Old Food

Going to talk about old things, like myself.


Last week I baked cookies. I’m pretty good at cookies and scones, and can scramble a mean egg, and I have cooked in my varied past. However, I am lucky enough to be married to a cook, and one whose skills far exceed mine.

It all started with a bag of granola. When I first bought it I thought I liked it, but after a while I realized it was just too damn sweet. Thus the half-used bag languished in the refrigerator for several weeks until El Jefe de Cociná reminded me of its eternal presence. Therefore my mind instantly leapt to cookies.


I needed to find a recipe for granola cookies, which would be probably a recipe for oatmeal cookies. Old food requires old recipe books. And we have a handful of them. El Jefe doesn’t generally use cookbooks; he occasionally consults the Internet specifically for information about meat units. Of the few cookbooks we have, one is of the Rombauer dynasty, The Joy of Cooking—source of my favorite scone recipe—and the other is a very worn version of Farm Journal’s Country Cooking, circa 1972—source of oatmeal/coconut crisps. The spine is falling off; at one time I’m sure it had a cover, but that is long, long lost. This cookbook was a gift from my mother, and belonged to a long ago and unforgettable time of my life—unforgettable for mostly the bad shit. Anyway, rather than consult Rombauer, I opened the venerable pages of the old country journal.

Granola/walnut/chocolate chip crisps

The index brought me to a recipe that I, apparently, had used before. The original asked for proportions yielding 14 dozen cookies. In pencil I wrote in adjusted amounts. I have no memory of doing this, or of making the cookies. With a few substitutions and omissions, the cookies are wonderful.

The cookbook itself is a relic, revealing the history of a culture and food that is long gone. I’ve reproduced the color photography of recipe examples, foods that most people no longer eat and likely never heard of, I’ll wager.

The chow mein recipe asks for canned water chestnuts, canned bean sprouts, canned mushrooms (drained).Note the caption in the photograph mentions canned fried noodles with fruit (no doubt also canned) as a dessert. Chow mein is still offered in Chinese-American restaurants, and depending on the quality of the venue, canned items may still be used.

It’s not as if I really knew what beef Wellington is, but the Farm Journal’s cookbook certainly knew. It’s on page 3. I never realized that liverwurst is part of the recipe (liverwurst is also a by-gone sandwich item). The recipe pastry is, at least, made from scratch. If you must have beef Wellington, fresh, homemade pastry is essential.

Gelatins are widely used in this cookbook, and, it is to be assumed, widely used in American midwest farming country, especially during hot, humid summers. For the jellied beef mold, the chuck is ground at home using a food chopper. Aside from canned beef consommé, the ingredients are fresh and I have to admit the idea of a cold slice of this mold sounds rather mouth-watering. For omnivores, that is.

The quality of the photographs is also interesting. Lighting was provided at the scene, and any photo touch-ups occurred in the darkroom. Comparing these garish images—toned up into the red spectrum—with the food porn currently rampant on the Internet, I wonder how anyone had an appetite. Yet, aside from canned mushrooms, the recipes in this book are thoughtfully easy to follow, with simple execution. I got a lot of milage out of this book, and even though now my use of it is relegated to cookie baking, I’m going to keep it around.



About Jill Zeller

Author of numerous novels and short stories, Jill Zeller is a Left Coast writer, 2nd generation Californian, retired registered nurse, and obsessed gardener. She lives in Oregon with her patient husband, 2 silly English mastiffs and 2 rescue cats—the silliest of all. Her works explore the boundaries of reality. Some may call it fantasy, but there are rarely swords and never elves. More to the point, she prefers to write as if myth, imagination and hallucination are as real as the chair she is sitting on as she writes this. Jill Zeller also writes under the pseudonym Hunter Morrison


Old Food — 11 Comments

  1. I received “Joy of Cooking” for a 16th Birthday present–too damn many years ago–from my older brother who is the chef in the family. But most often I turn Boston School of Cooking “Fanny Farmer” that I received as a 1st wedding anniversary (paper) gift from my mother so I’d stop borrowing hers! Which dated to the mid 1930s. I have to cut way down on the amount of salt in these recipes but for the most part I like them because they are simple and rely on scratch ingredients rather than canned or prepackaged.

  2. I’ve got my mom’s Joy of Cooking from 1951. I glanced through it once to see if I could find something easy to cook for relatives (not a kitchen person) and was astonished at the amounts of salt in the recipes. And how much canned stuff was listed among ingredients, and those weird “spices” of the day, which were mostly salt. I noped out fast.

    Though I sure am tempted by some of the baked recipes. On our 1-2 “cold” days a year I do get the craving for the smell of baking. The rest of the year I don’t want the oven heating the kitchen any worse than the sun already does!

  3. My daughters are addicted to an absolutely hilarious TikTok video maker who takes vintage 20th century recipes–the weirder the better–and makes them, then comments. I don’t know which videos are funnier–when he makes something that’s horrible, or when he makes something that he expects to be horrible but is actually good.

  4. I grew up with The (first) NY Times Cookbook, Gourmet Magazine’s Cookbook, the Life Magazine Cookbook (a big tabloid-sized book, heavy on 60s vintage photos) and the Fireside Cookbook–the last with my mother’s pencilled in notes. When I was married someone gave me the Joy of Cooking, I admit that Joy became my basic “what’s the timing on that?” reference–so much so that it eventually fell apart and my daughter bought me a new copy. These days I dance between all of the above (The Fireside I had to buy anew, but the others I rescued from my parents’ house).

    I note that between the edition of Joy I received in 1988 and the one my daughter bought me in 2006 they dropped some of the recipes, which is why I still have the first one as well–it has the recipe for cream caramel fudge that they dropped later.

    I still want to make Boeuf Wellington some day–but I believe the Gourmet requires pate rather than liverwurst. Potato-potahto.

    • We had the Life Magazine cookbook. That’s how I learned to make Caesar salad–with a raw egg as part of the dressing! (back in the day)

  5. I used to bake quite a bit, and still use my Joy of Cooking for occasional nostalgic efforts, but am lucky also to have a good cook for a husband. So I am Thor’s “kitchen louse” to chop and scurry around on order. I just can’t handle the multi-tasking and timing required to turn out a rounded meal when everything needs to be done at the same time. So doing the cleanup is a good tradeoff!

  6. My mother had several editions of Joy – one I think was a first edition. I amused myself one rainy weekend tracing several recipes trough the generations of the book and making not of the increasing amounts of salt and sugar in them.
    Which proved to me that the salt and sugar were not vital to the chemistry part of kitchen magic.
    I know some is -salt for example regulates the speed that yeast works on bread dough, but it demonstrated that there was great leeway in the amounts.

  7. My mother was given a copy of The Joy of Cooking when she married in 1946, and she routinely gave it as a wedding present thereafter. She gave me a copy when I moved into my own apartment. I can’t say that I’ve used it heavily; I tend to veer towards the ring binder cookbooks — Betty Crocker, Better Homes and Gardens, and so on, which are practically foolproof, and my mother’s personal notebook with her collection of recipes from friends and relatives.

    My favorite reading cookbook is A Thousand Ways to Please a Husband, with Bettina’s Best Recipes, but Bettina salts pretty heavily and relies on lots of carbs. My mother commented that the portion sizes have really changed, too — Bettina got six beef patties from a pound of ground beef for an adult dinner party.

    If anyone’s interested in it, there’s a FaceBook group called Questionable Vintage Recipes at https://www.facebook.com/groups/294101462063401, complete with pictures of a lot of amazing stuff in gelatin.

  8. We have a LOT of cookbooks, though they did get trimmed heavily when we moved. And depending on what I’m cooking, each of those cookbooks does get used. The King’s Cookbook and the Queen’s Cookbook (SCA) get used for certain dishes. Devra has her mother’s cookbook which is ring bound. But if I want a starting place, I go for the Joy of Cooking. We have three – the current version, one from the 50s, and one from the 40s. One specialized cookbook – recipes for people with kidney problems – has one recipe, for shrimp and crab cakes, and is the only recipe from that cookbook we use regularly. Devra has both kidney and liver problems, so that affects what I do to the recipes. I use salt only in soups, stews, and breads, because I can’t stand bread without salt, and because I feel that if you don’t put at least a little salt (Usually not much more than a teaspoon of salt) in those you can never make it up at the table. I do use prepared broth, but I usually buy unsalted of that. If it is salted, then of course I add no salt at all.

    Other recipes are my own invention, like creamed curried chicken and my version of gazpacho (which is more like a chilled very liquid salad). I used to spend bus rides home from work thinking about what I had in the kitchen and figure out evening meals.