Meditations on an Old Cookbook

I have this thing for history.  It fascinates me.  It fascinates many people, I have been happy to discover.  My love for history does not only focus on the big stuff.  I mean, World War II fascinates me.  But there is another side to that, and that is my obsession with the banalities of the daily lives of ordinary, boring folks such as myself.  How did they go about the business of living?  What did they wear?  What did they eat?  How did they cook?  What did they use for dish soap?  These are the questions that consume my thoughts far more than they should.  I once ran into this little item in an antique store, and stood there and studied it for no less than 15 minutes:

It’s an antique toaster.

You’ll notice that there are heating coils on only one side.  That meant that the preparer had to turn the bread if they wanted it toasted on both sides.

Which got me to wondering, did people have toast before electric toasters?

Well yes, they did, by holding this thing over the fire, presumably while their eggs burned atop the wood-burning stove. I think we can safely assume that part of toast making involved the scraping of the black stuff off the toast with a butter knife.

To think, people back in the day had to use these labor-intensive methods just to make toast, and yet WE are the ones who claim to never have enough time.

Which brings me to this little gem of a cookbook.

From the Golden Age of “cookery”!

The Working Wives’ (Salaried or Otherwise) Cookbook – Cook-Ahead Cookery: All recipes based on preparation of each day’s dinner the night before.

There’s a lot that this cookbook can tell us.  It’s more than just a collection of recipes.  First, the back cover tells us about the two authors.


This is Theodora Zavin, also a book editor.

As you can see, this book was published in The Era In Which Employees Smoked At Their Desks (or in this case, 1963.)

And here we have Freda Stuart

evidently, a young, new mother.  She had also worked as a book editor, but at this time, was a homemaker.

The book’s introduction tells us they were sisters-in-law, and in their desire to address the “5:45 scramble” of a working woman to bring dinner to the table, assembled a collection of recipes for which most of the preparation could take place the day before, so that but a few finishing touches remained before popping the meal into the oven.  The recipes also include estimated preparation and cooking time for the night before and the day of, something I have always appreciated in any recipe.  The prep time for either night never tops 30 minutes, and is typically more in the 15-minute range.

I particularly enjoy the preface to Chinese Beef and Peppers: “This recipe is offered with a slight apology because, unlike most in this book, it may require you to have your pre-dinner drink in the kitchen.”

I totally need to start having a pre-dinner drink.

There are some recipes in this book that certainly represent the tastes of a bygone era.  There’s a whole chapter on veal dishes, and another on lamb.  And then you will stumble across a recipe for preparing tongue, and another for oxtail.  However, other recipes for curried meatballs or Chinese fried chicken or spicy shrimp dinner reflect an adventurous approach to cooking for that era, and certainly for a work night dinner of any era.

But even more than the treatment of food, what fascinates and delights me about this book is new insight into the lives of working women in the mid-century era.  I have thought women in decades past were far more domestic than they are now, and that even those few who had begun venturing into the workplace at that time somehow managed to make it home and seamlessly take command of the kitchen, the children, and the house every evening.  But perhaps to me, this business of managing our various roles looks effortless to anyone other than myself.  But in truth, we ALL struggle.  Even women in generations past labored to find ways to make it all work.

Certainly there are current resources for recipes available to us now.  There are websites that will send automated emails to your inbox containing recipes for quick and healthy dinners, using trendy ingredients such as sun-dried tomatoes and feta cheese.  For me the beauty of this book is that 49 years ago, these two ladies reached out to other ladies with support and advice, and they are still reaching out, even now, to let us all know that we’re all in the same boat, we are sisters, and we are all trying to do what working women – salaried or otherwise – have always   tried to do: achieve balance.  And that balance always seems to be fleeting temporary – you have it, and then you teeter, and then you have it again, until you don’t.  But if we all support one another, have a laugh, and share ideas, somehow we are going to make it.

Tomorrow, I return with the recipe for apricot pork chops.

About Joyce

40-year-old university advisor, 10-years married with two small children, trying to do it all and have it all and still manage the occasional social interaction through the wonderful world of blogging.
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3 Responses to Meditations on an Old Cookbook

  1. Awwww…I absolutely love this!!! Best post I’ve seen in a long time!! I too am fascinated with history and collect old cook books! I don’t cook from them, just read them! I have one that measures things by tea cups and coffee cups!! I especially love that yours encourages pre-dinner drinking!!! Hilarious!! Great job!! P.S. I have one of those toasters plus an old malt maker and several other antique kitchen gadgets displayed in my laundry room!!

    • Joyce says:

      What era is your cookbook from that measures with teacups? I find that fascinating! I have a small collection of cookbooks and kitchen gadgets. I may feature another one of my cookbooks soon.

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