Each time I find an old cook book at a garage or household sale, I feel like a delicious sleuth or voyeur of sorts. I feel that I'm snooping into someone's life, finding telltale signs of what happened in the cook's kitchen while she owned that book. I like to fill in the blanks, inferring details of her life, her likes, what she chose to write and cook. That's a fairly romantic notion. The story of a cook's kitchen is far from ordinary.
At an estate sale in Wisconsin there was a well-loved first edition copy of the popular Rumford Complete Cook Book (c1908 by Lily Haxworth Wallace) sitting amidst a myriad of product pamphlets. There was no spine left to secure the pages to the book . The mottled blue cloth card covers were held together by an ancient rubber band. I gently opened the book and discovered the volume belonged to Mrs. W. M. Dickinson, who had penned her name and the date July 20th 1913. All the loose pages were covered with her recipes, first written in pencil, then snippets pasted to the outer boards. I moseyed over to the checkout counter of the sale with a firm grip on this little gem. I knew there must be a story between those two covers.
Leafing through the pages, there were check marks with comments on tried recipes. A big star * next to Green Tomato Pickle. Big parenthesis around Seed Cookies made with caraway. A note “O.K. makes 9” next to Pecan Sticks. Whole Wheat Biscuit had been rewritten “1 lb. whole wheat flour = 3 cups+" She noted, "additional baking powder, salt, butter and a large egg" to replace 1 small egg called for in the original recipe. To the recipe for Puff Paste, Mrs. D. translates ½ pound pastry flour equals 2 cups. Under each of her entries she uses a flourishie detail, ~~||~~, divulging a touch of her personality.
Tucked next to page 63 was a loose leaf from another book, also a page 63, giving baking times and temperatures for everything from Kisses to Stews, Meat. Mrs. D. did not save any other loose recipes in her book which is unusual. They are often chock full of paper cutouts and notes. Instead, she chose to fill every available blank space with penciled recipes from friends and notably, from another source she refers to as “fromWhite’s or White’s recipe.” Golden Glow Cake, Mystery Salad, Araby Spice Cake, Robin Red Cake with White Mountain Icing.
Now I wondered, is White's another cook book? Since she copied savory as well as sweet recipes using White's as the source, it must be a general cook book or pamphlet. A quick look on the internet shows, "During the latter half of the 19th century the White Mountain Cake was very popular. The recipe was first sold and kept as a close secret. But such good news should not be kept." There is The White Mountain Cook Book c1900 published by the Ladies of the Congregational Church, Littleton, New Hampshire. There are numerous cook book authors named White, and several titles of cook books with White in the title. So, it remains a mystery which source her written recipes came from.
Mrs. D.’s tastes were surprisingly worldly at a time when a bland palate was the norm. She records the likes of, Sauce & Meatballs for Italian Spaghetti, Tamale Pie, or Creole Sauce she notes, "for Fish or Meat." There is a recipe for 'broiling fish' on oiled brown paper, "lay cleaned fish, salted & peppered slightly, roll or crease edges & cook in moderate oven 1/2 hour. Slip paper case onto hot dish. All natural flavor retained." Another for Mock Chicken Mousse made with tuna fish. Sunshine Dressing uses citrus juices and chili sauce for salads. Another recipe is for Charlotte Russe. Next to My Sponge Cake, she writes, "Fine."
How could someone give up this book in the remains of a household estate sale? These little recipes were collected and eaten during a lifetime of kitchen hours. She filled out forms to send for free booklets offered by every food company imaginable. Why wouldn’t the loved ones keep the book around to reminisce about meals shared at their collective table, during holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, the meals that make life memorable.
By the way, the author of Rumford Cook Book was Lily Haxworth Wallace. She emigrated to the United States from England in 1900. She was a specialist in home economics and lectured and taught cooking skills to women throughout the country. She wrote a dozen other cook books.
The Rumford Complete Cook Book celebrates its centennial this year. The Rumford Company issued a facsimile edition, pictured here, to commemorate the timelessness of this little book. It went through at least fifteen printings, up to 1955.