Old cookbooks hold more than recipes

by Aug 3, 20218 comments

Food and Memories

Gathering together to share a meal is a connection seen in every culture around the world and across time.  Whether for a large feast or an intimate tea, most of us have strong memories of special times around food.   Cookbooks have a unique ability to evoke many of these stories. There is something special about cooking from a recipe that has been handed down from a friend or family member.

Flipping through vintage cookbooks can take us back to a different time and provide a link to the people who came before us.  Handwritten notes in the margins tell of personal touches and modifications in the recipes or mention how it was made for a certain special celebration.  Sometimes there is a photo between the pages or a flower pressed and faded with age that makes you want to know why it was preserved.  Perhaps there are insights about the tastes of family members like these ones that I have found “Susie’s favourite” or “Johnny always requests” or “Sure to cheer Clara” or “Don’t serve if Don is coming“.   Such personal touches can make us smile or feel nostalgic.  And they might lead to the discovery of long sought or long-forgotten ‘secret’ ingredient

Many people have stories from their youth that are triggered by smells or memories of food.  Maybe it is the memory of special treat that an aunt used to make that most everyone in the family has tried to recreate but never managed to get exactly as they remember it.  Or perhaps it is the fond description of grandmother’s kitchen and eating bread and cookies right out of the oven – enjoying the smells and the warmth of that kitchen.  Or images of standing on a special stool with a personal apron helping Mom with her recipe for the family’s favourite Christmas cookies.

Whether or not you cook, I would be willing to bet you have tales of particularly good meals – or experiments that went wrong.  Some stories are told often, sometimes becoming more exaggerated with every telling.  My mother was a wonderful cook known for her delicious pies.  Yet, whenever my siblings gather, my brothers love to tell the story of the time she made peach pie with salt instead of sugar – and kept insisting they should eat it and stop complaining before realizing her error.  I wasn’t there for that event, but have heard the story told so often, I can see it clearly in my mind.  There may well have been a cookbook notation somewhere about the ‘modified’ special dessert.

Finding Inspiration

Old cookbooks might not be the first choice for today’s cooks because techniques, tools, safety knowledge and even ingredients have changed.  But there is magic in knowing that your grandmother held the book and read from these pages.     Following an old family recipe is a direct connect to the past, to the people and places in family pictures and oral history.

How do you use a recipe?   Do you follow precisely, relying on the tried and true to make it exactly the same each time.  Or do you see the recipe more as a guideline that you change every time with a pinch more of this or a titch less of that?

Cookbooks go out of print and become commodities. They are a popular collectible and can provide information about what was going on at a certain time of history, providing insight into trends, world events, community traditions, and even available ingredients. Personally, I prefer  the chance to look through a cookbook that has been inherited or given from a friend or family member, one that is well used and comes with its own familiar stories.

Leaving a Mark

Cookbooks shine a light on the past and serve a legacy for the future.  A collection of  recipes from family members  or a group of people with shared interests  (like church ladies, a sports team fundraisers, or members of a local art guild)  are a glimpse into common tastes and interests and, often, the differences that make each unique.

  • What are our favourite food and recipe stories?
  • Do you have a signature dish? What is it?  Do you guard its secret or share with anyone who asks?
  • Who taught you to cook?  What was the most important lesson that person taught you?
  • What type of cook are you?  Are you wild and free or by-the-book?

Recently, my husband asked me to assemble a cookbook /photo album with contributions from both sides of his family tree.  We requested pictures, especially with food memories, and favourite recipes from his family members. I organized them into categories and presented them in a 48 page spiral-bound book.  

He wrote this introduction:

…Many of my significant memories seem to revolve around family gatherings and the wonderful food that accompanied those events.  This collection of recipes and pictures is drawn from the experience of my family – on both sides of our heritage.  Some of these have been around for generations; some are new discoveries.  I hope the former bring back fond memories while the latter becomes fodder for new ones.  I dedicate this book to my mother, Joan, and father, Bob – who inspired from an early age a love for cooking and company.  Bon Appetit!!

Featured Image by Bruno /Germany from Pixabay
Mary Elizabeth O'Toole

Mary Elizabeth O'Toole

Educator, Artist, Storyteller


  1. vidya

    oh that is such a wonderful idea.. I am going to use it for myself (so thank you for the inspiration!) I do have many recipes from my mom though I will ask her for more recent ones.. and I will have to write down the ones from my mil and aunts too .. capturing more than the recipes does make this so much more special
    and your husband’s message is so heartfelt too

    • Mary Elizabeth

      Thanks for the kind words. Putting this project was very rewarding – and we picked up some new recipes. I agree with you that more than the recipes makes it even more personal. It meant a lot to my husband to connect with everyone about their contributions and we got lots of great feedback. I highly recommend making one of your own for sure.

  2. chef William

    I love finding old, real old cookbooks but being a Chef for so many years it was only natural I would collect cookbooks. So many handwritten recipes can be found tucked away inside those books. I have found some eye-openers and learned a good bit of history reading those books

    • Mary Elizabeth

      I guess cookbooks are a natural interest for you as a chef for sure. I love reading the handwritten notes tucked inside. I am the same way about old dyeing books and journals that I have happened to find. Have you added any of the surprising finds into your own favourite recipes?

  3. Kebba Buckley Button

    Mary Elizabeth, you make so many wondrous points. I am quite the cook, since I was maybe 10. You mentioned a note in a cookbook: “don’t serve if Don is coming”. On that theme, I actually had index cards in the back of my recipe box, with individual’s names on them, reminding me of surprising food allergies and aversions. Green peas kept coming up! (Personally, I love green peas.) Thanks for a great post that should become an ebook, at least. <3

    • Mary Elizabeth

      I love the tip for index cards with food reminders. I don’t understand why green peas get such a bad rap – maybe people haven’t tried them fresh out of the garden. Thank you for the idea about an ebook – hadn’t thought of that but I love it! Happy cooking.

  4. Kimberly W

    My most loved recipes are simple baked tofu or vegan baked ziti. I love sharing food with others and I happily share the recipes.

    • Mary Elizabeth

      Thanks for the recommendations, Kimberly. I want to learn to do more with tofu and baked tofu sounds good. I love baked ziti with vegetables, especially when they are fresh. I think it is a joy to share recipes – and an honour for people to ask. Not that I get asked much as I am not much of a cook and tend to pretty basic offerings.

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