Review: Family Receipts
Every weekend, I review a cookbook in an attempt to lend some guidance in a field that has become overrun. These days everyone is writing cookbooks and it is incredibly upsetting to buy a dud and have it sit on your shelf for years – staring at you, mocking your poor judgment.
My Dad sent me a large package of stuff for my birthday a few weeks ago and one of the items in the box was this old book that was my great grandmother’s. The original copyright on the book is 1897. Obviously, you can’t buy this book on Amazon, but I thought it would be fun to leaf through it and see how much of its wisdom is still relevant today.
To start, I’m still not sure what “receipts” means in the context of this book. I couldn’t find a definition anywhere that fit. The full title of the book is a little more helpful: “The Household Guide or Domestic Cyclopedia.” The book is almost 500 pages and includes entire sections on health, disease, infant care, tips on etiquette, form, and beauty. Oh, and there is a “complete cookbook.”
Basically, this book appears to be the entire Internet self-help industry packed into one publication. Sweet.
The Woman. The first thing I noticed about this book is how it is written exclusively for women. Obviously, this is not shocking given when it was written, but it is interesting to read and realize how far we have come as a society in those respects. I’m not saying everything is perfect now, far from it, but we’ve come a long way in 100 years. An example:
“Woman. Qualities. First among woman’s qualities is the intelligent use of her hands and fingers. The tidy, handy, managing woman… Punctuality in preparing breakfast and dinner and in everything that tends to add to the comfort of the home is essential to the happiness of the home.”
Obviously, there are many things wrong with this, but an odd reaction I had was that it almost made it sound like men couldn’t do these things. I found myself saying, “Hey! I can also prepare a meal punctually (sometimes) dammit!”
Obviously, this is all in good fun as I know that the society was very different then. It was amazing though to leaf through the pages and read what was, at that time, not just advice, but qualified advice. The author, Prof. B. G. Jefferis, was not only a professor, but a doctor as well.
Some things never change. I was really surprised to read some of the advice in this book. Some of it is very similar to the stuff we hear everyday. There are a few pages on the evils of over-eating. If only the author could see us now! I was shocked to see a section advising on a vegetarian diet!
While a lot of the sections were definitely out of date, I must say that a few sections are just pure common sense and are still very applicable today.
The Complete Cookbook. The part of this book I was most anxious to read was the cookbook. The first thing that was very clear is that the section was written assuming that you already know how to cook – because in 1897 everybody who would read this book probably did. It is not instruction on how to cook, but instead just a reference. Most pages have 8-10 recipes on them.
It is such a huge difference from the types of cookbooks you see today where every detail is laid out perfectly. Even on this site, I try to make the recipes really accessible, but this book did not have that goal in mind.
The idea was to cram as many recipes in the space as possible which makes complete sense if you think about the environment. Books were expensive and labor-intensive to print and the more you could fit in one book the better.
It was also clear that people back then were much more in tune with their kitchens. They knew generally how to make a number of dishes and might just need a refresher or reminder on the ingredients.
Some common directions that I would not be able to follow include “Bake in a quick oven”, “Mix quickly and well”, and “flour enough to mould rather soft.” Not only are these directions vague and unintelligible to me, but I get the impression that they used to make complete sense. Obviously, this is due in part to a change in language, but I think it also is a signal that it was written for an audience that was much more savvy in the kitchen.
The other very interesting thing about the cookbook section is the huge quantities that the recipe makes. It is almost like, you make this recipe once a year, and that is that. The pickle recipe for example calls for 10 dozen cucumbers. Whoa.
The Technology. I really enjoyed looking at the photos in the book. I spend so much time noodling photos for this site, it was interesting to see just simple sketches of the food and items. It reminded me a lot of How to Cook Everything. The difference being that the sketches in this book aren’t really helpful or accurate, but they are interesting to look at 100 years later!
Obviously, this is not a serious review, but I was really interested in the book so I thought I would write a bit about it and share it. If your parents or grandparents happen to have any old books laying around, it would be worth an hour or two to leaf through them.
I think they really tell a lot about our history and how far we have come as a culture. Very interesting stuff. Makes me wonder how people will view what is being written today 100 years from now…