Cooking with Antique Recipes

Handwritten recipes can be difficult to decipher.

People have been writing down their favorite recipes for as long as there’s been a method for recording the ingredients. The really old ones are often called receipts, which can be confusing to some, but it’s still just a list of instructions about how to make something to eat.

Trouble is, picking up an antique recipe can make you feel like you missed something, like ingredients, instructions, and context. That’s because in the olden times, most people did the cooking for themselves and there was an expectation of knowledge if you were venturing into the kitchen. As time and lifestyles changed, not everyone learned to cook. Today, I think that’s too bad. You don’t need to be a culinary expert to enjoy making a good meal. It’s fun to create a special dinner for someone who is special to you. Don’t be intimidated. Give it a try. The trick is to follow the directions and understand the process.

Tasty goodness.

Previous generations valued cooking skills in ways we’d snicker about today but that doesn’t make the ability to  combine ingredients any less useful. Here’s a fun timeline of food history in case you’ve ever wondered when a particular item made its debut.

The Epicurean

Here’s a lovely book of Old-Fashioned Recipes you can download from the West Virginia Department of Agriculture. Nifty. If that gets you jazzed then this next link will produce shivers of delight. Michigan State University has an ongoing project called Feeding America. This Historic American Cookbook Project is designed to put antique cookbooks online so they’re accessible to all. Already there are more than 75 cookbooks waiting for you nimble fingers. There are other places too, like Historic Cookbooks Online and Project Gutenberg of course, that offer numerous recipes. Most of these range in age from the mid 1800’s to the early twentieth century, but there are older receipt books out there, some as old as the Medieval Period. If more recent menu options appeal, there is the helpful Archive.org which provides many cookbooks for perusal, just fire up your PDF reader. 

Vintage recipe tin.

There’s no shortage of antique recipes to follow, should the urge take hold, and I hope it does. Try something new and different. Get the family involved and have an evening in the kitchen, cooking and experimenting. Laugh a lot. Eat something tasty. Make good memories.

Do you have a favorite antique recipe? What about a secret family dish that is passed down the generations? What have you always thought you’d like to undertake in the kitchen?

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  1. #1 by Marcia on July 23, 2012 - 6:31 am

    Oh I love this post, Leslie! I write historicals and sometimes add food to the story. These resources are awesome and I’ll definitely be using them! I have a 1930s cookbook that was my Mom’s. It’s where she got her recipe for Custard Pie, which actually dates back to the late 1800s. It’s one of my favorite non-chocolate desserts and I make it for every holiday…it’s that good!Another I just discovered is Salmon Loaf, which I changed to Tuna Loaf. It’s too bad the name isn’t more enticing, the dish is awesome! It’s one of those homey, comfort foods.

    • #2 by Leslie Berry/ @LesannBerry on July 23, 2012 - 5:59 pm

      I’m glad you like the links! Some of them are a scream just to read…it’s like half the instructions are missing. I love antique recipes and have a haphazard collection scribbled on scraps of paper and tucked into cookbooks in the pantry. I just discovered there was a re-release of the White House cookbook from the 1880s. I swear every home I’ve ever been in has this dilapidated stained copy of that cookbook and I decided mine does too!

  2. #3 by Jennifer Tanner on July 25, 2012 - 5:30 pm

    Sponge cake. I used to watch my mom make sponge cake. She’d flip the tube pan upside down onto a glass 7UP bottle. Betty Crocker’s Boys and Girls Cookbook was my first cookbook. I made every recipe in that book. It sits on a shelf with the other 50+ cookbooks…tattered, stained and full of memories. I have an old edition of The Joy of Cooking that has a recipe for fried squirrel. I’ve seen old recipes that measure ingredients by the pound. That always puts a grin on my face. I’d collect cookbooks if I had the room. I see them at estate sales and keep walking.

    • #4 by Leslie Berry/ @LesannBerry on July 27, 2012 - 1:35 pm

      I have so many food-related memories too. I hadn’t thought what a challenge it is now…no glass soda bottles! I had the Nancy Drew Cookbook (which was terrible by the way), but I made most of the recipes and forced others to eat them. My mom collected cookbooks for years and I think I must have imprinted on the idea because I’m always drawn to them at yard sales and second-hand shops. I’ve been fortunate in collecting odd recipes from elderly folks (I hoard). Sadly, I must admit that I’ve eaten fried squirrel although I’d no idea there was an actual recipe. The really old recipes are fun for the details, like the amounts, but some of the descriptions from the 17th and 18th century party-planners are astounding…cakes with ships that fire cannons. Too far out of my league, but I like to read them.

  3. #5 by Matthew Wright on August 18, 2012 - 3:41 pm

    It’s so much fun checking out how people used to cook – experiencing their tastes. Not just fun, it also gives us a pretty good window into their lifestyles, and what cooks were expected to know. I’ve published a few old recipes in some of my history books, specifically to show how people cooked and ate – and it’s always intrigued me how nineteenth century instructions were so sparse – ‘mix’, ‘cook until done’, and so on. Cooks were meant to know exactly what to do in ways we don’t today. As far as I can tell the thing that changed it was the thermostat-controlled oven.

    • #6 by Leslie Berry/ @LesannBerry on August 23, 2012 - 8:29 am

      I agree, Matthew. I’m also fascinated by the gadgetry used in the kitchen arena by previous generations. Occasionally I’ll run across a device that defies comprehension. One of the best descriptions of party fare I’ve read was in a 17th century cookbook about two sailing ships made from cake and marzipan in a fully diorama display. Not only was the entire thing edible but the crowd gathered around while the ships fired miniature cannon, smoke trickling from various parts where the balls would have impacted. What a spectacle that must have been! Too many of my students think lifestlyes in the previous century were akin to neolithic communities…except that was a far more sophisticated lifestyle than they like to believe.

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