There’s something about old books, especially old cookbooks, that captivates me. Is it the feel of slightly tattered covers or the faded name on the flyleaf? Or is it the stain off to the side of the recipe for molasses cookies, the one where you know the cook dribbled a bit of dough on the page and tried to wipe it off, but failed.
I own only one cookbook that belonged to my grandmother, a copy of Fannie Farmer’s The Boston Cooking School Cook Book, the 1933 printing. From the look of things, I suspect that my grandmother never turned its pages, never spilled gravy on the pristine paper now yellowing with age. Maybe she owned two copies, one older than this one, just as I own three copies of The Joy of Cooking – I rarely use the two newer versions, instead opting for the 1964 edition (1973 printing), the one my husband gave me when we married more years ago than I care to mention.
Because of my feelings about cookbooks, you know, the touchy-feeling stuff, I want to own more of them, possessing them like a woman with too many pairs of shoes or a man with a Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” collection of neck ties. But I can’t, because of the ever-increasing cost of these tomes. Suddenly collecting cookbooks is a hot hobby, it seems. Or at least a worthy avocation. Just after Edna Lewis passed away in February 2006, a book dealer on Amazon.com listed a paperback copy of The Edna Lewis Cookbook, (Ecco, 1989) for almost $300.00. That happened to be the same week I visited my parents in Florida and serendipitously found the very same book in a used-book shop in Micanopy, Florida. I paid $3.95 for it.
For those of us with a fondness for vintage/antiquarian/rare books carrying hefty price tags, especially of the really old and rare types, digitized cookbooks online are the next best thing. But the marvelous thing about digitization is not that suddenly everyone with an Internet connection can read The Forme of Cury (1390) and try to redact the recipes.
It’s that for the first time in history scholars intent on studying historical cuisine may read the material without having to fly to London, seeking a seat at the British Library in order to read the manuscript copy used by Samuel Pegge in 1780. More eyes will see these books, more minds will ponder them, and more awareness (hopefully) ensue of the importance of food and cooking, not just in the past, but nowadays as well. Perhaps, through the lens of cookbooks (and other materials, of course), modern humans might begin to understand the magnitude of food-related issues that have faced humans all along.
The following list provides links to sites supplying both transcribed and facsimile copies of many old cookbooks of interest to lovers of old cookbooks – note that few sources appear from libraries other than the U.S. or Western Europe. And note as well that with anything in print, nothing is ever complete, so if you know of or find other sources, please share! Thank you!
© 2014 C. Bertelsen