WHEN IT COMES TO GOOD COOKING, I am the bad egg of the family. Many of my meals are unintentionally flambé, and I commit assorted chefly sins—for example, dumping flour directly from the bag into the bowl. (If my kids hadn’t long ago borrowed the sifter for sandbox duty, it would be in mint condition today.) In short, my kitchen efforts are recipes for disaster. It’s ironic, then, that I’m the one who inherited dozens of tattered old cookbooks from amateur chefs on both sides of the family.
Although I’ve never prepared a single dish from any of these lowbrow heirlooms, I can’t bear to toss them out. I can pick out the best-loved recipes—not only because I’ve eaten the final results but also because the pages appear alarmingly blood-spattered and fly-specked. But as someone who often forgets to turn off the mixer before lifting the beaters out of the batter, I know what those spots really are: souvenirs of long-gone biscuits, pies, and casseroles. So I’m keeping these treasures—dog-ears, broken backs, and all. Someday, when my sons discover that their late mother collected dirty books, they can do the tossing for me.
Vintage Texas cookbooks are just a whole lot of fun. Even the earliest contain continental classics like chicken marengo and crêpes suzette—as if the nearest general store stocked white wine and curaçao alongside the calico and seed corn—as well as shuddery concoctions such as whey punch, liver-onion patties, and parsnip fritters. I love to flip through them and puzzle over forgotten words like “marlow” (fancy custard) and “Cottolene” (a shortening much favored in Texas because it came from cottonseed). A short sentence or two could mean a day’s work: “Select a 4-weeks’ old little pig. Clean and scald.” Some cultural references completely escape me—one quote that launches a cookbook’s pastry section reads “What a time the monster is cutting up the cake”—and the factual errors can crack me up. A confused homemaker clearly thought mangoes and muskmelons were the same fruit; an assertively Texan cookbook touts “Gov. Phelps’ Egg Nog”—but we never had a Governor Phelps; and one beef-eater, obviously unfamiliar with Louisiana cuisine, donated a recipe for “filet gumbo.” The stilted language provides more cheap laughs: for instance, “Dress the turkey yourself” (in a widdle hat and coat?) and the Hannibal Lecterish directive “Wash and trim one medium-sized heart.” But the era had its blinders, and some things aren’t funny. A recipe for a dessert combining “macaroons, nuts, and a 35¢ bottle of cherries” is labeled “Jew Pudding,” and some troglodyte slopped together ground beef, spaghetti, mushrooms, and corn and dubbed the result “Dago’s Delight.”
There’s another reason I love old cookbooks. Just as today’s food literature—chichi, glossy, even lascivious—reflects modern life, so do the modest little volumes of yesteryear preserve the mundane details of a vanished society. The chief ingredients of cookbooks today are alluring photos and enticing words (“pomegranate salsa,” “lemongrass-cream nage”). In the past, when books of any kind were precious and rare, a typical cooking guide was set in teeny type with few illustrations. It likely included—besides “receipts” for everything from oyster bisque to pecan brittle—medical advice, gardening tips, and mawkish homilies. Even back then, advertisements subsidized printing costs, and they are earnest if often bewildering. (“Dr. Hughes’ Grape Baking Powder”? Please tell me it wasn’t flavored.) Best of all are the household hints, dozens of which fill the back of most manuals. Here’s an 1883 suggestion for sweeping a carpet: “Rub and wash four large potatoes, put them in a chopping-bowl and chop into pieces the size of a pea, sprinkle them over the floor, brush well over the carpet with your broom, then sweep thoroughly.” Alas, there is no subsequent tip titled “Cleaning Spud Schmutz From Rugs.”
One of my favorite family hand-me-downs is the Matagorda Cook Book, a joint effort by that town’s Methodist churchwomen 95 years ago. I spent part of every childhood summer in Matagorda with my maternal grandparents, he a dedicated hunter and fisherman who set out many Saturday mornings to catch or shoot dinner and she a renowned cook who jumped up to heat a skilletful of Crisco as soon as she heard him pull into the driveway. She was also game for whipping up any dessert, anytime (her dewberry cobbler!). Mimi, as I called her, was a cookbook junkie, though she frequently rejiggered recipes (“increase sugar to 2 1/2 cups”) and penciled commentary into the margins (“delicious toasted!”). She and the Matagorda Cook Book faithfully hewed to the same cooking commandments, the first of which might have been “For hot seafood dishes thou shalt ladle on the pork fat or the butter, and in cold ones spare not the mayonnaise.” I’m also fond of Mimi’s bilingual copy of Memorial Book and Recipes, issued in 1957 by the Czech Catholic Home for the Aged in tiny Hillje, near El Campo. It contains nine versions of kolaches, some of which are simply terrifying (no recipe should contain a sentence beginning “Next morning … ”). Some of the hints, such as “Old felt hats make attractive hot pads for the table,” would haunt Heloise.
On my father’s side, Aunt Ina ruled the range. She had a food sense that was partly innate and partly acquired from decades spent assembling massive noon meals for the hands on the family farm. She could turn a fat, squawking hen into hot fried chicken in 45 minutes flat. I never saw Aunt Ina use a cookbook, but after she died, one surfaced among her things. It’s a homemade paperback, dated 1966 and titled Gressett Grub (the Gressetts were her mother’s clan). I value this booklet for its two shocking post-childhood revelations: First, blood relatives I loved and respected not only ate but baked fruitcake; and second, the foods in Gressett Grub are arranged by gastronomical merit: breads first, then desserts, then meats, and last (and least), the stepchild side dishes, more than half of which involve Jell-O. This culinary pecking order goes a long way