Abe of Abebooks.com asked 500 customers who owned a cookbook that had been given to them by a family member to tell the story about their handed down culinary companions. He wrote, “Those old, splattered, battered cookbooks found on kitchen shelves are also treasured family heirlooms in many cases. According to research by AbeBooks.com, Irma Rombauer’s The Joy of Cooking is the cookbook most frequently handed down through the generations. The books often spanned several generations of cooks and had huge sentimental value. In 96 per cent of the cases, a grandmother, mother and mother-in-law had handed over the book to the next generation. The books tended to have a long history within each family – 58 per cent of the cookbooks were more than 50 years old. Thirty eight per cent of the current owners said they had owned the book for more than 30 years…”
The cookbook I grew up on, and learned to cook from, was – as I have written before in Sandychatter—an Ida Bailey Allen Service cookbook that I believe my mother bought for a dollar at Woolworth’s. (I now have that very cookbook, which is certainly battered, tattered and stained. Years later I searched for, and found, more pristine copies). When I was a teenager, a copy of Meta Given’s “The Modern Family Cookbook” appeared in our family bookcase (a little cherry wood bookcase with glass doors, that my younger sister now has). I think it was a book club offering but that baffles me as neither of my parents ever joined a book club. I have a vague memory of my mother refusing to pay for it and so it languished on the family bookshelves until I began to read it and eventually claimed for my own. And, to add to the mystery, there is no indication on the inside pages of the cookbook that it was ever a book club selection. The original copyright was 1942. This edition was copyrighted by Meta Given in 1953, which sounds about right to me.
Not surprisingly, the pages most stained are those with cookie recipes on them- rocks and hermits, gum drop cookies, something called cocoa Indians, lemon drop cookies and molasses drop. My mother turned me loose in the kitchen when I was 9 or 10 years old and most of the time, I baked cookies.
I now own a copy of the original 1942 “Modern Family Cookbook” which is somewhat thicker and heavier than the 1953 edition. In 1947, Meta compiled “Meta Given’s Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking which is in two volumes. I had to laugh at myself; I thought I only had a copy of Volume I but when I began going through some of my old cookbooks in our new built garage library, I found a copy of Volume II.
None of my copies of Meta Given books have dust jackets and therein is the crux of the matter – so often, biographical information can be found on the dust jackets of cookbooks. I began a Google search:
Margi Shrum of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote the following in April, 2009 “I spoke last week to a group of parents of special-needs children, and the conversation turned to old cookbooks. Egads, I love them. My favorite is one my late mother used, “Meta Given’s Encyclopedia of Cooking,” which seems to have been first published in 1947. I have the 1955 edition. It’s chock-a-block with antiquated stuff. I never, and you shouldn’t, use the techniques for canning or preserving foods in these old books, and I am never going to make Muskrat Fricassee (calls for one dressed muskrat. If I could picture what a muskrat looked like I’d picture it dressed in top hat and tails. Carrying a cane). But there’s also a lot of useful stuff in this book, which is in two volumes and has 1,500 pages. I’ve tried loosely over the years to find information about the author but to little avail. She was of some note in the 1940s through the early ’60s, if the popularity of her cookbooks is any indication. Her first was the “The Modern Family Cookbook,” published in 1942.”
Margie adds, “The encyclopedia’s foreword says Ms. Given grew up on a ‘Missouri hill farm’ learning to cook with the limited foodstuffs available to her. She then studied home economics and became involved in developing and testing recipes, and in writing about nutrition, shopping and kitchen equipment. Her foreword to my edition — purchased on eBay and immediately chewed on by my golden retriever puppy, who smelled food — was written from Orlando in 1955….”
May I add that the foreword also states that Meta Given…”had good food (growing up) but little variety. The women were forced to be resourceful in presenting the same simple foods in a variety of interesting ways. She watched food grow on her family’s farm and worked to help it develop into a sound and abundant harvest. She learned to store and preserve a summer’s plenty to last through the winter months. And she acquired from her parents a deep appreciation for the goodness of earth’s bounty…”
Sure enough, Volume II of “Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking” offers a recipe for Muskrat Fricasse—as well as antelope, deer and beaver. It also has a recipe for Hasenpfeffer which I won’t ever be trying. Hasenpfeffer was the bane of my childhood. If you came home from school and smelled it cooking, you knew we were having it for dinner and there was no escape.
Also offered in Volume II are recipes for raccoon, squirrel, woodchuck and turtle. Meta lost me at “evisceration and removal of feathers, removal of fur….” But you know what? Of all the comprehensive cookbooks in my collection, these are surely the most detailed (everything you ever wanted to know but were afraid to ask? I wasn’t afraid to ask—I just never wanted to KNOW).
Elsewhere on Google, someone wrote, “My mother was only 17 years old when she got married. Somewhere in that time, she was given a special two volume cookbook set called Meta Given’s Encyclopedia of Modern Cooking. It was a true cookbook of the 50’s, offering advice so basic, the author must have assumed many of her readers couldn’t boil water. Until Julia Child altered my mother’s views on food, Meta Given’s was the only cookbook in our home. The recipes were so simple and straightforward, I learned to cook from them at a very young age. By the time I was nine years old I could make real fudge, basic one-bowl cakes, quick breads, and peanut butter cookies all by myself. I also learned to make a pumpkin yeast bread when I was slightly older. Over the years my mother’s Meta Given’s cookbook disintegrated into a pile of loose pages. However, I was able to track down a used set several years ago. Although most of the recipes seem outdated, it was quite an experience just holding the cookbook while childhood memories rushed back…”
The following single line clue was also found on Google: “When not penning cookbooks, Ms. Given—I don’t think she’d approve the title, but an extensive Google search fails to reveal her marital status— taught Home Ec at the University of Chicago in the post-World War II years…”
Maybe Meta Given tired of teaching in Chicago and returned to her home in Missouri. We may never know- but if you are interested in finding her books, there are umpteen sites to choose from as you browse through Google.
I have the following:
• The Modern Family Cook Book published in 1942
• Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking Volumes 1 and II published in 1947
• The Modern Family Cook Book, published in 1953
As well as the following, which I do not have:
• The Art of Modern Cooking and Better Meals: recipes for every occasion
• The Modern Family Cook Book New Revised Edition
• The Modern Family Cook Book by Meta Given 1968
• The Wizard Modern Family Cookbook
• Delicious Dairy Dishes
If you know anything about Meta Given’s life, I’d love to hear from you!
Happy cooking and happy cookbook collecting!