Anyone who’s into vintage recipes knows the drill: when you hit the used bookstore or the thrift shop, you scan the shelves for the older stuff. You’re looking for hardbacks with cutesy line art, or maybe one of those binder-style cookbooks with a mix of technicolor and black-and-white photos. It’s like a treasure hunt.
But browsing in person is a bit of a risk these days, and it’s hard to get a sense of whether or not you’ll really use a cookbook based on a couple of eBay photos. Thankfully we live in the future now! We have other options.
The Internet Archive has an entire collection of vintage cookbooks that you can look through. Some of the books are downloadable, but others require a free account that lets you borrow the book for an hour. The collection includes over 10,000 books, which helps preserve that treasure-hunt aspect of browsing in person while letting you stay safe and comfy (and potentially pants-free) on your couch. Here are a few of the things I found:
First up is a cookbook full of basic recipes meant for kids. This one is fairly similar to Barbie’s Easy-As-Pie Cookbook, though Betty Crocker includes a chapter on campfire cooking and her cake decorating tips are more advanced.
The book starts out with its “extra special” party and dessert recipes, which is a nice, kid-centric touch. It’s also heavily illustrated, with drawings that show both boys and girls doing standard kitchen tasks. One strange touch is that, like a lot of vintage brand-related cookbooks, it includes some really noticeable ads for Betty Crocker products.
The last big thing that stood out to me is that Betty makes her pink lemonade with food coloring just like Barbie does.
An earlier cookbook for kids (subtitled “Adventures Among the Kitchen People”) was written as a story about Mary Frances, a young girl whose sick mother goes to rest by the sea after she leaves food in the oven and nearly burns the house down. Despite the presence of multiple adults and an older brother, Mary Francis gets busy in the kitchen with the help of the handwritten cookbook Mother made for her and a set of suddenly anthropomorphic kitchen pots and utensils. These Kitchen People guide Mary Francis through cooking for her family, her dolls, and a homeless man (which turns into A Lesson on talking to strangers).
It’s all very cute, and I like the magical kitchen theme. But even as Mary Frances plans a big steak dinner to celebrate Mother’s return, it’s hard to ignore that this is a book about a literal child who’s expected, because of her gender, to take on the tasks that drove her mom to exhaustion.
This short pamphlet of promotional recipes is an attempt to convince the people of 1916 that popcorn should be “used frequently in every home” as more than a snack. As a modern reader, it comes across less like a cookbook than a window on some hellish alternate food reality where we all eat popped popcorn for breakfast (soak it overnight and cook with milk!), serve it as a meat substitute (popcorn cutlets!), or put it in everything from potato salad to custard.
There is a solid chance I’m going to have a nightmare about that omelette recipe.
The introduction of this 1911 vegetarian cookbook (and household chore guide) suggests it can help young homemakers avoid the drudgery of spending half their life in the kitchen, giving them enough free time to prevent a “complete nervous breakdown.” Then it praises the virtue of independent thought, quotes Epictetus, and suggests that Americans are a little too wasteful. After browsing so many vintage cookbooks that expect women to figure out an elaborate meal every night, this advice to simplify daily routines is a breath of fresh air.
The recipes are basic enough to line up with its philosophy, but they still seem pretty useful, offering variety without a lot of complicated fluff. And if “meatless” wasn’t right there in the title, I’m not sure I’d have even noticed the lack of meat-based recipes until I got to the parts about making a roast or a stock out of nuts.
I’m going to go out on a limb and declare that this was the finest cocktail and distilling guide of 1862. Its Punch Jelly recipe (which is basically a classier jello shot) includes a warning that “the strength of the punch is so artfully concealed by its admixture with the gelatine, that many persons, particularly of the softer sex, have been tempted to partake so plentifully of it as to render them somewhat unfit for waltzing or quadrilling after supper.”
Thanks for looking out for us all, vintage bar book writer. (And I’m calling Somewhat Unfit for Waltzing as our Friendship Club band name. It’s ours now. You can’t use it.)
There’s a ton of other interesting stuff in that archive, and I could easily have found five more vintage cookbooks to share. But y’all should probably just go dig through it yourselves.
Let us know if you find anything fun!