Bygone Treasures - Eat Your Vegetables or No Dessert

By Michael Rice

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There’s much to be said about the smell of good food in the comfort of a warm kitchen. Like many of my generation, I grew up in a loving home without much money, but where my Dad grew many vegetables so there was always food on our kitchen table. Dad’s philosophy was the larger the produce grew, the better it had to be. I recall string beans several inches wide and over a foot long, and I thought I might have had a future in braiding them as chair seats. I still don’t like string beans.

Thoughts of food lead me to the topic of cookbooks. Although there are microwave cookbooks, I fail to see why I need a book instructing me how to open a frozen cardboard box and then zap the contents to get processed chicken a l’orange with rice jardinière. A real cookbook is a well-battered volume that sits with its fellows in a row on the top of a kitchen cupboard.
The chubbiest example I have is a “new 1909 edition” of *Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management*. It tips the bathroom scale at five-and-a-half pounds [2.5 kg] and makes the most fascinating read. There is a full table on what to pay your servants each year, for example your stable boy would receive $17, while your scullery maid would receive $28 plus, I presume, room and board. The cook was generally the highest paid of all the staff.

In over 2,000 pages, one can find recipes on how to braise or stew sheep’s tail, make conger eel soup and prepare ramekins of dried haddock. One recipe is titled “Home-Made Bread, Good.” I’m guessing “Home-Made Bread, Bad” got poor reviews in the previous edition. What’s the cookbook worth? I paid $2.50 for mine at a garage sale, and the current book market suggests retail prices up to $450.  That would pay for a whole lot of conger eel soup.

Companies who coincidentally sold the ingredients to make the recipes work produced many cookbooks. A well-known example of these is the *Five Roses Cookbook*. Other classics you may have are the various *Betty Crocker Cookbooks*, the *Mirro Cookbook*, *Menus Made Easy* and the *New American Cookbook*. I’ve also discovered several editions of the *White House Cookbook*, wherein wives of U.S. presidents knocked themselves out with recipes for such delicacies as “lettuce with mayonnaise” and “cold pork and beans.” Heck, I can cook that stuff (First, grasp the can opener firmly in one hand…).

The most amusing sections are the household remedies. I’m not making these up: “The flavour of Cod Liver Oil may be made delightful if the patient will drink a large glass of water in which nails have been allowed to rust.” And, “For cold in the head, nothing is better than powdered Borax sniffed up the nostrils” or “Sufferers from asthma should get a muskrat skin and wear it over their lungs.” Last time I checked, the pharmacy was fresh out of muskrat skins, but I can always entertain the family by blowing Borax bubbles out my nose.

Depending on which First Lady was patroness, *White House* cookbooks run $25 to $50, while circa 1950 editions of the *Betty Crocker Cookbook* run into the hundreds. A major online used booksite has over 380,000 cookbooks currently listed with values ranging from a dollar to well into the thousands.

Apart from full-size books, many major food processors produced recipe pamphlets and booklets explaining that the secret to an outstanding dish might be to pour tomato sauce all over the other ingredients. Similar booklets were available from magazine publishers (*McCall's* and the *Star Weekly* come to mind) or from newspapers such as the *Vancouver Sun*, all for the cost of postage or some small change. Most are worth only a few dollars but are still an enjoyable read with some good ideas.

Condition is a huge factor in the saleability of cookbooks. They are intended for use and, over several generations, pages have come loose, there are handwritten notes throughout, and the covers are spotted with stains best left unidentified. A common ailment results from years of recipes clipped from newspapers being thoughtfully taped inside, encouraging deterioration of the high acid paper. The value in these books is in the memories they hold of favourite cookies, of pots bubbling on the coal stove and of the family enjoying the weekend roast, with the kids wishing the bowl of steaming brussels sprouts could be shipped to another country.

I must try some of that tongue in tomato jelly. The last time I stuck my tongue in the jelly, I got whacked with a wooden spoon.

Comments and suggestions for future columns are welcome and can be sent to Michael Rice, Box 86, Saanichton, BC V8M 2C3, or via e-mail to


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Showing 1 to 2 of 2 comments.

Thank you for the many chuckles in this written work.
a comment in my favourite cookbook(very falling-apart) ,is "make a quick fire".

Posted by sheila | July 26, 2009 Report Violation

That old Mirro cookbook got so much use in our house that it eventually fell apart into two not-quite-equal halves and is missing both covers! I've been trying to find a replacement copy and so far the cheapest price I've found is $50.00.

Posted by kitty | July 21, 2009 Report Violation

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