Last week I was given something very special. My grandmother gave me her first ever cookbook, ‘Good Housekeeping’, which was given to her by her Mother. The book dates back to the nineteen fifties and the old, yellowed pages are all splattered and stained. The spine is coming apart from over-use and the pages are clinging on by just a few threads. The book is crammed with hand written recipes and notes neatly penned by my grandmother. It’s also cluttered with cut-outs from the paper with recipes that caught her eye. I feel like I am going back in time, as I read the old recipes and paper cuttings from a time gone by.
Having flicked through the pages, one of the first things that struck me was how commercially minded cookbook publishers were in these times. This cookbook is crammed with advertisements for products we know and love such as Lea & Perrins, Kenwood mixers and Weetabix. Looking at the beautiful full colour ads, I am instantly transported to the age of Mad Men and glamorous housewives. Some of the recipes are cleverly sponsored by Birds Custard and Bourneville Chocolate. These pages really stand out, as they are in full colour and beautifully presented. It’s hard to imagine a cookery book today with advertisements more impressive than the editorial itself.
It was an age without the Internet, without food blogs and with little or no cookery programmes on TV; hence the cookbook really was a bible and fountain of all knowledge. As well as recipes, cookbooks informed about modern kitchen utensils, hygiene and all the fundamentals of good housekeeping. Running a home was a job in those days, and a job to be proud of.
There was no such thing as fancy cookery holidays in Italy or girlie weekends in cookery schools. The cookbook was king and mentor to the novice cook. These well thumbed pages have been read and re-read. As I read it now, I look at my own bookshelves crammed with glossy cookbooks from all over the globe. I use them, but not nearly as much as this one has been used. When I think about my own collection, they seem so frivolous compared to this reference book. Modern cookbooks are as much about selling a lifestyle complete with pretty props and cute children than the plain practicalities of cooking. They are almost like fantasy books compared to this good honest guidebook.
This book was published not long after the war and it’s evident from the book that times were tough. This is especially true for recipes that call for luxury ingredients such as chocolate. ‘Economy Chocolate Cake’ uses only a smidgeon of cocoa powder to give it a chocolatey flavour. Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine a chocolate cake relying on a sprinkling of cocoa powder and not a mention of 70 percent dark chocolate!
There are some recipes that are still alive and well today, while others such as preserved eggs and jellied eels have virtually disappeared. The recipes for battenburgs, Christmas cakes and iced fancies, however, look exactly the same as ones I would use today.
I know I will always treasure this book and may well refer to it more often than my newer shinier books. It’s more than just a book for me; it’s an artefact that catches a moment in time. The world of books is changing so fast, it makes we wonder where the future lies for the humble cookbook. In years to come, will I be passing on my e-reader of collected recipe books to my grandchildren, or it may be even more advanced than that!
Vicky McDonald’s Blog is at www.stasty.com
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