From buying a crate of secondhand cookbooks at an auction to scouring the ‘ephemera’ stalls at antiques fairs for old recipe cards, I’m always drawn to cookery guides from yesteryear, especially those from the 1930s and 1940s.
Of course, the recipes themselves are fascinating – think war-time ‘Bovril Eggs’ and intriguing dishes such as ‘Mock Duck’ or ‘Emergency Aspic’ – but it’s the creative, abstract design of these books that really inspires and delights me.
Nowadays, with professional food stylists behind every shot and slick digital design tools, our cookbooks and online recipe resources are filled with glossy lifestyle photography, conveying real, delicious-looking yet almost-unfeasibly-flawless food. Somehow, I can’t help feeling that compared to cookbooks from the past, this content seems serious and unimaginative, with page after page of colour-enhanced, air-brushed meals. Taking photos of food has never been simpler – in fact, we’re all at it now; Instagram is awash with colour-filtered, carefully-edited perfection.
Before glossy photography, recipe books were often illustrated by an artist and, in many cases, filled with abstract and often ornate hand-drawn artworks that reflect two things now rare in today’s foodie offerings: complete creative freedom and a sense of humour.
For example, in my 1943 issue of The Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer, each chapter begins with a paper-cut by Marion Rombauer-Becker (a relative of the author, we presume) and all her creations are filled with joy. The ‘Cocktails’ section is decorated with the silhouettes of strutting roosters with feathery tails – why not? The ‘Soufflés’ chapter features a delicate dandelion, with seeds floating lightly on the breeze.
My all-time favourite book in my ever-expanding kitchen library is my 1934 issue of The Country Housewife’s Book by Lucy H. Yates, with delicate drawings by Mary Gardiner. Mary is credited with ‘decorations’ on the first page – an accurate description of her illustrations, which have a carefree, ethereal feel; All intricate, flowing embellishments and dreamy details. The chapter about herbs is illustrated with a sketch of a girl sleeping among flowers and the hand-written phrase: ‘THYME GIVETH PLEASANT DREAMS’. Elsewhere, a page about birds is accompanied with a drawing of an owl wearing boots and a helmet and the words: ‘THE FEATHERED POLICEMAN’. It’s strange but strangely wonderful, too.
‘When every bone in your body aches, you can at least be thankful that you aren’t a herring.’
Wise words indeed.
Another exciting aspect to collecting old cookbooks is that many of them contain hand-scrawled or typed-out personal recipes. When a little card or note drops from the pages, it’s a magical, fleeting glimpse into the past. ‘Mr Brown’s marmalade’ is one of my favourites. Many of the typed-out recipes tucked into one old cookbook I have are peppered with pencilled notes-to-self, with improvements to timings and adjustments to ingredient quantities.
These first-hand snippets of personal advice and knowledge are perhaps comparable to the comments we read at the bottom of a post on a food blog, or the suggestions shared in online forums like Twitter. I feel blessed that my cooking experiences are enriched by voices from both the present and the past – it means I’m never alone in the kitchen.