Some time ago, on one of my forays through Vancouver’s used book stores, I happened upon a stack of noticeably old cookbooks, so old it was difficult to make out the words on the binding. The big white book at the very bottom of the pile was calling to me. The shopkeep kindly climbed her stepladder to retrieve it and a few others from her top shelf, and I sat down to have a look see.
Old cookbooks are some of the very best reference books. Methods and ingredients are typically simple, basic, and locally sourced without a lot of fussiness. These recipes are just the thing I want when I’m feeling creative or when I’m trying a new technique. Pioneers, settlers, and pre-industrial cooks did most things from scratch, and recipes had to be reliable. It must have been such a gas to work on a cookbook back when there weren’t a lot of them around, back when books were precious and kept and handed down.
When I finally got that book in my hands and realized what it was, I was struck by an urgency to possess it for my collection. The cover is worn so that only a mild impression of the cover art remains, and the binding is a little shaky, but has so far lasted beyond a century. The pages have a feel unlike modern books and are fragile due to their age. Some pages have stains and marks, and sadly one or two pages are gone (easily replaced by a photocopy, though). The binding reads “WhiteHouse Cook Book , New And Enlarged Edition, Illustrated” hinting that this is not the first printing. However, there is no publication data, no copyright page. Perhaps it fell out. I have 590 numbered pages, expecting that a couple are missing from the index at the back, since it ends at Macaroni, timbale of. I confess that despite its condition, holding in my hands a piece of history makes me giddy.
The book is dedicated “To the wives of our presidents, those noble women who have graced the White House, and whose names and memories are dear to all Americans.” Illustrations, though few, are a delight. In addition to a couple of photos of food preparation, there are plates illustrating meat carving and butchering, as well as the famous rooms (and women) of the White House.
Chapters cover a wide range of subjects essential for running one’s home at the turn of the century. In addition to a section devoted entirely to 10 types of “Catsups” (that’s ketchup to some folks) as well as a “Confectionery” chapter for all your pre-industrial candy-making needs, there is a wealth of information about cooking for the sick, dying your own fabrics, making household cleaning products and toiletries, and a whole 5 pages describing 20 ways to make toast (including a recipe that looks very similar to French Toast, but is patriotically titled “American Toast”).
The chapter entitled “Health Suggestions” offers a remedy or preventative for everything from earaches and chillbains to lockjaw and cholera, including a helpful chart showing “Time of Digestion” for a variety of foods. In “Miscellaneous Recipes,” you can learn to make your own glue, wallpaper paste, and soap. Plus, there are instructions for making “Incombustible Dresses” with the warning “Remember this and save the lives of your children.” Also, among the “Facts Worth Knowing” are tips for keeping ants out of your sugar, destroying cockroaches, and banishing rats, as well as how to clean and care for darn near everything a household could need.
The Publisher’s Preface clearly states that this book “more fully represents the progress and present perfection of the culinary art than any previous work.” Contributor Mr. Hugo Ziemann comes with an exciting work history, having once catered for Prince Napoleon (who was killed during a war with the Zulus of Africa), not to mention his hotel experience in Paris, New York, and Chicago. Mrs. Fanny Lemira Gillette’s credentials aren’t so exotic, though it is written she was “no less proficient and capable, having made a lifelong and thorough study of cookery and housekeeping.” (iii) If the name Gillette sounds familiar, that is no mistake. Her son King invented the safety razor and helped introduce Americans to the “disposable” lifestyle before losing his fortune in the stock market crash of 1929.*
A single post really isn’t enough to do this cookbook justice, so I’ll save some commentary and share some interesting tidbits in future posts. If you’re interested, you can look through the entire book online via Google Books.
* NNDB: King Camp Gillette