors.
Mrs. Walter Something.
Mrs. Theodore Somebody III
Mrs. Henry Whosit, Jr.
All these ladies, publishing their recipes under their married names. There was dignity in that … the value of tradition.
Growing up, I often pored over my grandmother’s cookbook compiled by the women in her ranchers’ wives group. But those recipes were more casual, and the contributors had simply included their names as Betty This and Sandra That. They were just sharing good food from their kitchens without getting fancy about it.
During the early summer, I was attending an estate sale–since I can’t resist the lure of digging through someone’s dusty old possessions. An acquaintance of mine purchased an accordion file of bits of paper–all scribbled with recipes. “I’m looking for a good carrot cake recipe,” she announced as we stood in line together. “When I’m done looking through these, you can have them.”
(That file is now on a shelf in my garage, waiting until I have a few hours to sift and sort for whatever culinary treasures it may contain.)
A few weeks after that, I attended another sale and came across an old hardbound book. It had originally contained late Victorian dress patterns, but someone had pasted over the pages with newspaper clippings of recipes. The estate liquidator was disgusted by such misguided thriftiness. The dress patterns would have been valuable had they not been defaced by the recipes.
A little voice inside me whispered, “Buy it. Read the recipes.” So I shelled out $2 and came home with it. What I’ve lost to fashion history I’ve gained in food from the Great Depression.
During this Thanksgiving, I visited my hometown and spent one cold, rainy afternoon in a small antiques shop. On a shelf I found several small tin boxes, the kind that used to hold 3 x 5 index cards.
Inside were recipes, some written carefully on recipe cards, others clipped from yellowed newspapers, and still others scribbled on the backs of old letters–stamps and addresses still affixed–that were folded in half and tucked in firmly.
I chose two of the boxes and brought them home with me. In the yellow box, the first card says:
“Oatmeal Cookies” Mrs. Sallee Thorly – Cream 1 cup shortening – 1 cup brown sugar – 1 cup white – add 2 beaten egg yolks …
The second card is written in a different hand. It’s for cheese cake.
The third recipe is scrawled on a scrap of paper advertising Brillo soap pads. It’s for Yorkshire Pudding.
Behind it is an untitled recipe involving hot milk, eggs, sugar, etc. on the back of an envelope. There’s a 5-cent stamp and the postmark date is July 1966. The address is written in lovely, straight-as-a-rule cursive.
I can imagine the owner of this box, collecting recipes over the years from friends and family, especially ladies attending her church. Sharing and mingling traditions and customs. All of them bound by a single thread of purpose: supplying delicious food to their families.
The green recipe box is more organized. There are tabbed dividers for “Bread,” “Cake,” “Candy,” “Pastry,” “Cookies,” “Casseroles,” “Fish,” “Pickles,” and “Ices.”
The old-fashioned word, “Ices,” intrigued me most. That section contains a single recipe for vanilla ice cream. It’s been typed via a manual typewriter on a yellowing index card as follows:
2 envelopes Knox gelentin (sic)
1/2 C. cold milk
1 Qt. scalded milk
1 pt. cream & 1 can of cream
Imagine the fun of researching exactly how much a “can of cream” measures. Is it an actual measurement, or is it peculiar to this woman’s kitchen?
My college roommate used to talk about her mother’s pie crust recipe including “half an eggshell of water.” My grandmother measured her vanilla extract with the bottle lid.
I can sum all this up in a single word … nostalgia.
Of course! I miss the comfort of my grandmother’s steamy kitchen–a plain, straightforward room without any frills beyond a flirty yellow stripe on the window valance. White-painted cabinets, a long expanse of Formica counter in white with little gold speckles, a boxy stove in Harvest Gold with a wonky oven door that required you to slam it with your knee just so to make it close properly. She made bread-and-butter pickles in a huge yellow Pyrex bowl with a dinner plate on top. She mixed her pie crust with her fingers–no fancy pastry cutter needed. Her soup-bone soup smelled delicious on a cold winter’s day. And Sunday chicken was fried up right in a huge iron skillet.
Somewhere in the family boxes is a tattered little notebook of the recipes my grandfather cooked while a bachelor. It served as my grandmother’s first cookbook, the one she learned from when she married.
Two drawers in my mother’s china hutch are filled with cuttings of recipes from newspapers and magazines. I haven’t yet gone through them all.
But I still love stumbling across a ring-bound cookbook from a church group, the kind with oleo in the ingredients lists. Not because I intend to use margarine, but because it tells me the era when these recipes were compiled and shared … or sold to raise funds for some worthy project.
I love finding the page with a long-dried smear on it. The page with the corner turned down. The penciled annotations of “Use less salt!” or “Tommy’s favorite!” or simply, “Good!”
I’m no longer starving on the Paleo diet, and I don’t know where my recipe odyssey is taking me. Perhaps nowhere. Perhaps to a character or a setting or a plot down the road.
In this day and time, when our kitchens are fancier and the Food Network instructs us on preparing coulis and reductions, I think of how all we really need is a rolling pin, a few simple ingredients, and a Pyrex mixing bowl to turn out something mouth-watering.