Great Depression Cookbooks

More than any other culture on earth, [Americans] are cookbook cooks; we learn to make our meals not from any oral tradition, but from a text. The just-wed cook brings to the new household no carefully copied collection of the family’s cherished recipes, but a spanking new edition of “Fannie Farmer” or “The Joy of Cooking.” – John Thorne

Library interior, 1930s. Credit: UCLA Special Collections

So far I’ve been looking at specific cookbooks and recipes in my posts, but I thought it might be good to talk about some general observations. While I was doing research for this project, I added the cookbooks I found to a spreadsheet to keep track of dates, authors, and other publishing information. As the list grew, I noticed most of these books fit into some broad categories. I labelled these general, regional, corporate, community, international, diet & health, and specialist. While these categories sometimes overlap, and my spreadsheet certainly isn’t an exhaustive list, I think it’s a useful way to think about how Depression Era cookbooks were being conceived, written, and published.

General cookbooks, like the ones John Thorne mentions in the quote above, are all-purpose guides written for homemakers and frequently include sections with general cooking tips. While some recipes I prepare offer only the roughest guidelines, the recipes in these books tend to be more precise with times, temperatures, and measurements. Many of these books were put out by publishing companies that specialized in “women’s interest” topics. The Delineator Home Institute put out lots of these cookbooks and magazines. I’ll be cooking some of these recipes at some point, but here’s a link to some of their publications that have been digitized. While some general cookbooks include “regional” specialty sections, that isn’t the focus. Other cookbooks published during the Great Depression where entirely dedicated to America’s various regional cuisines.

Regional cookbooks like New Orleans Creole Recipes and Recipes from Old Hundred: 200 Years of New England Cooking, like the category suggests, include regional specialties. Directions are far less standardized and often assume the reader has extensive cooking experience. I ended up preparing a lot fewer dishes from these regional cookbooks than any other category, since they often called for expensive or difficult to find ingredients in modern America. There were also lots of recipes that produced impractically large quantities for research purposes (like any of the recipes that called for a whole pig). If you’re interested in learning more about regional cuisine in the Great Depression, I strongly suggest Mark Kurlansky’s Food of A Younger Land. He looks at the WPA’s (Works Progress Administration) “America Eats” project that sent authors across the country to write about what people ate. MSU also has a great website, “What America Ate,” that has photos, recipes, and other documents from the “America Eats” project.

The corporate cookbook category covers cookbooks published by companies that sold ingredients, appliances, or other cooking related goods. Examples include Anyone Can Bake! published by the Royal Baking Powder Company or Magic Chef Cooking by the American Stove Company. Procter & Gamble put out The Art of Cooking and Serving “with 549 tested Crisco Recipes” to encourage sales of Crisco vegetable shortening (a cheaper to produce alternative to animal-based shortening like lard). There’s some overlap with general cookbooks here.

I talked a little about community cookbooks in my post about cooking cottage pie from a church cookbook. These cookbooks are compiled by members of clubs, organizations, and churches, usually for commemorative or fundraising purposes. These cookbooks are the least consistent in their use of times, temperatures, and measures and require the most research to recreate. While church cookbooks are the most common kind of community cookbook I came across in my research, there are exceptions, like Delicacies by the San Diego Thursday Club. The Thursday Club, an organization that combined social and philanthropic activities, is still around today.

The “authenticity” of international cookbooks varies wildly. Some of these recipes include ingredients and styles of preparation that would have been uncommon outside of America at the time. The Mexican chili con carne recipe with condensed tomato soup, for example, is almost certainly an invention by the American author. I’ll talk a little more about this recipe in my next post. A number of these cookbooks serve more for entertainment than practical purposes (somethings that’s true even of some modern cookbooks). Even when these recipes mention “economical cooking” they still include ingredients that would be difficult and expensive to acquire during the Great Depression. Still, readers could enjoy the stories and anecdotes included by the globe-hopping authors of these books, like the colorful, cosmopolitan Countess Morphy, who was also a dance critic. Not all the “exotic” recipes from the Great Depression are international dishes. The budding health food movement also produced some unique recipes.

Diet and health cookbooks offer a fascinating look at the changing ideas about food and health in America during the first half of the 20th century (including some health debates that are still going on today). Paul Bragg (you’ve probably seen his apple cider vinegar in the store), a pioneer of the health food movement in California, villainizes sugar, caffeine, white bread, salt, and aluminum cookware in Paul C. Bragg’s Personal Health Cook Book and Menus. Bragg’s cookbook has, by far, the most recipes featuring fresh ingredients out of all the cookbooks I looked at. My next post will be from a regional cookbook featuring Southwestern recipes, but I’m thinking the post after that should be a Depression Era diet recipe.

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