Old Family Cookbooks: A Time Machine Back to Your Grandmother’s Kitchen

Old Family Cookbooks Are Like a Time Machine

I love old family cookbooks. Somehow as each great aunt or grandmother passed away, another cookbook would end up on our shelves. Each old cookbook is stuffed with all sorts of extra recipes clipped from newspapers, magazines, and even canned food labels, plus there are many, many carefully copied recipes from friends and relatives.

I’m drawn to the cookbooks, not so much for the recipes themselves, but for the closeness I feel for relatives I never even met. In the days before fast and prepared foods, it was quite demanding for home cooks to come up with new ideas as they made breakfast, lunch, and dinner day after day with few breaks. Many of the cookbooks had suggested menus for the week and it looks like home cooks were expected to provide a dessert with both lunch and dinner, but not the same for each. For example, suggestions clipped from a Boston Cooking School guide call for oatmeal cookies to go with lunch and spiced cup cakes to have with dinner or you could have maple sugar custard after lunch and “sunshine cake” with whipped cream to go with dinner. Whew!

My Aunt Frances clipped many appetizer suggestions. I’ve dared myself to make it, but still haven’t rallied the nerve to try the Peanut Butter and Pickle or Bacon Canapes…directions: “Spread very thin whole wheat crackers with Heinz Peanut Butter and sprinkle around the edge a border of Heinz India Relish or very finely chopped crisp cooked bacon.” I’d love to know, is there anyone living who has made this???

California Turkey Recipe Photo
California Turkey recipe photo with skinny looking bird


I was amazed to read a clipped recipe for California Turkey from October 1941. The recipe basically calls for stuffing and baking a turkey (the bird in the photo looks a bit skinny compared to today’s factory fattened birds). What’s interesting is that instead of covering the bird with aluminum foil before putting it in the oven, the cook is instructed to “prepare a blanket of dough for the turkey, that it may roast in its own juices without evaporation of flavors from the surface.” To do this, the recipe calls for making a dough with:

  • 10 cups of flour
  • 5 cups of cornmeal
  • 4 tablespoons of salt
  • 10 cups of water

Then the cook creates a dough blanket that completely encircles the turkey with the top “pressed together like an apple dumpling.” At the conclusion of baking, the dough is removed, and the turkey is decorated with fruit and a quick honey glaze. There weren’t any suggestions about what to do with the baked dough, but I have to wonder whether that wasn’t the tastiest part??

A label saved from a can of Country Garden Fancy Diced Carrots (copyright 1939) promised “Flavor laden – time-saving recipes” that seem exotic. In tiny print, the recipes included Jardinière of Vegetables with Short Ribs, Carrot and Lima Bean Soup, and Spinach-Carrot Ring Filled with Creamed Shrimp. The last recipe helps me understand why there are so many ring molds at my local thrift store.

The advertisements that often appear on the clipped recipe pages are the best. Next to the diced carrot recipes in the photo below is an ad for Tangee lipstick for “Lips that say KISS ME.” The ad that appeared in Modern Romances magazine is very instructive, letting the “Girls who know” in on the secret there are basically three types of lips:

  • Untouched – Lips left untouched are apt to have a faded, parched look.
  • Greasy, painted lips – Don’t risk that painted look. Men don’t like it.
  • Tangee lovable lips – Intensifies natural color, ends that painted look.

I did some quick research and found you can buy Tangee lipstick at the Vermont Country Store…who knew?

Recipes saved in my Aunt Frances’s Favorite Cookbook
Recipes saved in my Aunt Frances’s Household Searchlight Recipe Book including a label from canned Diced Carrots and an ad for Tangee Lipstick from Modern Romances magazine.


My Aunt Frances wrote out all sorts of pickle recipes on the back pages of her Household Searchlight Recipe Book (1931): Lazy Wife Pickles, Glazed Sweet Pickles, Sliced Cucumber Pickles, Million Dollar Pickles. Then, she branched off in another direction with Pickled Pears.

Whenever I dig through all the snippets between the pages of an old family recipe book like this, I have so many questions for the original owner. If Frances was here today, I’d ask: Which recipes did you really like? Was there a recipe for a very special meal you would make if we could all get together now? How did you manage to do all the work involved in each step and did you enjoy it?

I hope this brief peek into what Frances was clipping in the 1930s and 1940s might send some readers into attics looking for what goodies await in their own old family cookbooks. You just never know what you will find.

For me, the next step is thinking about making the Pumpkin Pie with Cheese Crust. Pumpkin pie is my favorite, but this recipe calls for 1-1/2 cups of grated cheese and just ¾ cup of flour (there is no note of what kind of grated cheese). I never thought about pumpkin and cheese, but then I also never thought about peanut butter and bacon. I think I just might do some time traveling and visit these treats from an earlier day!

—R.A. Kroft

R.A. Kroft writes about her day-to-day journey in living a smaller, more sustainable life and other topics that interest her.

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