Buzzfeed has been abuzz with articles lately on “vintage recipes” but they are focusing on the real atrocities of the era, like basically anything with gelatin in it or that included the phrase “pour into a mold”. But I love vintage recipes so much that I have an ever expanding collection, thanks to my favorite antique stores and friends who scavenge estate or yard sales, and pass off their family’s old ones to me. To me, these recipe books represent heritage, but more importantly, they remind me that you don’t have to be a French trained chef or have years of experience in a professional kitchen to be knowledgeable about and produce food that endures.
Sure, none of us wants to eat tomato gelatin, but there are a lot of recipes that have come out of those often spiral bound books produced by a church or Junior League that people still crave every Thanksgiving, or have spent hours trying to recreate the version their great aunt made. These vintage recipes that the creators weren’t too proud to share are how we can keep traditions and tastes from the past alive.
There are a few trends I’ve noticed in these cookbooks. There are the pre- to very early 1900s recipes that are simple, using very few processed ingredients, and often including several variations to suit what people may have had on hand in their kitchens. Then as you move into the 1950s and through the 70s, canned soup and other branded foods become a prominent ingredient. From this era there are lots of Campbell’s Soup, Philadelphia Cream Cheese, and Red Star Yeast cookbooks put out by the companies to encourage use of their products. These are the cookbooks I generally avoid, as well as the entire three decade span, usually. For me to buy or keep a vintage cookbook from the 50s-70s it usually has to be from the Midlands of South Carolina or about a very specifically regional cuisine. The rest I skip over because they are largely the same cream of chicken slop casseroles.
Starting in the 1980s and through the 90s the use of home publishing software becomes prevalent, with the photos or clip art scattered among the pages, the cover often full-color, larger in size, and featuring a beautiful photo of the church that produced it. These recipes are usually a mix of the processed ingredient filled recipes but without the aspics and bizarrely structured presentations that those cookbook contributors probably suffered through as children.
Hahahaha. (photo via The Kitchn)
As I sift through nearly a century of recipes, most from South Carolina churches and kitchens, and other regional ones, I see a lot of similarities. What I’d like to do one day, and why I am collecting these books, is to take the time to research what recipes were truly conceived in South Carolina, especially in the Midlands where my family has been concentrated for centuries (no, really). But most days when I go to my bookshelf and reach for one of these books, it’s as a reminder that sometimes the simplicity of what was is just as good as if not better than what we eat today… provided it doesn’t include a can of soup as an ingredient.