by Sandra Lee Smith
Some years ago, a reporter for the L.A. Times called me to ask a few questions about my cookbook collection.
(They were actually doing a feature on a used cookbook store in Burbank; I have no idea how my name came up unless the store owner mentioned me as a big customer!). Anyway, the reporter asked me to name my favorite cookbook. I was stymied. “I really don’t have one favorite,” I replied. “I have lots of favorites”.
Which is true, but later on I realized I do have a special favorite. It’s a “hand made” cookbook compiled by a woman I never met--but I know her, I know what she liked to cook and how she loved to entertain. I can tell you by the pages with the most stains and occasionally, an indication of scorched pages that may have gotten too close to the stove, which recipes were followed most frequently.
In the 1960s, when I was a fledgling cookbook collector, I visited a bookstore in Hollywood one day where, I had been told, you could buy lots of cookbooks for $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 know that her name was Helen.
It may interest you to learn that manuscript cookbooks sometimes date back centuries (one of the earliest known manuscript cookbooks was written in 1390 and was compiled by one of the chefs who served England’s Richard II) while early southern plantation hostesses jealously guarded their treasured handwritten “receipts”. Martha Washington’s handwritten cookbook is another famous example of a manuscript cookbook that has survived generations of descendants and is now in the archives at Mount Vernon. Thomas Jefferson also kept a recipe journal that remained in his family and was finally reproduced some years ago. Possibly the world’s most famous manuscript cookbook was kept by Queen Victoria for over 50 years.
Here in America manuscript cookbooks were born out of necessity (cookbooks being rare or only available to the wealthy). Housewives exchanged recipes with one other or gave them to their children. Most of the manuscript cookbooks still extant today are in private collections or museums.
I don’t believe 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 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 is that she died, and when she did, her belongings were sold in an estate sale or perhaps by a distant relative. That page of Helen’s life is blank; her manuscript cookbook offers no clues. But I think she would have been pleased to know that her cookbook had fallen into safe hands and is treasured.
Helen’s menu for Christmas 1940 was:
Grapefruit cups, whole segments topped with cherry
Celery, olives, pickles, radishes
Cranberry cocktail (juice in ginger ale)
Turkey and dressing
Green beans (split)
Bread: white and whole wheat
Pumpkin pie or mousse with cookies and fruit cake
While you may not find a manuscript cookbook from antiquity, you can compile your own manuscript cookbook. Maybe someday your manuscript collection will become someone else’s “treasure”.
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