In looking through my vintage cookbooks I realized how much cooking changed in the century they covered because of changes in the implements of cooking and the knowledge of nutrition.

In looking through my vintage cookbooks I realized how much cooking changed in the century they covered because of changes in the implements of cooking and the knowledge of nutrition.


Civilization as it once was defined meant social order and cultural creation that separated advanced societies from aboriginal peoples. It was created by four factors beginning with economic provision. Farmers had to produce surplus food to enable city folks to eat while they pursued the variety of activities that constitute civilization. Civilization begins in the peasant’s hut, but it comes to flower only in the towns.

A people consumed with hunting, gathering, and herding has no food surplus to support city dwellers engaged in the multitude of arts and sciences required for a people to cease their wandering and pursue the conditions and characteristics of civilization. Hunting and fishing , once the center of life, are still its hidden foundations: behind our literature and philosophy, our ritual and art stand the stout killers of Packingtown. In the final analysis, civilization is based upon the food supply. We do our hunting by proxy. The cathedral and the capitol, the museum and the concert chamber, the library and the university are the façade: in the rear are the shambles. The three steps leading from the beast to civilization were speech, agriculture, and writing. The uncertainty of food supply made native peoples omnivorous—a diet hardly distinguishable from higher apes. [1]

The point is that civilization is an ongoing process and the diet of nineteenth century man varied according to their stage of development. Without refrigeration, salt, smoke, and drying were the main means of preserving surplus foods to consume out of season. Developments in the science underlying health, disease, and nutrition have changed remarkably what people ate.

For example, my wife’s family lived in a small town in the extreme southwest corner of Oklahoma a few miles from Texas to both the south and west where their country grocery store had a limited variety of fresh vegetables. I grew up in OKC and Enid where we had an abundance of all kinds of fruits and vegetables which has given Elaine different tastes in food. Growth of railroads following the Civil War and refrigeration of rail cars after the 1880’s made possible fruit, vegetable, and livestock possible in areas distant from the consumer market

In this series on cookbooks, the recommendations changed over time. My vintage cookbooks are from the thirties which means that the typical thirty-year old housewife then was born about 1900 and taught to cook under conditions of that time and by a Mother who was probably born about 1870-80. In 1900 one-half the population lived on farms meaning 10.9 million farmers produced food for 76 million people. By 1950, 7.5 farmers produced food for 151 million people. In 1920, less than 10% of farms had electricity compared with 78% in 1950.

Consequently, the recipes and included ingredients virtually unknown by cooks now.

What to Eat

The Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. naturally had an interest in improving longevity to reduce their payouts on life insurance policies. At the time we paid weekly premiums to one of their “debit” agents who came to our door to collect. They gave my Mother a booklet entitled “The Family Food Supply [1934] which contained this advice, “one quart of milk per day for children and 2-4 teaspoonfuls of cod-liver oil. For all the family, some butter every day and moderate amounts of fats such as salad oil, salt pork, or lard….Most families need to spend from one-quarter to one-third of their income for food. At least six pounds of vegetables and fruit a week for each member of the family. Enough butter and other fats should be bought to supply between 8 to 14 ounces of fat a week for every member of the family over three years old.


The Charles B. Knox Co. of Johnstown, NY published books about Knox Gellatine of which I have two e.g., 1932, 1936. In them they refer to ‘aspic’ which I had to look up. Think of it as a clear Jell-O that holds fruits and vegetables in suspension if it is prepared properly in molds. The idea was to increase the visual attractiveness of ordinary foods. For someone who had eaten the usual nineteenth century fare, this was a great leap forward.

Being curious, I looked up aspic and Knox’s Gelatine which led me to words like Crisco, rind, chitlins pig’s trotters, etc. I may be telling you things you don’t want to know here. All of these begin with collagen which is a form of protein that gels as in what happens to bacon grease after it has cooled. Collagen is the connective tissue that holds the body together and upright. It is the main constituent of tendons, bones, skin etc. I had always heard something which after investigation I found to be t rue e.g., ultimately gelatin and glue were made from animal hooves, pig’s snouts, etc. Some recipes included ‘pig’s ‘trotters’ or ‘pettitoes’ meaning their feet! Several recipes are given for pork rinds being deep fried and the fat between it and the bacon being converted into lard and cracklings. All of these are unnecessary now, but in the thirties millions of cooks were ‘rendering’ hogs and beefs.

[1] Will Durant, Our Oriental Heritage, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1954.