June 25, 2013

Comments from the Booklady: Edited for terseness

Mountains of cookbooks in the back room.  2013.

Two weeks ago, a family donated eleven big boxes of cookbooks to the Cancer Society Discovery thrift shop.  I’m the volunteer book lady there.  Like an old style can of tuna, these books were solid packed.  I made a decision to just get those eleven boxes of books off the floor, out of the way, and sort for damaged books later. 

We volunteers are a disparit bunch on Wednesdays.  Three of us work in a far corner of the back room sorting area.  I come in early to move everything out of the way for two ladies who are slower than I.  I place Gloria’s favorite chair before her low table.  Once a week she sorts the donated cards there.  I move all the hanging racks to the far side of the big room as Joan prices the books from our small corner also.  She can’t reach the high ones, nor can she reach the low stacks, so I try to arrange these within her range before she gets to the store.  Joan lives in a wheel chair. 

As the day goes by, I am able to slow down a little.  The shredded pile of cookbooks catch my eye, and I pause to see what they are.  A Milwaukee Settlement House Cookbook tops the pile with little bits of paper sticking out from its pages.  Put together as a fund raiser for the Settlement House in the nineteenth century, this book is a treasured repository for middle European family recipes such as kuchen and torten. 

Both the front and back boards are detached, and there’s nothing covering the spine.  This edition is from 1943, and though the interior paper is acid free, perhaps the World War II shortages hurt the volume’s construction.  Not the contents though.  I find myself glued to the three pages of apple deserts with, I am sure, a happy smile on my face.

“To my friend Miss Lillian Kemp and to my pupils and radio pals…” says the dedication page on the next book, Mrs. Petersons Simplified Cooking.  The author, Mrs. Anna J. Peterson put this volume together in 1924 for the “Home Services Edition The Peoples Gas Light & Coke Co.”  The yellowed paper and brown fabric cover are all too tired to make it a saleable book.  The type size is small and the book’s beige on brown not at all eye-catching.  The contents look interesting though.  Great effort was made to make these recipes easy to follow listing first a basic recipe followed by a list of variations.  No twenty-first century, single page instructions here.  No giant photograph filling the facing page. 

Here, how to stuff a tomato is described in one terse paragraph.  It’s followed with three even shorter paragraphs of stuffings.  I pause over the “Second Stuffing,” an assemblage of peas and walnut meats that doesn’t seem enticing, before seeing a slaw stuffing and a cottage cheese stuffing.  I could do the slaw.  I could also do the cottage cheese which is mixed with minced peppers and onions.  

Two more ruined books wait for me.  The New American Cook Book and The Chicago Daily News Cook Book.  The Daily News volume is a sad case.  The spine is gone and the signatures and stitching flap in the wind, but it has kept its well-designed title page.  Using nice Deco type styles, this page compresses an amazing amount of information in a little space.  Price, $1.00, it says.  That was a lot in 1930.  Inside the type is tiny, ten point, and typical newspaper font of the early twentieth century similar to Times New Roman.  Very unreadable for blind old ladies like me.

I move on to the New American and find it carefully planned.  I can put Cabbage and Apple slaw together with cooked salad dressing, number 737, and never have to use the index at all.  There are color pictures to tempt the palate to try Beet or Potato Salad, numbers 782 and 780, and an even more fulsome title page that left me feeling as if I were reading Victoriana. 

Although the spine and boards are held on with an enthusiastic application of packing tape, the contents charm me by bringing back memories.  Number 3045 are Hermits.  Mother made that very recipe for me when I went away to boarding school.  Grandmother’s Peanut butter cookies are just across the page.  

Modern twenty-first century cookbooks are wonderful marvels.  They are well illustrated, well designed for ease of use, and easy to understand.  They list fewer recipes, and their glossy pages show you how to eat well with less of all the things that taste really great.  Inside these old books reside lard, suet, salt, sugar, meats, memories and love.  Sometimes you can’t beat those memories or love.

Life is Really in the Footnotes:

  • Himself:  Neither of us felt quite well yesterday, but he still had fun at work.  Drove Myrtle the Toyota to Poway with injector cleaner in her as she has to be smogged next week.  Going to a Padre’s game with his sponsor in the really good seats.  Today is movie night, and it’s his turn.

  • Herself:  Had a really good visit with friend Linda….discussed all our old friends, and visited the Cabrillo Lighthouse.  I couldn’t believe she hadn’t been there before.  Worked on this piece, had a great day and felt better at the end.

  • Reading:  Another Cadell…they are like M&M’s, you can’t have just one.

  • Balance:  Watching “Antiques Roadshow” quietly last night.


    1. I find the cookbooks fascinating. You have such interesting volunteer work. Obama keeps me busy but I'm not always thrilled -- or am I being picky?

    2. Oh you poor dear! Forced to plunder about in that treasure trove of cookbooks. (If I had to look at these, I'd think I'd died and landed in cookbook heaven!) I hope those won't be tossed. Please say they won't. I still say our cooks began to stray somewhere in the 50s and 60s when those new products that were supposed to make our lives easier--those mixes and stuff loaded with preservatives--started us out on a bad journey. And moving into the industrial era took us away from walking and a more active life. I just had a thought, Mage! YOU could spend some time adapting some of those old recipes and methods to develop your own cookbook! Wouldja send me a signed copy when it's published?!! :-)

    3. I think you were a cookbook in your previous life.

    4. Cookbooks everywhere how exciting. I love them. Especially the ones I find with notes and stains and newspaper recipes in them. I just replaced my broken 1967 Joy of Cooking with a another 1967 I found on amazon. When looking through the later editions I was surprised to see how much larger the portions were than in the 60's.

    5. I have plenty of time but not enough interest to make home-cooked meals since my husband isn't eating much these days. If I cook or bake, I eat most of it myself and that is not good at all.

    6. Wow, this is a beautiful well written piece that I could see making it into various collections of short stories or the New Yorker, if you punched it up to make it a bit longer and gave it a twist at the end.

      Reminds me of my foray into old garden books. Wonderful.


    7. I love the old cookbooks and I loved your piece. If I worked there, those books would never make it to the sale shelves. They'd all go home with me. Good I'm not there.

      My mother had the Settlement House Cook Book. Some of the recipes dumbfounded me. I wish I could remember some of the old names. They were things we had never heard of, let alone made. Too bad I can't remember. I'm sure I could look them up on the net now.

    8. Seeing all those books reminds me of the semi-annual book sale at my local library. I went for years, but now tend to stay away as I am trying to get things out of my house and not bring more stuff in.

      However, it does make me think of being a volunteer some time in the future.

      There's a lot of history in that stack! And obviously, you've done a little browsing. :)

    9. That was a joy to read - thank you.
      I was born in 1930 and money sure was tight then.


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