Collecting Cook Books: Read ‘Em and Eat!

Nov 7, 2015 | 2015 Articles, Diana Bulls, Food Fun, Hometown History

by Diana Bulls

Recipes at the end of this post.

So, you probably didn’t even realize it, but you might already have a cook book collection sitting on one of your kitchen shelves. You might own a cook book by Betty Crocker, Fanny Farmer or Better Homes and Gardens that you got for a shower or wedding gift – a good, basic cookbook with lots of how-to pictures. You might have a couple of cook books put out by your church or a local ladies club, and then there are those advertising cook books from companies like Pillsbury, Campbell’s Soup or Jell-O.

I love cook books, especially those fund-raising kind from churches, schools or clubs. I also have a huge collection of cook books and cookery booklets put out by the Rumford Baking Powder Company.


Rumford Cook books

When you open a vintage cook book, it’s like stepping through a time machine. There are all kinds of food dishes that were once popular that we would never even consider putting on the table now days. For instance, my copy of The White House Cook Book (c. 1920s) has three recipes for turtle soup. One uses (way too many) parts of a green turtle, while the other two use either a calf’s head (!) or beans to replicate the turtle flavor. The cook book says that the substitution “approaches so near in flavor the real turtle soup that few are able to distinguish the difference.” The cook book also notes that for convenience, “Green turtle can now be purchased preserved in air-tight cans.” Just the thing to serve for supper on a chilly fall evening! It would go well with a side of “Mock Oysters.” (Recipe shared later in this article.) food

The very first American cook book is considered to be The Compleat Housewife by William Parks, published around 1742. The American Cookery was published by Amelia Simmons in 1796. This particular cook book was so popular that it was edited, revised and republished many times. This cook book was also different, in that Mrs. Simmons used only native American foods and recipes, where the Parks cook book was derived from a cook book first published in England.

I should also note here, that these early books included household management hints and home remedies in addition to cookery recipes.

Cook books, as we know them today, are due the work of Fannie Merrit Farmer. Farmer’s family encouraged her to attend The Boston Cooking School, where she eventually became the school’s director. The very first recipe book she wrote was the 48-page Rumford Cookbook, published in 1895 by the Rumford Chemical Works, the makers of Rumford Baking Power. The Boston Cooking School Cookbook was published the following year. Farmer is known as the “mother of level measurements” because she did away with the old “sprinkle” and “pinch” method of measuring.

Decades of Cook Books

1900s. The cook books approached cooking more scientifically. Exact measurements, sanitation and cleanliness were being emphasized. Jell-O published their first cook book in 1904 and Good Housekeeping in 1908.
1920s. These cookbooks have wonderful illustrations. If you are lucky, you can find information regarding cooking methods in WWI.
1930s. The Depression years, where everyone was trying to make do with nothing. Great recipes here. The Joy of Cooking was first published in 1931.
1940s. Many of these cook books have a patriotic theme, with lots of information on food rationing. Cook books featuring hostessing and entertaining came out during this time.
1950s. Happy families sitting around dinner tables with Dad in his suit and Mom serving while wearing pearls and an apron. Pillsbury Bake-Off cook books were first published in 1950. Lots of recipes for appetizers and gelatin salads.
1960s. Classic cook book authors, Julia Child and James Beard.

Cook books are really affordable and it is easy to add to your collection. Cook books can be found at yard sales, thrift stores and used book stores, as well as in grandma’s kitchen. Most can be purchased for under $5. If you are really lucky, you can find one that has notes written in the margins or clipped recipes tucked within the pages.

I don’t worry about condition too much, although you probably should make sure the covers are intact. I have an old Parlier PTA cook book from the early 1950s (handed down from my mother) that is held together by a rubber band! I personally like to see stains on cook book pages – those are probably the best recipes.

Although I have my favorite Betty Crocker (handed down from my Mom), along with several fund-raising cook books, I am focused on Rumford Baking Powder cook books. I have way too many, but I am always looking for one that I don’t have. cookbook

You might want to focus on just Jell-O or Pillsbury cook books. Or maybe something regional, like southern cooking. Or maybe a particular author, cook books by celebrities or written just for kids. Old or new, there is a cook book for every appetite. And the best thing about a cook book collection is that it can be used every single day.


Mock Oysters (1860s)
• 2 eggs
• 3/4 C flour
• Pinch of salt to taste
• Pinch pepper
• 2 C whole-kernel corn
Beat the eggs and add the flour gradually, mixing until smooth. Add the seasoning and corn; mix thoroughly. If the mixture is too thick, add a little water. Separate the mixture into balls and flatten into oyster shapes. Heat some oil in a skillet and fry the “oysters” until slightly brown on both sides.

Cottage Pie (1920s)
Tested Recipes from the Reedley Study & Civic Club Cook Book
Chop cold meat very fine. Boil and mash some potatoes. Season meat with salt, pepper and dash of nutmeg. Add gravy made by melting 1Tbsp butter, adding 1 Tbsp flour; pouring either milk or meat stock for making gravy. Put meat and gravy in a baking dish, cover it with mashed potatoes and bake in oven until brown on top. Onion may be added and nutmeg omitted, if desired. Nutmeg gives a novel as well as delicious flavor to dish. Mrs. Wing

Baked Vegetable Hash (1940s)
• 1 lb. (or less) hamburger
• 2 C raw ground carrots
• 2 C raw ground potatoes
• 1 medium onion, ground
• 1 Tbsp. salt
• Pepper
• Chopped green pepper (optional)
• 1 can cream of mushroom soup
• 1/2 soup can milk
Combine all ingredients; place in two-quart casserole or oblong baking dish. Bake in preheated 350-degree oven two to two and one-half hours. Allow enough time as it takes awhile to cook the carrots. Yields four to six servings.

Rumford One-Egg Cake & Sugarless Frosting (1940s)
“Very easy on war-time budgets…the fine full flavor doesn’t hint of any economy!”
• 2 C sifted cake flour
• 3 tsp Rumford Baking Powder
• 1/4 tsp salt
• 1/4 C butter or other shortening
• 1 C corn syrup
• 1 egg
• 2/3 C milk
• 1 tsp grated orange rind
• 1 tsp vanilla flavoring
Sift together flour, Rumford Baking Powder and salt. Cream butter or shortening until fluffy; add 1/2 cup of the corn syrup slowly, creaming thoroughly after each addition. Beat egg until lemon colored. Add remaining 1/2 cup corn syrup gradually, beating while adding. Stir in grated orange rind and vanilla. Add sifted dry ingredients alternately with milk to creamed mixture, mixing thoroughly after each addition and beginning and ending with the dry ingredients. Bake in two well-greased 8-inch layer cake pans in a moderate oven (375° F.) for 25 minutes. Cool and frost with sugarless frosting:
• 1 1/4 C corn syrup
• 3 egg whites
• 2 tsp flavoring (vanilla or other flavoring)
• 1 tsp Rumford Baking Powder
Boil corn syrup in a saucepan over direct heat until it spins a thread when dropped from a spoon. Beat egg whites foamy, add Rumford Baking Powder and beat until stiff. Add corn syrup slowly, beating vigorously while adding. Add flavoring and continue beating until frosting is stiff and stands in peaks. This makes frosting for two 9-inch layers; one medium loaf cake; or 16 large cup cakes.

Essie’s Original Tamale Pie (1950s)
Cook Book Compiled by the Parlier P.T.A.
• 6 C boiling water
• 2 C corn meal
• Salt to taste
• About 3 bouillon cubes
Cook until thick.
• 1 large onion cut fine
• 1 clove garlic cut fine
• 1 green pepper cut fine
Simmer in grease until done then add 3/4 lb. hamburger and 1/4 lb. ground pork. Sear until all red color disappears. Add 1 can tomato paste and any broth you happen to have or bouillon cubes to make about 2 C broth, plus 2 Tbsp, chili powder. Simmer for 1 hour. Add 1 small can olives, salt & pepper to taste. Line baking dish with corn mush. Pour meat mixture in. Cover top with corn much and bake 1 hour in a moderate oven. Mrs. W.C. McRae

Cabbage Salad for 125 (1950s)
Home Cooking Secrets of the Reedley Eagles Auxiliary & Friends
• 20 lb cabbage
• 1 1/2 qt Miracle Whip
• 4 large cans crushed pineapple
• 2 bunches of carrots

Diana Bulls is an ongoing contributor to our
Hometown History section, having collected vintage kitchen utensils for over 40 years; she is also actively involved with the Reedley Historical Society.


  1. Interesting. Loved your article.


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