Our house is not blessed with an abundance of shelf space, and so we must choose our books wisely. I’m pretty assiduous with the yearly weeding out of already-read or unloved volumes, but there is one group of books I would be hard-pressed to part with: my collection of 1970s cookbooks.
Grease-stained and dog-eared, to me they are the perfect escapist literature: a blend of the practical, the comforting, the beautifully illustrated, and the sometimes bizarre. Sure, the dishes they describe can be fussy and time-consuming. I know there are many recipes in there that I will never, ever make. I still love reading them, and when I lack a good novel to lose myself in, I will often pull out a favourite cookbook so I can be transported back to my favourite decade of them all.
Here are a few of my favourites:
- Eat It (Dana Crumb and Shery Cohen) and The Food Stamp Gourmet (William Brown):
These two slim cardboard-covered volumes, given to me thirty years ago by my father, were written in 1971 and 1972, respectively, and wear their unabashed hippyness gloriously on their sleeves. Rubenesque female figures with enormous rumps stir a pot full of stew on the cover of Eat It; inside, you can find recipes with titles like “Roast and a Bottle of Beer, or Uncle Lushwell’s Meat Can’t Be Beat” and “Five Joint Soup” (instructions: “Now during the first hour of cooking, get away from the stove, sit down, roll one, have some tea, look out the window–relax.”)
The tone is obviously cheeky, and the cartoons accompanying the recipes tend towards the grotesque: kids with snotty noses posing next to the chicken soup recipe or the caption next to the frittata: “What’s that slop you’re eating?” Be prepared to be somewhat revolted as you read—it’s cookbook reverse psychology thing, I guess.
One of my favourite parts of Food Stamp Gourmet is the price per serving in 1971 dollars. (i.e. Poached Sole= 70 cents, Chicken Risotto= 31 cents). It’s a sobering reflection on the effects of inflation. I get really nostalgic when I read this cookbook and desperately wish I could have lived more of my conscious life in that decade–I was actually born smack in the middle of it–before HIV, when Jimmy Carter was president and Pierre Trudeau was giving money to national parks and historic sites, and decriminalizing homosexuality, and climate change hadn’t made us feel like the damned.
It’s been a while since I’ve made any of the recipes in either cookbook (the moussaka, and Coq au Vin are really good), but I’ll never part with these crusty time capsules of the sweet seventies.
- The Moosewood Cookbook (any of the series, but especially the original): Remember the handprinted loveliness of Mollie Katzen’s 1977 classic vegetarian cookbook, inspired by the Ithaca, NY, restaurant of the same name? Sure, the index was pretty much useless, organized solely by vegetable rather than an actually usable alphabetical list of ingredients (they fixed that in subsequent editions of the book), but I’ve never stopped loving and using Moosewood, even when Mollie grew up, started wearing makeup, and got her own PBS special.
Having a crappy day? Whip yourself up a round of Montana Mom’s Dynamite Cheesecake. It’s not “loved by millions from coast to coast” for nothing!
- Laurel’s Kitchen (Laurel Robertson, Carol Flinders and Bronwen Godfrey): Published in 1976, the year before Moosewood, Laurel’s Kitchen perhaps never attained the full glory of Katzen’s book, though it’s still a great resource for vegetarian cooks. If you really want to geek out on veggie nutritional data, this is the cookbook for you! Robertson et al’s defense of vegetarianism as a nutritionally complete diet is impeccable, and has the feel of pioneer voices crying out in a carnivorous wilderness. The recipes aren’t bad, though they tend to rely on margarine quite a lot.
Do you have a favourite cookbook from an earlier time? Let me know about it!