“Women have conserved a whole world, past and present, in the idiom of food. In their personal manuscripts, in locally distributed community recipe compilations, and in commercially printed cookbooks, women have given history and memory a permanent lodging. The knowledge contained in cookbooks transcends generations…” – Janet Theophano, author of “Eat My Words”, Published in 2002 by PALGRAVE, a global publishing imprint of St Martin’s Press.
How it came to be written is just as interesting as the subject matter itself, for Ms Theophano discovered what so many of us cookbook and recipe collectors ourselves have learned, that there is a lot more to be learned from a manuscript cookbook or a collection of recipes, in a small wooden box, than just recipes.
“Over the past ten years,” Ms. Theophano writes in the Introduction, “I have been researching manuscripts and printed cookery books from the United States and England from the seventeenth to the mid-twentieth centuries and finding myself constantly amazed by the richness of these sources…”
“Few of these materials,” she acknowledges, “are readily available to readers today; some have been kept in families as purely private documents, while others have languished in archives in manuscript form. Even those that were published are no longer widely known and now are generally available only in historical collections…” (and sometimes a recipe box or a manuscript cookbook is added to my collection because someone in a family knew that I collected these items).
Janet Theophano’s purpose in writing this book was first to make these materials known both to scholars and general readers, but also to open a window into the lives of women of distinct classes, cultures, and historical periods, who would otherwise be unknown to us.
What intrigues me most about the writing and publishing of EAT MY WORDS is the author’s description of a spectacular find. So many of us, cookbook collectors, writers, and researchers alike, have experienced similar events that have charted a course for us. I know I have.
Theophano writes, “My interest in cookbooks began with a chance discovery over a decade ago when I was browsing in an antique shop and stumbled across a book of writings. When I opened it, I realized I had discovered a manuscript. At first glance, the handwritten book reminded me of a journal of poetry. When I looked more closely, I discovered that it was a collection of household advice: recipes for Lady Cake and Parker House Rolls, for instance, and folk remedies for flushing the colon and dyeing hair. Inserted between the pages were newspaper clippings of other recipes as well as a poem and a letter dated August 3, 1894, and addressed ‘My Dear’ and signed ‘kiss the babies for me. John.’ The volume also contained a section of clipped recipes pasted onto the pages of an early telephone directory…”
Janet Theophano bought the book for a dollar (be still my heart!) from the shop owner, she says, reluctant to ask for even that much money, which reinforces my belief that many such treasures are thought to be worthless and are often thrown away. Ms. Theophano returned home and began to search her new treasure for clues to the identity of the owner.
“I was struck,” she recalls, “not only by this book’s recipes with their titles and ingredients but other information contained within its covers. There were letters, poems, loose recipes on scraps of paper, devotional texts, and a list of books and rhymes…”
Even so, she was unable to learn the name of the author of her treasure, and she wondered how many books like this were anonymous and how many had been discarded, lost, or destroyed because they were considered unimportant. How many were intended for publication? Or were they meant to be kept in families and given as legacies to children? Did women compile the keep these books as symbols of wifely and maternal devotion? Or as a way to give themselves identities apart from those roles? Were these books read? If so, by whom?
Which brings me up to date and what started out as a newspaper article. Some time ago, my Michigan penpal, Betsy, sent me this newspaper article from the Chicago Tribune, dated June 6, 2007, the title of which was “KITCHEN LEGACIES”.
What is a kitchen legacy for one person may not be the same thing for someone else. I know several women—not including myself—for whom old kitchen utensils are kitchen legacies. I have three old sifters (and yes, I still use whichever sifter is closest at hand when I am making cookies or a cake and need to sift the dry ingredients). About a decade ago I began collecting old glass measuring cups after finding one in green Depression glass.
My favorite was a 2-cup green glass measuring cup that I thoughtlessly poured some hot coffee into, while making brownies. The measuring cup cracked. I couldn’t bear to throw it out so now it’s part of a kitchen box collage that also contains a couple old potato mashers and one egg beater (I cracked up—no pun intended—seeing a revamped egg beater for sale recently in one of my cooking supplies catalogs–everything old is new again!)
The red or green painted handles help narrow down the age of these items. Long before I started looking for small kitchen tools, I had already collected cookie cutters (which have been a collection since the 1970s) – but with red or green wooden handles you can get a better idea of the age of the cutter. (And if rolling pins are your kind of kitchen legacy, those, too, have been manufactured with red or green handles).
Then around the late 1980s, after I met Bob and we began making weekend treks to Ventura, California, a filled recipe box came into my radar. The first box like this that I found was in an antique store in Ventura and was priced at $11.00. I didn’t buy it the first time I saw that box –I may have looked at it three or four weekends in a row before finally buying it. And once I bought (and carefully searched through) that first filled recipe box, I began wondering if there were more of these “out there, somewhere”.
And of course, there were. I now have over two hundred recipe boxes, different sizes, some filled with another person’s collection of recipes, some empty. What is the lure? Possibly, they make me think “kitchen diaries”—but backing up several decades earlier when my cookbook collection was in its infancy, I discovered a used book store in Hollywood that sold nothing BUT cookbooks. And many of the books were only a dollar each—so if I had ten dollars to spend, I could come home with ten cookbooks.
Then, one day when I was at this bookstore by myself, the owner said “I have something upstairs in my office that you might be interested in” – and he went upstairs and came back with a really worn small leather bound notebook…I opened the book and discovered it was filled with handwritten recipes. If memory serves me, I think I paid $7.00 for this handwritten notebook. I have written about it several times and for several decades had no idea who the owner, someone named Helen, was.
From a blog post, I wrote the following:
“A serendipitous event can take place when you write a story about an experience in your life, telling the story as you know it–never knowing, when it appears in print, how it may ultimately affect someone else, far away.
I wrote about Helen’s Cookbook for Inky Trail News in 2007 (but had originally written an article about it for another newsletter, the Cookbook Collectors Exchange, back in 1993) –and again, on my blog, in June, 2009.
Obviously, Helen’s cookbook has continued to fascinate me, more than 40 years after I acquired it. Its pages are fragile, now, and I handle the book with extreme care. I couldn’t treasure it more if my own mother had compiled it.
This is what I wrote in my blog in 2011: “To bring you up to date, In the 1960s, when I was just beginning to collect cookbooks, I found a bookstore in Hollywood where many cookbooks were $1.00 each. While I grabbed books off the shelves, thrilled by my find –the store owner said “I have a cookbook you may be interested in seeing” and he brought it out–it wasn’t ONE dollar, however, it was $7.00 (a lot of money for me at the time)–but I was captivated. The collection is in an old leather 3-ring binder but not your 8 1/2x 11” size binder. This one measures 5 ½ x 8 ½”.
I learned a lot about its creator by carefully reading through all the handwritten recipes and examining cards, newspaper clippings and other scraps of paper kept in a pocket on the inside of the cover. I knew that her name was Helen.
I didn’t think that Helen had any children–consequently, her handwritten collection of recipes ended up in a dusty little used book store–and has been a prize gem in my cookbook collection for over 40 years.
The book is packed with handwritten (in real ink) recipes, interspersed with pages of recipes clipped from magazines and newspapers and pasted onto the pages. Helen apparently began her collection in the early 1920s, shortly after she married. One of the earliest entries is a recipe she obtained while on her honeymoon–Helen always gave credit where credit was due; most recipes are dutifully named after the person who gave it to her. There are dozens of recipes with titles such as “Aunt Maude’s doughnuts” or “Florence’s pound cake”.
Helen liked to have dinner parties; she and her husband usually hosted Christmas dinners for eight or twelve; guests were assigned duties (everything from serving up celery stalks to putting up the card table chairs). Helen kept her menus and guest lists from the mid-1930s until after WW2. And she kept copies of her guest lists, assignments, and menus.
Helen was thrifty and often copied recipes onto the backs of envelopes or old greeting cards–sources that provided clues to who she was and how she lived. Gradually, it appears that Helen’s vision began to fail her. Her handwriting became scrawled and almost illegible. Judging from a message inside an old card, I believe her husband died first.
What happened to Helen? My guess was that she died, and when she did, her belongings were sold in an estate sale or perhaps by a distant relative. That part of Helen’s life was–until recently–a blank page; her manuscript cookbook offered no clues.
Then, earlier that year (2011), a package arrived in the mail one day, from England -Inside I found a recipe journal, very old–possibly 1920s and a letter from an ITN subscriber offering the book to me since she had read about Helen’s cookbook and thought I would appreciate this one as well.
Would I! I wrote to the sender, Anna, and in answer to her questions, provided what little other information I knew about Helen–her name and address had been printed on a sheet of stationery that ended up in the cookbook with a recipe written on it. And Anna – with the assistance of a genealogy-minded friend – soon sent me several pages of information about my Helen–where she had been born and grown up, when she had married, – and most amazing of all (to my mind) that Helen had been a psychologist and the daughter of a surgeon in Chicago.
And, as I had surmised, Helen and her husband Mart never had any children. They had lived most of their married life here in Southern California (strongly reflected in the pages of her cookbook). It would have never crossed my mind to try and discover the history of the author.
Helen’s husband did die before she; he passed away November 14, 1956. Helen died January 20, 1971, in Los Angeles.
It is the most amazing discovery–to think that this handmade cookbook I have treasured all the years – has more than just a name. It has a history. But even more amazing – that my story reached a woman in England – who provided all the details about another southern Californian whose passion, like mine, was cooking…” (my blog, 2011)
Well, after discovering Helen’s cookbook—I began wondering if there were more hand-written cookbooks “somewhere out there” – and, of course, there were –why else would I be sharing this story?
The article in the Chicago Tribune provides stories about yet another kind of Kitchen Legacy. These are hand-bound collections of family recipes—not famous families–there are certainly many published collections of celebrity recipes -–but families just like yours or mine. (in my family, we began collecting recipes in 1984, after my father passed away—but it took us twenty years to get the Schmidt family cookbook published by Morris Publishing, a company that specializes in family and church cookbooks) but rather focused on an endeavor which sidestepped the considerable cost of spiral bound publishing.
Of these homemade cookbooks, some of which, photographed for the Chicago Tribune article, the primary focus was to preserve various family favorite recipes which are often lost to posterity when a family member passes away. Within the ranks of the Schmidt family, we made a hard push to get the Schmidt family cookbook published while my sister Becky was still alive.
She passed away in 2004. When I flew to Nashville in June of 2004, it was with a duffle bag full of the Schmidt family cookbook “Grandma’s Favorite” so that Becky could give copies to her children and grandchildren.
And since publishing our family cookbook we have lost two of our aunts and one of our uncles—a sad reflection on what were once large families on both my mother’s and father’s sides of the family. (And as an aside—five of my uncles served during WW2 – in Army, Navy, and Air Force—and all made it back home to tell their stories).
So—to summarize– keep your eyes open at estate sales or even when a family member passes away and no one else wants that rolling pin or Smiley Pig cookie jar. (Ok, that’s another collection of mine).
–Sandra Lee Smith