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10 Surprising Lessons I Learned from a Vintage Cookbook

Not shockingly, things were done a little differently back in 1921.

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Feather cakeAmanda Kippert

While gently thumbing through the brittle yellowed pages of my 1921 cookbook, Mrs. C.H. Leonard’s Cook Book to be precise, to research an article about the way we cooked a century earlier, I learned a few things: 1.) I never want to make Pork Cake, and 2.) There’s a reason most of us beg Grandmother to write down her famous recipes.

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Doughnut recipeAmanda Kippert

It’s because what worked then can work now…with a few tweaks. Many of us still strive to make that perfect pie crust or that perfect Sunday roast, and to do that, we must look at how it has been done for decades.

There was a lot I recognized in these musty pages—things I do in my kitchen today—but many surprises, too. Here are just a few of the latter. (For context purposes, I was born in 1980, so take “surprises” as you will.)

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Hand written lettersAmanda Kippert

Those handwritten recipes will last

Among the most pleasant surprises I found inside this book, which I purchased off Etsy, were a few handwritten recipes. Were they from 1921, too? Hard to say, but they felt like history in my hands, much like these vintage desserts. Someone obviously loved them enough to write them down and, in turn, I learned what a hermit cookie is.

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Hand written recipeShutterstock / Julija Sapic

They weren’t as specific back in the day

Maybe the best recipes leave a little room for imagination. To make Almond Cake, for instance, after mixing the ingredients together you should Bake on square tins. Flavor. For how long? FLAVOR WITH WHAT? (Maybe double chocolate is the key.) Apparently, Mrs. Leonard believed only in leading you to water, not making you drink.

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Produce scrapsSharon Day/Shutterstock

Waste nothing

Not even the heart of that cow. To make Beef Heart, Wash, cut out ventricles, soak in cold water till blood is out, stuff if wished with dressing as for turkey. Roast an hour or so very slowly … and serve with currant jelly. My dad tells me his mom’s motto was, “We don’t waste good food” and hence, he “enjoyed” heart, as well as tongue and gizzards, on the farm he grew up on in Minnesota.

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Shifting flourShutterstock / Mego studio

They used click-bait titles in 1921

One of Mrs. C.H. Leonard’s treasured recipes is for “Never-Fail” Doughnuts. Mrs. L, I bet you I could fail at them. First off, the instructions are fuzzy at best—add flour enough to handle—and what is this deep fat you speak of?

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Basic NachosFoodio/Shutterstock

They called nachos something else back then

Cheese Wafers sound classier and less like late-night dorm food, right? Instructions: Grate stale cheese over wafers or crackers and place under blaze of gas oven, and when cheese is melted they are ready to serve. Serve with salad. I think the salad makes it a meal.

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Banana cream pieTaste of Home

No need to zhoosh it up

These days, if you want your recipe shared amongst the Pinterest masses, you have to give it a fancy name, like Raspberry Orange Dreamsicle Cake with Champagne Mirror Glaze. Back in the day, they didn’t have time for that. Banana Pie was banana slices in a crust, with powdered sugar and whipped cream. Nobody made sugar bubbles or lava centers. There were fields to plow.

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Young housewife using dishcloth for taking cheesecake out of oven in kitchenEfired/Shutterstock

There was a different way to tell if the cake was done

Per Mrs. Leonard, Put your ear to the cake, if it ticks loudly put it back; if very faint it is done. How’s that for scientific?

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Vanilla ice creamninikas/Shutterstock

Prepackaged ice cream didn’t exist

An ice cream recipe lost me in the second sentence: Be sure the freezer is clean. Scald the can before using, also dasher and cover. I imagine that’s some sort of ice cream maker. There’s cranking involved after that, and it doesn’t sound easy. Thank you, Ben and Jerry. (For a dessert that doesn’t require machinery, try this Frosty Strawberry Dessert.)

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Old recipe booksShutterstock / rawf8

Cookbooks offered life advice

In one chapter, Mrs. Leonard gives instructions for “How to Keep Well”: Don’t go to bed with cold feet. Don’t sit in a damp or chilly room without a fire. There are instructions for removing freckles involving lemon juice, borax and sugar. And if someone’s been poisoned, while you’re waiting for a doctor give a strong solution of mustard and water, then feed whites of eggs beaten to cause vomiting. One could also offer leftover beef heart, I assume.

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An old icebox, the forerunner of refrigeratorShutterstock / Bascar

Refrigeration was a luxury

Mrs. C.H. Leonard wrote this cookbook as, I’m guessing, a sort of marketing tool for her husband’s refrigeration company. As such, the benefits of refrigerators were explained in its final pages. History refresher: While the concept of home refrigeration emerged in the 1750s, the first refrigerator for purchase was unveiled around 1911. The earliest electric models were like small cabinets—the size of hotel fridges—and it wasn’t until the ’20s and ’30s that they included freezers. Prices varied, but a typical one might cost around $520, or roughly $7,000 today.

Amanda Kippert
Amanda Kippert has been an award-winning freelance journalist for nearly two decades. She is based in Tucson, Arizona and specializes in food, health, fitness, parenting and humor, as well as social issues. She is the content editor of the domestic violence nonprofit DomesticShelters.org.
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