Give me that old-tyme religion

As a free-form cook, I rarely follow recipes. But I am an enthusiastic reader of cookbooks. A paradox, perhaps? I think not. I find recipes authoritarian and confining. There just isn’t enough room for improvisation. Cookbooks offer a wider field of view. They contain suggestions, ideas, and techniques. They are inspiring. And while I am very excited to have recently received copies of some of the trendiest cookbooks on offer including Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat (which can fundamentally change the way you cook) and Deep Run Roots by Vivian Howard (which reads more like a memoir than a cookbook), I am devoted to old cookbooks. The older and more used, the better.

One of my favorites is the Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook (my copy was new in 1969) with the red-and-white-checked cover and three-ring binder format. Because of the three-ring feature that allows readers to add or remove pages, it is rare to find a complete copy of this book. What is not rare are additions to these old cookbooks. Newspaper clippings or better yet, a handwritten recipe card tucked between the pages are a buried treasure, indeed. Such as the recipe for Venison Roast I found tucked inside the pages of Game Cookery in America and Europe by Raymond R. Camp. There is a stark difference between the handwritten recipe and the published recipes in the book. This recipe for the Venison Roast is a classic home cook approach. The ingredients do not specify proportions or measures for the roast, water, salt & pepper, garlic, flour, or oil. A very freeing ingredient list. What is specified is 1 cup of vinegar and 1 envelope of dry onion-soup mix. These are important to point out, as they are not always in the pantry and may need to be added to the weekly grocery list.

One of the unique techniques included in the recipe is to stuff the roast with garlic, making sure to “plug each hole w/a little piece of meat.” Such attention to detail to avoid losing or burning the garlic during the cooking process is not found on the pages that the recipe card was tucked between. It is remarkable how sparse the recipes in these “classic” cookbooks can be.

It seems to me that the author assumes that the cook using the recipe is already a trained chef. The New York Times Cook Book by Craig Claiborne includes some amazingly pompous statements. Quoting from the Pies and Pastries section, “An experienced cook tosses together a batch of pastry quickly and easily and invariably turns out well-shaped pies with tender, crisp, and somewhat flaky crusts.“ I hope he got death threats for that quip.

I am a very experienced cook and pastry is my nemesis. In fact, I’d like to toss Mr. Claiborne one of my somewhat flaky crusts. However, his recipe for Oso Bucco is divine and my conversion of his Risotto Milanese to the Instant Pot was not an utter failure.

Why, then, do I prefer these old cookbooks? It is because they are based on simple, fresh ingredients. They assume that you will be making the dish from scratch. There is no Trader Joe’s™ pre-packaged curry paste on the ingredient list, and substitutions abound. One glance at Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, et. al. demonstrates the versatility of an egg yolk. There are a dozen recipes for mayonnaise and half a dozen techniques for whipping said egg yolk with oil to create homemade mayonnaise. As well as remedies for “turned mayonnaise,” a mistake I am sure to make.

The hidden gems in any cookbook are the scribbles in the margin by a previous recipe-follower or bored child. These notations reveal the essence of the recipe and how it affects the cook and eater.

As a margin scribbler myself, my notes include addition of salt, reduction of sugar amounts or substitution for applesauce, and always a fun one – the circled or underlined ingredient that indicates that this recipe is an utter failure when you forget the baking powder.

A true student of cooking would make notes every time he or she makes a recipe. In fact, I am going to go right now and make notes on converting NYT risotto to the Instant Pot. If I don’t get distracted by the pile of other cookbooks in front of me. Cheers to a New Year full of treasured recipes from old cookbooks.

Carolyn Dunmire cooks and writes from Cahone, Colo.

From Carolyn Dunmire.