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 toward explaining why I will never tip over in a high wind.
Some Texas cookbooks aren’t amusing; they’re laughable. I can really work up a hissy fit over The Texas Cookbook (1949), by Arthur and Bobbie Coleman. I don’t know the Colemans, and I suspect by now they’re tending that great Aga in the sky, but they thought reds and pintos were the same frijoles and even used the words “chiles” and “pimientos” interchangeably. Among their purportedly authentic Texan recipes are spiced eel, mutton curry, barbecued armadillo with sesame seeds, and stewed rattlesnake with shallots and red wine. But I was grateful to learn that, when I’m preparing to bake my freshly killed possum, I can soak the carcass in hot lye to remove the fur. Silly me—all this time I’ve just been skinning it with my bowie knife!
One despairs to think that this kind of hookery-cookery book survives while other legitimate gems are falling through the kitchen-floor cracks. Fortunately, the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) is on the case. The group of some four thousand chefs, writers, restaurateurs, and the like held its annual meeting in Dallas in April. Along with the usual noshing and sloshing, the foodies enjoyed a special treat: the release of four vintage cookbooks, the first wave of an ambitious publication plan. Of the inaugural four, three are Texan: The El Paso Cook Book, compiled by the Ladies Auxiliary of that city’s YMCA in 1898; The Lone Star Cook Book, sold by the Ladies of the Dallas Free Kindergarten and Training School in 1901; and Mexican Cooking: The Flavor of the 20th Century—That Real Mexican Tang, printed in San Antonio in 1911 for the Gebhardt Chili Powder Company.
Why would such an elite group decide to reissue a trio of obscure cooking manuals from a state that many nonresidents still regard with suspicion? After all, there are far-more-famous tomes out there. That’s the point, says New Yorker Andrew F. Smith, who selected the titles; the IACP wants to save endangered treasures. “As far as I know, only three copies of The Lone Star Cook Book have survived,” he says, “and there are only six known copies of The El Paso Cook Book.” Smith is a food historian who has written or edited eighteen books, including last year’s 1,584-page Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America. He acknowledges that the choices were, in part, a tip of the toque to the association’s host city, Big D, but also reveals that “Tex-Mex and Texas barbecue rank near the top of my personal culinary hierarchy.” As for the Gebhardt pamphlet, which was originally hawked for 15 cents, Smith firmly IDs it as “the first Mexican American cookbook.” Holy mole—that’s like the Ark of the Covenant! Say no más.
Clearly, cookbooks in early Texas were few and far between, right? Wrong. At least 402 had been published by the end of 1936, Texas’s centennial year. This factoid comes to us courtesy of Elizabeth Borst White, of Houston, a medical librarian and cookbook collector who has researched a bibliography of Texas’s culinary works, starting in 1855, when Gail Borden (the milk man) put out an eight-page booklet explaining how to prepare his dry, slow-to-spoil “meat biscuit.” White’s labor of love, a special edition of which sold out at the IACP fest, led her to some long-shelved gems, such as the K.K.K. Cook Book (Honey Grove, 1894; the initials stood for Kute Kooking Klub) and 300 Ways to Please a Husband (Lockhart, 1915). Fifty-one titles were advertising promotions, including the 1915 Economy Cookbook from Imperial Sugar, of Sugar Land, which called for the company’s products in just about everything—not just candies and cakes but also vegetables (lima beans, pickled beets) and even one-dish meals like tuna lasagne and pot roast.
Which reminds me, it’s dinnertime and I’ve got to get that possum in the oven. No lye.