I love cookbooks.
I especially love old cookbooks.
I have begun to collect them, starting with the old church cookbooks from the county where my grandparents live. I am partial to these because I recognize many of the peoples’ names under the recipes.
This is an old copy of one of the best cookbooks I have ever had. It’s from Grandmother’s church and has some fabulous recipes for Southern classics and some of the best dessert recipes I’ve come across, including one called “The best thing you ever put in your mouth.”
This is another old church cookbook that I’ve recently inherited from Aunt Anna.
Can you read that date on the bottom of the cover? It says 1950. As in it was published 62 years ago.
This is a cookbook that a family friend gave me. She owns an old home in a very small, rural town in Vermont and this cookbook came with the house.
It’s very interesting to compare these old Northern and Southern cookbooks to see how much the recipes are impacted by climate and culture.
It’s also very interesting how similar some things are. For instance, they are both full of pies and the most delicious-sounding desserts you can imagine.
Who doesn’t love a good pie?
One day, when I was still in Boston and before I had had the biscuit lesson from Grandmother, I decided to make biscuits. I thought the Marrowbone cookbook would have a good ol’ recipe or two for biscuits, so I pulled it out and searched. I stumbled upon this recipe, which sounded pretty good until I realized there was no temperature to which I should preheat the oven.
Hmmm. It says to bake the biscuits in a hot oven. So, being naïve, I thought that perhaps in the South just as you don’t necessarily go by a recipe but instead by look and feel, somehow Southern cooks just know what temperature a “hot oven” is.
Puzzled, I did what anybody would do in this situation:
I called Grandmother.
I explained this episode of biscuit making and the lack of oven temperature to her and her response surprised me, but it made perfect sense.
Obviously these are old recipes, many of which have been passed down for generations. Therefore, many of them were created before there were electric ovens with temperature settings.
I feel silly.
Back when many of these recipes came about, you had to build a fire in the oven and work with it until it was in your desired temperature range, which I’m sure took a lot of trouble and skill.
Given my amateur fire-building skills, I probably would have starved back then.
Grandmother went on to tell me about when she was little and how she remembered her mother cooking this way with a wood-burning stove. It never ceases to amaze me how resourceful and intuitive (and hard-working) people were before modern conveniences and appliances came about.
After this enlightening conversation, I cooked my biscuits in my electric oven at 400 degrees and they came out fine. But, more importantly, I encountered an interesting piece of history in looking up an old recipe.
This is why I love old cookbooks.
The recipes are pretty darn good, too.
Y’all be careful,