A couple of months ago I was going through some old boxes tucked into the hidden recesses of my garage and I stumbled upon a box of old cookbooks. Since I learned to cook long before the age of computers, most of my self-taught efforts came by way of these cookbooks. I started to collect cookbooks in high school and little did I know then what I know now: old cookbooks are important.
As I flipped through some of the pages, it became evident that these old cookbooks are real treasures. They were written before microwave ovens and Cuisinart’s, and before many of the processed foods that are now commonplace were available on grocery store shelves. These were the days of scratch cooking, often with just a handful of local, readily available ingredients.
Today I walk down memory lane and explain why you should keep your old cookbooks and why, if you don’t already have them, you should scout some out on the cheap cheap at garage sales, thrift shops, and eBay.
8 Reasons Old Cookbooks are Important to Preppers
1. You can read printed cookbooks books off-grid.
With a printed cookbook, you can learn to prepare food without needing a computer, iPad, Google, or allrecipes.com. This will be important if the time comes when power is not readily available, or, if it is, it is difficult to come by.
Taking this one step further, the food that we have available to eat following a disruptive event may be different than what we normally eat. Learning to prepare unfamiliar foodstuffs is an important survival skill and one we want to have in our back pocket.
2. Learn to cook totally from scratch.
Before the early to mid-20th century, most people cooked from scratch because there was no other option. At the same time, chores and household duties kept housewives busy with cleaning, laundry, sewing, and child-rearing. Cooking had to be simple, and time efficient. Old cookbooks – the types intended for housewives of the era – focused upon simplicity and efficiency.
3. Old cookbooks make no assumptions about your kitchen.
Kitchens of years gone by included basic pantry staples as well as bowls, spoons, knives, some cast iron pots, a stove and an oven. Stand mixers, Cuisinarts, microwave ovens, blenders, and bread machines did not exist or, if they did, were mostly tools for the newly rich and the wealthy.
As a result, recipes in older cookbooks required very little in the way of specialized equipment.
4. Old cookbooks focused on the virtues of thrift, wholesome eating, and elimination of waste.
This is true whether they were written in the 1800s, early 1900’s, pre WWII, or the 50s and 60s. One thing to keep in mind is that the older the book, the more likely its focus on fuel economy, be it coal, charcoal, wood, or something else.
5. Ingredients in the recipes are commonly found and are typically basic, pantry items.
When you read a modern, 21st century recipe, you may often come across oddball ingredients you never heard of before. Chances are these strange and obscure ingredients will not be available if the stuff hits the fan. With older cookbooks, you do not need to search for exotic ingredients at a gourmet grocery or online. Not only that, you will recognize them by name and not need a dictionary or Google to figure them out.
6. The number of ingredients to cook a particular dish are nominal.
The ingredients required to prepare the various recipes (in really old cookbooks they were called “receipts”) are far fewer than the recipes of the current era. This is likely due to the fact that most cooking supplies were procured locally, limiting the availability of items from the far-flung reaches of the world.
I don’t know about you, but when I see a list of 10 or more ingredients, I give up. In older cookbooks, it is common to find recipes that use six ingredients or less.
7. The recipes are practical with the intended goal of putting food on the table.
These days, cookbooks include gorgeous photos that entice and entertain you. (They also cost upward of $20 or more.)
Older cookbooks focus on the job at hand: putting breakfast, lunch, and dinner on the table along with some snacks and dessert items.
8. Old cookbooks provide a glimpse into times past.
Todays world is fast-paced and technology driven. It is both fun and educational to look back to simpler times. Granted, folks living through those times may not have thought times were simple, but without a doubt, a world without email, Facebook, the Internet and a myriad of other distractors was definitely slower and kinder.
By looking into the past, we get a glimpse of what life, in the kitchen at least, might be like if a catastrophic disruptive event such as an EMP throws us back 150 or more years.
What Constitutes an Old Cookbook?
I am glad you asked!
To my way of thinking, an old cookbook is one that was published before the 1970s. I have quite a few from the 60s, including a 1969 Betty Crocker that is literally coming apart at the bindings. In addition, I own a 1939 Boston Cooking School Cookbook that was my father’s when he was in the Navy. It is interesting that both made use of canned goods but very few other processed foods.
Moving back in time, pre-WWII cookbooks are especially interesting because they utilize extremely low, cost, depression-era ingredients. In addition, they emphasize the use of home-grown vegetables to supplement the meager fare that was available at the time. Although published in modern times, my favorite depression-era cookbook is Clara’s Kitchen which I reviewed in the article Depression Cooking: A Visit to Clara’s Kitchen.
Really Old Cookbooks – Resources
For a close look at cooking the old-fashioned way, you will want to seek cookbooks from the 1800s and early 1900s.
The good news is that many if not most are in the public domain. Many have been digitized and can be viewed or downloaded for free online. The bad news is that if you are in an off-grid situation, they will not be readily accessible unless you have solar or some other means for charging your electronic devices.
That said, here are some links where you can download copies of some really old cookbooks to get a feel for what old-time food preparation was all about.
The Good Housekeeping Woman’s Home Cook Book, Arranged By Isabel Gordon Curtis, Chicago: Reilly & Britton, c1909.
Toward the end of the 19th century and throughout the 20th various forms of media – newspapers, magazines, radio, the movies and TV -all became involved in the publishing of cookbooks. This volume represents the many and diverse types of books in this category. It well represents a cookbook published by a national magazine.
The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook, By Fannie Merritt Farmer, Boston, Little, Brown And Company (1896).
The Settlement Cookbook, By Lizzie Black Kander, Milwaukee: [S.N.], 1901
And my favorite, The Frugal Housewife, Dedicated to Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy, By Lydia Maria Francis Child, Boston: Carter and Hendee, 1830.
The Frugal Housewife was first published in Boston in 1829 and was reprinted at least four times in the next two years. By the eighth edition of 1832, the name had been changed to The American Frugal Housewife to differentiate it from the English work of Susannah Carter(See The Frugal Housewife – 1803). The book went through at least 35 printings between 1829 and 1850 when it was allowed to go out of print because of the publication of newer, more modern cookbooks and also because of Mrs. Child’s increasingly public work in the cause of anti-slavery.
The strong emphasis on the virtues of thrift and self-reliance and on frugality, a continuing theme in American cookbooks, reflected Mrs. Child’s New England heritage and her concerns for the nutritional effects of the 1820’s depression in the United States.
For more really old cookbooks, visit the Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook Project.
The Feeding America project has created an online collection of some of the most important and influential American cookbooks from the late 18th to early 20th century. The digital archive includes page images of 76 cookbooks from the MSU Library’s collection as well as searchable full-text transcriptions. This site also features a glossary of cookery terms and multidimensional images of antique cooking implements from the collections of the MSU Museum.
The Feeding America online collection hopes to highlight an important part of America’s cultural heritage for teachers, students, researchers investigating American social history, professional chefs, and lifelong learners of all ages.
The Final Word
For most of us, storage space is precious and what extra storage we do have, is filled with extra food, water, ammo and first aid items. In my own home, space behind doors, under beds, and under the living room sofa and chairs is crammed with all preps of all kind. If someone were to look, they would think me a packrat.
Still, with space at a premium, I have pulled a few of my old cookbooks from the garage and set them aside with the rest of my “stuff hits the fan” preps. I may not need them to teach me how to cook beans and rice, but sure as day, I will look to them to come up with ideas for using the food that I do have to create palatable, if not tasty and interesting meals.
Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation!