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