Cooking

Vintage Cookbooks from the Internet Archive

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:

Betty Crocker’s Cookbook for Boys and Girls

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.

The Mary Frances Cookbook

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.

Pop Corn Recipes

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 Progress Meatless Cook Book

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.

The Bartender’s Guide

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!

Recipes

Barbie’s Lemonade, Five Ways

This lemonade recipe is one of the simplest things in Barbie’s Easy-As-Pie Cookbook, but Barbie lists four options to fancy it up for company. Two of them are simple cosmetic differences, one adds fresh fruit flavor, and the last will turn your lemonade into a creamy, beautifully indulgent treat. Read on to check them all out.

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Recipes

Savory Cottage Cheese Cakes

Today’s recipe, which looks like a pancake but is actually a rich, creamy fried egg and cheese mixture, strays a bit from Barbie’s designs. She intended cottage cheese cakes to be sweet and topped with syrup or “frozen strawberries, slightly thawed and mashed.” I saw the potential for something savorier and more to my liking if I left out the sugar she calls for, and so I did.

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Recipes

Barbie’s Main Dish Tuna Salad

I like tuna salad, but in my house it’s a lunchtime thing eaten in sandwich form. Barbie serves hers with lettuce and a few extras in an attempt to elevate this tuna salad into a satisfying entree.

The cookbook’s structure suggests that Barbie wasn’t entirely sold on the idea of tuna salad as the star of dinner though; despite claiming “Main Dish” status right in the recipe’s title, Barbie’s Easy-As-Pie Cookbook lists it under Sandwiches, Salads, and Snacks instead of putting it in the Most Delicious Main Dishes chapter. Is this a covert acknowledgement that tuna salad is not, in fact, a dinner-worthy main dish? Or does Barbie think that it is a main, just not one of the “most delicious” ones? Read on to take a look at this dish and decide for yourself.

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Recipes

Chunky Apple Pancakes

I decided to try making Barbie’s apple pancakes even though I usually avoid recipes that call for baking powder. I prefer recipes that read as nice suggestions rather than precise instructions, and the inclusion of baking powder in an ingredients list sends up a warning that I am dealing with the latter. But I had apples, and pancakes are tasty, so for this week’s Barbie experiment, chunky apple pancakes it was. 

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Recipes

Chopsticks Sandwiches

Chopsticks Sandwiches is probably one of the lowest effort dishes in Barbie’s Easy-as-Pie Cookbook. And let’s just address the name and issues with ‘ethnic’ recipes in vintage cookbooks upfront. Reference to chopsticks aside, this is an American recipe. It comes in the middle of the Sandwiches, Salads, and Snacks chapter, and wisely contains no story vignette or Barbie-based flavor text at all. As a white girl who maybe kind of definitely wore a cheongsam to her senior prom in the 90s, let me tell you. Cultural appropriation does not age well, and naïveté is no excuse for it. I am more than happy to be spared whatever Barbie and Midge might have had to say about Chinese food in 1964. 

I should backtrack and point out that the recipe might have been low effort in Barbie’s day, but it proved challenging in ours, as its main ingredient is frozen chow mein, and that… is not so easy to find it turns out. Both Donna and I were stymied in our early efforts. Still, the recipe appealed to my lazy side, to say nothing of the side of me that thinks that American Chinese food served with butter on a bun sounds … pretty good, actually. (Don’t judge me!)

The internet promised me that the product does still exist, although not in a form Barbie would have recognized, and eventually, I stumbled upon a carton of Tai Pei’s chicken chow mein in the freezer section of my grocery store. Score! (Note: The history of Chinese food in America is a really rich rabbit hole to fall into if you have some free time. You could start here!) I grabbed some hamburger buns and peanuts and was all ready for a delicious* if not culturally authentic lunch. 

*At least, I hoped it would be delicious.

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