Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Old cookbooks and a new hobby

One of my great passions aside from baking is collecting old cookbooks - the older the better. My collection started several years ago when I inherited a bunch of old cookbooks from an aunt. I didn’t really know her very well because she lived far away and was much older than my parents so I only really remember meeting her 2 or 3 times. But I did get to know her better through her books. Tucked inside a well-worn copy of a Fannie Farmer cookbook were hand written recipes and letters, correspondence between sisters and friends with recipes written in neat script included with news about neighbours and friends. I enjoyed getting to know my aunt a bit better and realized that we shared the same enthusiasm for baking and collecting recipes.

The next cookbook I purchased I found in a used bookstore in downtown Halifax, an Aladdin’s cave of used books. The red cover of Mrs. Beeton’s Cookery Book peeked out from a bottom shelf and I felt I had hit the jackpot when I opened it up to see ads from the early 1900’s and “receipts” and instructions for running a household. From there I started to search ebay and other used book stores and have been lucky enough to find cookbooks from as early as 1844. Each book carries its own story and history of its owner aside from the recipes included in its pages. I have books with names of their previous owners inscribed in fine ink with addresses in London, England and ones with extra recipes pencilled in on blank pages at the back. All of them carry a sense of personal history and memories from a time when a woman ran a household like a business and manners mattered. I often wonder how a book published in England in the 1800’s found its way across the ocean to Canada - probably in the hands of a young bride coming to start a new life in a new country.

These books carried information on not only how to feed a family but also how to work with servants, plan dinner parties, set tables and heal the sick. Dinner rituals and presentation skills were outlined in detail along with medicinal remedies for cholera, smallpox and influenza. In a time when the health and happiness of the family rested squarely on the shoulders of the woman in charge, these books were a guidebook for life. Although the original owners of these books are long gone their stories remain alive with me.

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