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From my window I watch snow blow across the bay as I continue to work on projects brought home from the museum. Today, I am leafing through some vintage cookbooks from our copious collection at Coldwater Canadiana Heritage Museum (CCHM). The pile grows higher as I add my own books to the stack. Alongside, I set my mother-in-law’s old tin recipe box, filled with family favourites.
I am quite sure many concoctions came out of Mother’s head, a memory from her childhood, something popular from her grandmother’s table, a favourite never written down, just passed along as oral history.
Eventually, tin boxes, filled with index cards filed under various headings, were used. Many of the cards have cheery salutations, written by the author, describing just how good the recipe is. Credit to the recipe’s creator was also often acknowledged. This additional provenance gives these recipes life beyond their ingredients.
The first cookbook I peruse is titled The Five Roses Bread and Pastry Book. It was printed in Montreal in 1913. Its age is not exceptional. Written recipes have been traced as far back as 1700 BC. Three clay tablets from that era are thought to contain the first known recorded “recipes.” Reputedly, De Re Coquineria (of Culinary Matters) was the first cookbook. It was written in Rome by Apicius in the first Century A.D.
Moving forward in history, the first known North American cookbook, written by Amelia Simmons, was entitled American Cookery. Previously, any cookbooks printed or used in the colonies originated in Britain or Europe.
As they were gaining popularity in Western cultures, cookbooks evolved from simple compilations of brief notes into detailed step-by-step instructions. Canada’s first known cookbook was titled La Cuisinaire Bourgeoise. It was written in 1825 by Menon. However, many feel that it was just a reprint of a French book. The first English language Canadian cookbook was called The Cook Not Mad or Rational Cookery. Like it’s French counterpart it was first thought to be a reprint, in this case, of an American book.
As the years passed many familiar authors and titles appeared on the culinary scene. Below is a short list of cookbooks in our collection at CCHM. Depending on your age, you may recognize one or more of these names from your mother’s or grand-mother’s kitchen shelf:
Fannie Farmer, Coronation Cookbook, Five Roses, Joy of Cooking, Better Homes Cookbook, Curity, Julia Child, Betty Crocker, Frugal Housewife.
We also have copies of recipe compilations produced and sold for fund-raising by local organizations such as, brownie troops, PTAs, church women, sports teams and auxiliary groups. It is quite moving to see a recipe written by a family member or friend in one of these booklets.
Another cookbook that I am studying, as I write this story, is typewritten and held together with binder rings. Some of its pages are stuck together, others show telltale signs of food stains. Perhaps these recipes were the “old reliables” of a former owner.
In recent decades there has been an avalanche of cookbooks, some of which are even too pretty to ever take their place on a flour-sprinkled countertop.
With technological advances many of the tools mentioned in older cookbooks no longer appear in today’s publications. Grinders, mashers, moulds, readers and hand-mixers have given way to food processors and a slew of older “Kitchen Aid” gadgets. Mrs. Catherine Woodrow’s life would certainly have been easier with these modern conveniences.
Stepping into the Homestead kitchen, you enter a world of simplicity and homeyness.
Please plan to join us at CCHM in the Spring and take a walk down memory lane.