The wisdom in old cookbooks

Call it a win for the Facebook algorithm: I clicked on a suggested post in Facebook Marketplace for the two vintage cookbooks pictured below and ended up purchasing them. I had been researching the history of Gold Medal Flour, and for once Facebook correctly predicted that I would be interested in these items (unlike most other suggestions that leave me scratching my head in puzzlement). 


I was researching Gold Medal Flour because my office is located a few blocks from the company’s historic home located on the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. At lunchtime, I sometimes walk along the river past the refurbished ‘Gold Medal Flour’ sign adorning the Mill City Museum, which sprang from the ruins of the Washburn A Mill. The neon sign lights up the night skyline along with the recently rejuvenated Pillsbury Flour sign just across the river. (The former Pillsbury mill has been renovated into loft apartments.) 

As an avid baker, I have used both brands of flour but did not think about the history of the companies until I moved to Minneapolis and started working in the shadows of their former homes. The companies’ stories are fascinating and demonstrate how much wheat processing and flour distribution have changed in the 100+ years since Gold Medal and Pillsbury were founded. However, after reading the Gold Medal Flour cookbooks, I believe that while the companies have undergone massive change, the realm of cooking has remained more stable. 

The two books are copyrighted in 1904 and 1910 and contain a lot of overlap in material (let’s not forget that these books were distributed free of charge and served as a form of advertisement for the company). I had assumed they would consist mainly of recipes for baked goods, but they are robust tomes, offering recipes for meat, poultry, game, vegetables, and more in addition to a large baking section. While some of the recipes are charmingly old-fashioned (squirrel pie), others would not look out of place in a more modern tome, such as black bean soup and a stuffed green pepper dish. 

I was also surprised by the variety of recipes. There were recipes for potato Lyonnaise, lentil sarmas (a stuffed vine leaf), lobster quenelles, and an interesting dish called “asparagus in ambush,” which consists of small bread rolls containing an asparagus custard. There were instructions for preparing many types of vegetables, several pages of sauce recipes, and, as you might expect from a flour company, a large selection of baked goods including pastries, pies, puddings, and a wide array of cakes. 

What impressed me even more than the breadth of the offerings was the quality of advice sprinkled throughout the pages. I think many of us feel that since we have  such a vast amount of information available at the touch of our fingertips, we must surely be much more knowledgeable cooks than people were 100 years ago. That may be true in some aspectts, but we likely overestimate our own abilities while underestimating that of yesteryear’s cooks. 

Both books contained excellent advice on choosing fresh fish, for example. I have yet to see a modern book that had a table explaining the relative proportions of fat, water, and albuminoids (!) for different cuts of beef, mutton and pork, yet there is one in this 1904 cookbook. Cooks of the day may not have known the exact science behind the Maillard reaction, but they knew how to achieve a nicely browned piece of meat and that doing so made it taste good. Likewise, the introductory page on bread making offers as much good advice on how to handle dough as many new bread books I have read. 

My favorite cookbooks are those where the recipe instructions provide enough information to explain the task without belaboring the point, in a manner that makes reading them a pleasure. Few books do this well, and I was happy to discover that the Gold Medal Cookbook is one of them. Not every instruction in the book accomplishes this, but the best ones nearly sing. 

The recipe for Chicken Turnovers provides an example: 

Chicken turnovers are a pleasing variety of chicken pies. Roll out trimmings of puff paste or any good pastry, and cut in rather large rounds. Have ready some cooked chicken, chopped fine and highly seasoned; a little finely minced ham is an improvement. Moisten with its own gravy if you have it, if not, cream will answer. Lay a tablespoon of the mixture on one-half the paste, fold the other half over it, press the wetted edges closely together and bake in a quick oven or fry in hot fat, according to convenience. When fried these are called Rissoles. 

Reading these two cookbooks is a joy. I purchased them to expand my understanding of the history of the Gold Medal Flour company, but to my surprise and delight, I found several recipes in the yellowed and dog-eared pages that I actually want to make. For the first time, I say ‘thank you Facebook algorithm’. 

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  • MarciK  on  June 28, 2019

    I love old cookbooks. I recently purchased The Settlement Cookbook for a large section in the back on freezing. My oldest cookbook is The White House Cookbook originally published sometime in the 1880s and my copywrite was somewhere around 1926. Besides including recipes for medicines, I was surprised at the food recipes that were both familiar and unique. For example, I didn't realize how many types of ketchups there were besides the tomato ketchup we are familiar with. It was also interesting the difference of formatting of the recipes, which at the time didn't have the ingredient list at the top followed by the instructions, but rather just a short paragraph of instructions which includes the ingredients within and quantities if appropriate.

  • mjes  on  June 28, 2019

    I can't wait to be able to browse EYB for the goodies you and others have found. My personal favorites at the moment (a) The Ideal Receipt Book (1898) by Mrs. Harriet S. McMurphy for The Peck, Stow & Wilcox Co. (b) The Junket Book (1932) from the manufacturers (c) Cold Cooking (1942) from Montgomery Ward for learning to use your electric refrigerator and (d) Knox On-Camera Recipes (1963) from the manufacturer – early use of photos rather than drawings.

  • darcie_b  on  June 28, 2019

    Those sound fantastic. I have another old pamphlet-style book called The Photo Method for Pies. It too features early use of photography for step-by-step instructions.

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