Week 18: Vintage Cookbooks

There’s a lot going on in Fort Collins around the holidays—this year, it seems, more than ever. Music, stage shows, galas…but occasionally something unique catches my eye. This was the case with the “Vintage Holiday Cookbooks” presentation at the Council Tree Library.

I enjoy reading cookbooks, which might seem strange to my family and friends because I am not the world’s best cook. I have made unintentional flambés and stirred up gravy that would have taken first place at a science fair. On one memorable occasion, I mistook cayenne pepper for paprika.

Cheryl Miller is a Fort Collins collector and scrapbooker who shared her extensive knowledge of vintage cookbooks and obscure kitchen gadgets. Cheryl has collected hundreds of cookbooks, and when she told us that she would rather read them than cook, I felt right at home. (And she brought goodies for us to eat, too.)

Cookbooks have a fascinating history, dating back to Babylonian clay tablets circa 1500 B.C. One of the most interesting things to me was discovering that old cookbooks not only tell us what people were eating way back when (swan, anyone?) but give insight into the social and political climates of the times, as well.

Girls, who were not encouraged to attend school, often learned to read and write using cookbooks. But if a woman wanted to publish her own cookbook, she usually had to do it under her husband’s name or the anonymous “written by a woman.” The first American cookbook attributed to a woman is Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery from 1796. Lydia Marie Child, author of The American Frugal Housewife (1829), included her anti-slavery sentiments in this hearth-cooking guide, which did not win her any popularity contests. But female cooks and writers pressed on, despite men such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, who decried them all as a “damn mob of scribbling women.”

Cheryl graciously had many of her cookbooks available for browsing. My favorite was put together in 1896 by the ladies of the Fort Collins 1st Baptist Church, which included recipes from many of the founding fathers’ wives. And from the ‘You Can’t Make This Stuff Up’ department: the local mortician at the time was a man by the name of H. M. Balmer (no joke), whose wife contributed a recipe for brains. (I feel a historical zombie story coming on.)

Check Cheryl’s website for lots of links (this one is fun for Christmas) and great information about food and scrapbooking.


I once had a really old cookbook that had belonged to my grandmother. In one of my fits of down-sizing, I sold bunches of books in a garage sale and stupidly included that wonderful old book (which didn't even include proper oven temperatures because folks baked in wood-fired ovens at the time). ....mentally kicking myself for the 100th time.
Jenny said…
I've done the same kind of thing. It helps to imagine that someone else is making good use of it!

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