8 Reasons Old Cookbooks Are Important

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A couple of months ago I was going through some old boxes tucked into the hidden recesses of my garage and I stumbled upon a box of old cookbooks.  Since I learned to cook long before the age of computers, most of my self-taught efforts came by way of these cookbooks.  I started to collect cookbooks in high school and little did I know then what I know now: old cookbooks are important.

As I flipped through some of the pages, it became evident that these old cookbooks are real treasures.  They were written before microwave ovens and Cuisinart’s, and before many of the processed foods that are now commonplace were available on grocery store shelves.  These were the days of scratch cooking, often with just a handful of local, readily available ingredients.

8 Reasons Old Cookbooks Are Important - Backdoor Survival

Today I walk down memory lane and explain why you should keep your old cookbooks and why, if you don’t already have them, you should scout some out on the cheap cheap at garage sales, thrift shops, and eBay.

8 Reasons Old Cookbooks are Important to Preppers

1. You can read printed cookbooks books off-grid.

With a printed cookbook, you can learn to prepare food without needing a computer, iPad, Google, or allrecipes.com. This will be important if the time comes when power is not readily available, or, if it is, it is difficult to come by.

Taking this one step further, the food that we have available to eat following a disruptive event may be different than what we normally eat. Learning to prepare unfamiliar foodstuffs is an important survival skill and one we want to have in our back pocket.

2. Learn to cook totally from scratch.

Before the early to mid-20th century, most people cooked from scratch because there was no other option.  At the same time, chores and household duties kept housewives busy with cleaning, laundry, sewing, and child-rearing.  Cooking had to be simple, and time efficient.  Old cookbooks – the types intended for housewives of the era – focused upon simplicity and efficiency.

3. Old cookbooks make no assumptions about your kitchen.

Kitchens of years gone by included basic pantry staples as well as bowls, spoons, knives, some cast iron pots, a stove and an oven.  Stand mixers, Cuisinarts, microwave ovens, blenders, and bread machines did not exist or, if they did, were mostly tools for the newly rich and the wealthy.

As a result, recipes in older cookbooks required very little in the way of specialized equipment.

4. Old cookbooks focused on the virtues of thrift, wholesome eating, and elimination of waste.

This is true whether they were written in the 1800s, early 1900’s, pre WWII, or the 50s and 60s.  One thing to keep in mind is that the older the book, the more likely its focus on fuel economy, be it coal, charcoal, wood, or something else.

5. Ingredients in the recipes are commonly found and are typically basic, pantry items.

When you read a modern, 21st century recipe, you may often come across oddball ingredients you never heard of before.  Chances are these strange and obscure ingredients will not be available if the stuff hits the fan.  With older cookbooks, you do not need to search for exotic ingredients at a gourmet grocery or online.  Not only that, you will recognize them by name and not need a dictionary or Google to figure them out.

6. The number of ingredients to cook a particular dish are nominal.

The ingredients required to prepare the various recipes (in really old cookbooks they were called “receipts”) are far fewer than the recipes of the current era.  This is likely due to the fact that most cooking supplies were procured locally, limiting the availability of items from the far-flung reaches of the world.

I don’t know about you, but when I see a list of 10 or more ingredients, I give up.  In older cookbooks, it is common to find recipes that use six ingredients or less.

7. The recipes are practical with the intended goal of putting food on the table.

These days, cookbooks include gorgeous photos that entice and entertain you.  (They also cost upward of $20 or more.)

Older cookbooks focus on the job at hand:  putting breakfast, lunch, and dinner on the table along with some snacks and dessert items.

8. Old cookbooks provide a glimpse into times past.

Todays world is fast-paced and technology driven.  It is both fun and educational to look back to simpler times.  Granted, folks living through those times may not have thought times were simple, but without a doubt, a world without email, Facebook, the Internet and a myriad of other distractors was definitely slower and kinder.

By looking into the past, we get a glimpse of what life, in the kitchen at least, might be like if a catastrophic disruptive event such as an EMP throws us back 150 or more years.

What Constitutes an Old Cookbook?

I am glad you asked!

Two of My Old Cookbooks - Backdoor Survival

To my way of thinking, an old cookbook is one that was published before the 1970s.  I have quite a few from the 60s, including a 1969 Betty Crocker that is literally coming apart at the bindings.  In addition, I own a 1939 Boston Cooking School Cookbook that was my father’s when he was in the Navy.  It is interesting that both made use of canned goods but very few other processed foods.

Moving back in time, pre-WWII cookbooks are especially interesting because they utilize extremely low, cost, depression-era ingredients.  In addition, they emphasize the use of home-grown vegetables to supplement the meager fare that was available at the time.  Although published in modern times, my favorite depression-era cookbook is Clara’s Kitchen which I reviewed in the article Depression Cooking: A Visit to Clara’s Kitchen.

Really Old Cookbooks – Resources

For a close look at cooking the old-fashioned way, you will want to seek cookbooks from the 1800s and early 1900s.

The good news is that many if not most are in the public domain.  Many have been digitized and can be viewed or downloaded for free online.  The bad news is that if you are in an off-grid situation, they will not be readily accessible unless you have solar or some other means for charging your electronic devices.

That said, here are some links where you can download copies of some really old cookbooks to get a feel for what old-time food preparation was all about.

Good Housekeeping Womans Home Cookbook - Backdoor Survival

The Good Housekeeping Woman’s Home Cook Book, Arranged By Isabel Gordon Curtis, Chicago: Reilly & Britton, c1909.

Toward the end of the 19th century and throughout the 20th various forms of media – newspapers, magazines, radio, the movies and TV -all became involved in the publishing of cookbooks. This volume represents the many and diverse types of books in this category. It well represents a cookbook published by a national magazine.

The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook, By Fannie Merritt Farmer, Boston, Little, Brown And Company (1896).

The Settlement Cookbook, By Lizzie Black Kander, Milwaukee: [S.N.], 1901

And my favorite, The Frugal Housewife, Dedicated to Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy, By Lydia Maria Francis Child, Boston: Carter and Hendee, 1830.

The Frugal Housewife was first published in Boston in 1829 and was reprinted at least four times in the next two years. By the eighth edition of 1832, the name had been changed to The American Frugal Housewife to differentiate it from the English work of Susannah Carter(See The Frugal Housewife – 1803). The book went through at least 35 printings between 1829 and 1850 when it was allowed to go out of print because of the publication of newer, more modern cookbooks and also because of Mrs. Child’s increasingly public work in the cause of anti-slavery.

The strong emphasis on the virtues of thrift and self-reliance and on frugality, a continuing theme in American cookbooks, reflected Mrs. Child’s New England heritage and her concerns for the nutritional effects of the 1820’s depression in the United States.

For more really old cookbooks, visit the Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook Project.

The Feeding America project has created an online collection of some of the most important and influential American cookbooks from the late 18th to early 20th century. The digital archive includes page images of 76 cookbooks from the MSU Library’s collection as well as searchable full-text transcriptions. This site also features a glossary of cookery terms and multidimensional images of antique cooking implements from the collections of the MSU Museum.

The Feeding America online collection hopes to highlight an important part of America’s cultural heritage for teachers, students, researchers investigating American social history, professional chefs, and lifelong learners of all ages.

The Final Word

For most of us, storage space is precious and what extra storage we do have, is filled with extra food, water, ammo and first aid items.  In my own home, space behind doors, under beds, and under the living room sofa and chairs is crammed with all preps of all kind.  If someone were to look, they would think me a packrat.

Still, with space at a premium, I have pulled a few of my old cookbooks from the garage and set them aside with the rest of my “stuff hits the fan” preps.  I may not need them to teach me how to cook beans and rice, but sure as day, I will look to them to come up with ideas for using the food that I do have to create palatable, if not tasty and interesting meals.

Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation!
Gaye

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Bargain Bin:  If you are like me and believe there is a possibility that things will be going to heck, you may want to consider some of the items that are in today’s bargain bin.

Lodge Pre-Seasoned Cast-Iron Skillet with Red Silicone Hot Handle Holder, 12-inch: A cast iron skillet will serve you well if you are required to cook outdoors because the grid is down.  Once you have a cast iron skillet, you will use it for everything, indoors or out.

Clara’s Kitchen: Wisdom, Memories, and Recipes from the Great Depression: If you don’t know about Clara, be sure to read Depression Cooking: A Visit to Clara’s Kitchen.

Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day: The Discovery That Revolutionizes Home Baking: At an average cost of 50 cents a loaf, this bread is easy, delicious and inexpensive to make.  Making your own bread is a skill everyone should have.

Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day: 100 New Recipes Featuring Whole Grains, Fruits, Vegetables, and Gluten-Free Ingredients: Ditto.

How to Live on Wheat: Everything you need to know about wheat.

Emergency Mylar Thermal Blankets (Pack of 10): I do believe in helping my neighbors in the community so a supply of these will be handy to hand out to those in need. You will be surprised at how warm these will keep you. Be sure to test one out in advance so that you have the confidence to trust the blanket in an emergency.

RAVPower 15W Solar Charger with Dual USB Ports: This compact, three panel, solar charger will charge two devices at once, including tablets, smartphones, Kindles, and even AA/AAA battery chargers. Value priced at about $50.

RAVPower® 3rd Gen Deluxe 15000mAh External Battery: Use the sun to power an external battery pack.  By doing so, you will always have battery power to spare without being dependent upon electricity.  Perfect to have on hand for dark, stormy days, night time, or when you don’t have the time to wait around for a full charge in the sun.

Holding Your Ground: Preparing for Defense if it All Falls Apart: This book, by Joe Nobody, is the book you that will teach you how to defend your your homestead in the event of civil unrest or a collapse.

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Comments

8 Reasons Old Cookbooks Are Important — 35 Comments

  1. Great article, thank you. I have my Mothers old cookbook. It’s what I grew up with and learned how to cook with. I am 60 years old and this book was old when I was a kid. IN my memory it has never had a front or back cover and is missing several pages because the binding is long gone. It tells you not only how to cook, but also butcher, smoke meat, brine and any other thing you might want to learn. It is a very thick book and worth nothing except to me and to me it is priceless. I wish I could find out what cookbook it was so I could have it restored. Oh well I will treasure it for what it is.

    • Suni, I take it that it doesn’t have a title page either. If I may, take it to a book binder or printing company. Also print out your story, then have the printing company include your story with the cookbook. I know it will lower the monetary value, but will increase the value for anyone else who gets it after you. Whoever gets it will receive a rich blessing of memories.

  2. Cookbooks from pre-factory days also include instructions for ingredients that we don’t tend to think about these days–like how to use pearl ash (white ashes from the fireplace–very alkaline) in place of baking soda. Civil War cookbooks, especially from the South, tell you how to make a variety of coffee substitutes, along with other substitutions of goods that would typically be shipped in. These substitutions could come in very handy if TSHTF!

    When I was growing up, my mom used a cookbook called the Household Searchlight; I believe it was from the 1930’s or 1940’s. I figured I might have to flip a coin for it when my mom passes on; she rarely uses it anymore but none of her girls (I have 2 sisters) have taken it yet. A few years back, I was in a used bookstore and a book fell off the shelf and hit me in the head–and it was the Household Searchlight! I know I was meant to find it! So as least we will have one less “who gets what” decision to make later in life!

  3. Gaye, love your website. I also have the Betty Crocker 1969 cookbook, given to me as a wedding present 40 years ago. It got so worn I spent several hours taking it apart, page by page, punched holes in the pages and put it in a three ring binder. I love this cookbook that much!!! I am intrigued by the Lydia Child book, will look into that one.
    Thank you for your efforts in keeping us informed!

  4. I’m lucky to have my grandmothers and great-grandmothers cook books. While everything you mentioned are in them, there is a special addition of notes written in margins, in my grandmothers handwriting. Tips and tricks for the family favorites. A couple are even scratched out with the notation “do not use this recipie” and “terrible” which made me smile. There are other tips like “use a pinch of this instead of a pinch of that”. And my favorite, “cut the worm holes out of the apples and don’t use more than 4 logs at a time or you will burn the apple butter”.

  5. I would recommend the series of books by World Community Cookbook. There are 3 cookbooks that have been in print for over 30 years:More-With-Less Cookbook, Simply in Season and Extending the Table. They are published in “cooperation with Mennonite Central Committee, a worldwide ministry of relief, development, and peace” I like the message they have that you can eat well with less and the large variety of recipes – many from missionaries that have served overseas, that have an international flavor on an budget.

  6. LOVE old cookbooks. I have several that I cherish. One I especially love was given to me by my husband while he was working at a publishing company in Lincoln Nebraska. It is the Nebraska Centennial cookbook and has some old pioneer recipes in it as well as favorites from previous Nebraska Governors and other politicians. Lots of great recipes and great ideas for making things stretch. I also have several old Watkins cookbooks from the pre World War II era. Love them! If you can find a copy of a cookbook from the Victory Garden era it would be perfect for your use. Those books had not only information about what to plant but how to use the produce as well as how to can and preserve it.

  7. I love old cookbooks. I would recommend The Joy of cooking- if you only had one cookbook, this should be it. Also, the Foxfire books offer many old time recipes as well as all manner of knowledge concerning how things were done in bygone times.

  8. Love my old Julia Child cookbooks, and the Galloping Gourmet. Does anybody remember him?? Maybe I am aging myself! I found an old cookbook at a garage sale simply titled Beans. It has tons of really useful beans dishes and breads and desserts made out of beans. I never knew before this that you could make flour from beans!
    Happy cooking!
    Jo

    • I remember the Galloping Gourmet. He taught me how to “cook” with wine. LOL. Seriously, he was as entertaining as he was interesting.I have a few of his recipes written down somewhere.

  9. Thank you for including the link – I just downloaded the pdf of The Frugal Housewife. In addition to great advice and long forgotten techniques, I appreciate the glimpse into the life and times of these women. Not so long ago they were doing so much more in their average day, without the use of “modern” appliances, and usually in long sleeves and longer skirts with no a/c, and in some instances, no running water.
    Every time I read one of these books I have a new measure of respect for the remarkable women of generations past.

  10. This is a fantastic post. My wife and I use the original Fanny Farmer along with several hand-me-downs from our parents and we use index cards for our favorite old-time traditional recipes. Will certainly be looking at the Frugal Housewife. Thanks!

  11. My favorite old cookbook is the Settlement Cookbook, which you mention. There is a steamed bread recipe in it that I have used, over a campfire, to use with the meal cooked on the same campfire. (I once lived over a year out in the woods without a house, just a tarp over poles put up between trees!)

    • Cathy, I am intrigued by your story of living in the woods for a year. Something I only dream about. Would love to hear more. Karen S.

      • Karen S…While I learned so much about myself, what I could really do, that was not a good time. I had my boys and a (now ex)husband, and it was a constant work load for me to see the boys were warm in the snow, fed with a campfire made of wet wood, got homework done by candle light, while hubby sat on widening rear end and did not get house put up. Finally the boys and I started in, in Oct to build a cabin,,,and it did stand up to the snow. I did not know how to put in a floor so I laid down wet sheets, the carpet pieces. It worked. We were quite a ways from the nearest power line, and with small children I do not recommend oil lamps. I used candles which I made. I milked my cow, and tied her to the tree by the door of the tarp tent, and by spring I had a shelter up for her when the calf was born. Had a few chickens, and they roosted in the trees. They moved into the cow shelter. I cooked on a campfire. Hung a beef in the tree by the door in Dec and it froze solid, used a hatchet to chop of pieces for stew. All in all the boys thought it was fun. They are now 52, 49 and 47. And I learned I could do it. No one can tell me different! I am now almost 72. Today I cut 5 wheelbarrows of firewood using a battery run electric saw!

        • Cathy, thank you so much for sharing your story. It does sound very difficult, especially with a partner who is not pulling their weight. God forbid SHTF you are already ready!

  12. I have several old cookbooks.One is from the 1800’s and it also shows you how to butcher beef, pigs, etc. along with a lot more information on what one had to do with the meat when butcherd. It also has german, french and spanish lessons, handwriting lessons, and so on and very interesting enough It has a section on the “Oriental Style of Hand to Hand Fighting” aka Judo along with the etiquette of the times,ie How to lay a table, when does one leave a calling card etc.It was my Great Grandmothers and It’s one of my treasures. Also if you have older family members, see if you can acquire their old cookbooks IF they aren’t using them anymore. My mom passed when I was 17 and I have her cookbook from when she and Pop got married (1953) and it has notes from my dad on increasing the amounts of the ingredients to fit our family of 7 when I was growing up. Pop passed Christmas night 2010 and it really comforts me when I see his and mom’s notes in the book. My boys learned to cook from that book and my DIL’s are VERY grateful 😉

  13. Thanks so much for the free links. I’ve been looking for old recipes (scratch recipes) and have a hard time finding them. I’d much rather have a from scratch recipe than an updated, so called better for you recipe, that uses canned and packaged food. I’m not fussy on the butter, sugar and salt substitutes either, because I believe they’re less healthy.
    I have the recipe book that I learned to cook with, around 1965, the one my mom used, but need to replace it because it’s so worn. I hope I can order one and that it hasn’t been updated because mine is from scratch and that’s what I want.
    Thanks again for the links and the great info piece. 🙂

  14. You might also check out Lehmans.com they are one of the main suppliers to the Amish communities and others who live off grid. They not only offer non electric items but also many cookbooks and how to books on homesteading, butchering and other items of interest to preppers.

  15. Does anyone have a substitute for baking powder should a collapse last longer the what my baking powder expiration date says? Not long after that date, it no longer rises…so if sourdough isn’t palatable to family, you’re tired of tortillas, what’s the alternative?

    • I use out of date baking powder all the time with no problem although I do add 25% to 50% more than the recipe calls for. (By out of date, I mean old – over 4 years past the “use by” date.)

      Couple of things: not all sourdoughs have a tangy taste. As a matter of fact, it takes work to get them that way. Still, sourdough is tricky to use plus, the constant feeding uses up flour resources. I need to work with sourdough more before I will be 100% comfortable with it. Definitely on my prep-skill to do list.

      I believe the stated shelf life of baking powder packaged by food storage companies is 5 years.

  16. I agree that old cookbooks are important. I’ve been collecting them for years (I’m 77) and I almost laughed at the idea that they would not be worth keeping. They are certainly interesting to read, even if you aren’t cooking from them.

  17. I’m a 50-ish guy who learned cooking skills from my late adopted mother. She and her mom had spent a lifetime of being cooks for restaurants and the like, and I picked up my kitchen skills from them. A few months before Ma passed away in 2003, I was having a rough time of it financially, including getting enough to eat. So I called her and asked her for a couple of her long-proven successful white bread recipes and such, then set down to making bread myself. Her recipe was geared for multiple loaves, since she used it for her school kitchen cooking. I didn’t bother reducing it, and although it does take a while to prep and bake 10 loaves (they freeze well–IF they last that long!), but it is a simple and easy recipe to make. And the taste is to die for! So yes, old cookbooks and recipes can really be a great thing to have! (I didn’t become a chef, but rather a science professor, btw.)

  18. I have an 1891 Buckeye cookery and Homemakers guide that teaches a young homemaker how to do everything. It is wonderful and one day could save my family! It does have some very funny stuff in it,

  19. thank you for th e links!1 I have them printing as i type!! they are going in to a binder i have set up for just such things!

    My sister loves finding me books that are early enough to uss the basic pantry staples and gardens

    I have all of the Books she can find from Claira’s Kitchen plus I have the following books

    1. 1953 the complete book of home preserving by ann seranne
    2.2003 old time farmhouse cooking-rural american recipes and farm lore by barbara swell
    3.1989 depression era recipes by patricia wagner
    4
    1984 from amish and mennonite kitchens by phylllis pellman good and rachel thomas pellman

    she found all these books on amazon for either a penny each plus shipping or just a couple bucks and free shipping

    several are off the goodwill store on amazon so check that out for old cookbooks

  20. I have several old cookbooks and what I like is they make no assumption about your skill level. I have a 1972 Farm Journal cookbook that has instructions for building a BBQ pit (for a crowd) and how to make butter. I have several versions of the Betty Crocker cookbook with sections on how to choose a cut of meat, what cuts should be roasted, fried, braised, etc. Some have substitution/equivalency charts that are very helpful.

    I live in a 23 foot camper. Space is always at a premium. The cookbooks will always have a place.

    • I still have the Betty Crocker Cookbook I purchased before I was married in the 70s. It is held together by tape due to years of use and abuse. I like that the methods do not rely on microwaves or other modern gadgets. On the other hand, processed food was in its heyday as was the use of margarine so adjustments still need to be made.

      My favorite carrot cake recipe is in that cookbook along with a cream cheese frosting. I just gained 5 pounds thinking about it 🙂

  21. one of the greatest advantages of owning an old cookbook; and I have one copyrighted in 1938, is the personal notes, handwritten recipes or newspaper clippings of the past. My fondest example is my mother in law’s handwritten recipe for homemade ice cream.

  22. I have two old cookbooks with yellowing pages! Love Them! i agree about the information-how to choose meats, cut, cook! the measurement explanations are priceless. How to set a table and entertain…i could go on and on! We loose so much by not looking back to how our grandmothers provided meals for their families!! Teaching my daughters the way to cook!

  23. I’m really enjoying reading through all your blogs. I grew up on a farm learning how to use herbs, vegetables, weeds as medicine and food. We butchered our beef, sheep and chickens as well as hunted wild game. When I moved away at 17 I thought I wanted to be a “City girl” instead and spent the next 15 or 20 years that way. Over the last ten years I’ve been going back to my roots with sustainability and I’ve been prepping as well as apartment homesteading. I cook everything from scratch, make my own medicines, tinctures and extracts. I make soap, organic insecticides and DIY or Repurpose everything. Most of my food recipes come from old recipe books and google searches. But when it comes to learning or re-learning a homesteading tradition I would be lost without a book I found it the thrift store for a couple of dollars. It’s Carla Emery’s Old Fashioned Recipe Book: An Encyclopedia of Country Living. She and her Husband started homesteading between the late 60’s and early 70’s. You can find everything in there from making cheese, sourdough starts, to building ovens, dressing game or livestock. There are thousands of practical recipes for everything. Plus everything you need to know about homesteading. I use it often. There’s a wealth of knowledge and almost everyone could find something in there that pertains to them or their needs. You can find several of her books on Amazon.

  24. I love old cookbooks. I have serveral cookbooks where the ladies got toghter to make a cookbook for the ladies of the church. they were printed in the 50;s and 60’s what a treat. When I go to a thrift store I always look to see if there are any old cook books. never know when you might need them

  25. I love old cookbooks, though I rarely cook just for myself. The oldest one I have is a Gold Medal flour promotional cookbook from 1910. Back then, they barely listed amounts and the recipes were called “receipts.”

    They would read like this (made-up example): “Take a measure of flour and roll the scraps in it. Put in a baking pan and into a medium oven [you were expected to know what that was, and what kind of wood to use] until well-browned. Add to gravy; serve over noodles [which you had made yourself using Gold Medal flour, obvs}. Salt and pepper to taste.”

    Some of the words they used were very different. I had to read one section five times over before I figured out what forcemeat was.

  26. I’ve been a cook-book nut for years and have a room full of old cook books. I’ve seen some books with missing binders and covers, but the wealth of knowledge in them was worth the time to make a new cover. I sure enjoy the many recipes from them and always find a tip or tidbit I didn’t know. They can come in handy when you need to save money or have good holiday meal and impress family and friends. Keep up the great work. Thanks for making me smile today!!!

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