Old Cookbooks

Looking through boxes from an attic is not usually a task I find enjoyable. Going through boxes, deciding what is worth keeping and what isn’t… not often an afternoon well spent. But when sorting through boxes which used to be in my grandparents attic, I stumbled across a box of old cookbooks, some a good few generations older than my grandparents themselves. After looking through everything  else, I spend a good couple of hours looking through this box, all the recipes, and discovering a good deal about culinary lifestyles, and lifestyles in general- many years ago.

Most of the recipe books aren’t actually that helpful for cooking- which goes for classics like Escoffier as well. A lot of the recipes assume you have good cooking skills already, and know a lot of the techniques you’ll need for the meal. For example, in ‘Cookery For Every Household’ by Florence Jack, published 1938, on a stuffed bass:

…prepare some oyster forcemeat, according to recipe 1275. Put this into the fish and sew it up… Bake in a hot oven, basting occasionally with the bacon fat. When ready, remove the fish carefully to a hot dish and draw out the trussing needle.

No cooking times, few techniques explained- of course you have gutted, cleaned and scaled the fish yourself before you even start the recipe. Many of the recipe books are just like this. Huge, exhaustive tomes of thousands of recipes, they are fantastic if you already have a good knowledge of food, good technical skills, and are likely to be dedicating a lot of time to cooking, most days for the rest of your life. Of course, I liberated a few of these, not really to cook from, but for posterity’s sake. But there were also a few ‘interesting’ books and pamphlets that I saved as well, some of which I think are worth sharing.

‘The Stock Wartime Cookery Book’ (published unknown) is just that: how to make the most of rations, how to use every scrap of food in the house, and, as seen above, how to save your dinner in the case of emergency. At first thought it seems incredible that, when an air raid struck, the thing you would think about would be saving your dinner. But of course, if you didn’t, you may lose the day’s meal for your family. Also containing patriotic recipes like “Army Cake” and “Air Force Cake”, made without ingredients like currants (that would have been tough to get hold of at the time, due to rationing), you can see how everybody was swept up in the war effort, trying to keep up morale “for families grown suddenly large … [and] temporarily small”. The whole thing is fascinating to read. For those interested in some of the ways to save your dinner if air raids come:

[T]he first thing to do is to stop the heat, that is, turn off the gas or electric current or close the dampers of a kitchen range. If you do this your food cannot get burnt, and we will tell you how to continue the cooking when you can come back to the kitchen.

Meat is the easiest to deal with. Leave a roasting joint in the oven. The heat that will remain for some time in a gas or electric oven will be enough to go on the with cooking for a time, but not enough to burn the joint. When you come back to the kitchen, you may find that the meat is cooked. If it needs more cooking, start the oven again, baste the meat well with hot fat, and finish the cooking. Your own common sense and your knowledge of how long the meat has been in the oven will help you here…

Cakes. If by chance you have left a cake in the oven, leave it where it is, after turning off the heat, and test it with a knife, just as you test your baked pudding, to see if it is cooked. If the knife shows any dampness or stickiness, bake it for a little while longer, and in many cases you will find it none the worse. If, however, the cake is heavy when cut, or if it sinks in the middle, you can always make it into a pudding. There are two good recipes for a pudding…

On no account throw any food away if there is any way of using it. After a few experiments, and perhaps one or two failures, you will find ways to rescue food that has had to look after itself for a time, and I am sure your successes will outnumber you failures.

The Palmine Cookbook (published 1909) is a recipe book for a revolutionary type of butter: vegetable butter, which we are of course all familiar with today. A little internet research suggests this really was one of the first implementations of vegetable butter- Wikipedia states “Procter & Gamble researchers were innovators when they started selling cottonseed oil as a creamed shortening, in 1911”, post-dating this book by two years.

Objection to the use of animal fats in the modern kitchen has opened the road for a fat produced solely from a Vegetable origin. “Palmine” – the latest and most perfect production- is extracted from the fruit of the Palm- Cocoanuts- and is absolutely free from those qualities that render animal fats objectionable. Lard, the fat of pork, for instance, retains the flavour of pork throughout, in spite of any purifying process to which it may be subject, and this flavour obtrusively manifests itself during cooking.

With a lot of the recipes you would expect to see in any modern day cookbook, like puff pastry, cup cakes, royal icing, and tomato sauce, it’s also a little surprising to see how little some of our cuisine has changed in the last hundred years- Victoria sponge is still a popular cake, for example. Equally the idea that everybody would already know how to make a lot of these recipes- the book is really only demonstrating they can be done with this fat substitute- just shows how eating habits and gastronomy have changed.

The Radiation Cookbook (published unknown) looks at how to cook with modern “New World” gas cookers, issued by a company called Radiation Limited. The construction of the cooker looks very like our modern cookers, with burners, taps, and a griller. It’s hard to tell quite what features are new in this oven, compared to other products on the market at the time, as the book is also trying to sell the oven. However, with a tagline of “For perfect cooking by gas”, it does suggest that cooking by gas may be a relatively new thing in domestic kitchens. The recipes are nothing special, but with several diagrams on how to use the gas ovens most effectively, it makes for an interesting historical read.

It’s only when you start to read books like this that you really appreciate how society has changed in only a couple of generations- my grandmother grew up without a freezer, unthinkable now, but completely normal then. International ingredients like ras-el-hanout and other spice mixes, sushi ingredients, and gram flour are all available in supermarkets now, but would have been very hard to find when my parents grew up. I wonder what will be the equivalent in several generations time.


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. yourothermotherhere
    Sep 15, 2012 @ 01:30:33

    Interesting. I wonder how many people got sick from undercooked food left to sit and then heated again during the war?


    • oxfoodblog
      Sep 15, 2012 @ 06:46:52

      Thanks for the interest, Linda. It’s a good question- I imagine that if food was left in a hot(ish) oven before being reheated right away, bacteria would stay away, but with other food, definitely more of a risk. Hopefully not too many!


      • yourothermotherhere
        Sep 15, 2012 @ 13:00:16

        You are right. The oven would probably be okay, but I’d definitely question some other foods just as you stated.

  2. Trackback: Cookbook Recommendations « oxfood

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