A Few Choice Morsels: Children’s Cookbooks

Typical saccharine illustration found in many children's cookbooks

British star chef Jamie Oliver, in spite of the flapdoodle surrounding his school lunch efforts in West Virginia, is just one more person in a long line of moralists and do-gooders hoping to change the food people eat, this time children.

So let’s take a quick look at children’s cookbooks. Pretty common, aren’t they? For starters, there’s the bestselling The Princess and the Frog: Tiana’s Cookbook: Recipes for Kids (Disney Princess: the Princess and the Frog), by Cindy Littlefield and the old-time favorite (see below), with a new name, New Junior Cookbook (Better Homes & Gardens Cooking), by Jennifer Darling.

You think, “How cute. Such lovely (but sturdy) little cookbooks (sometimes with laminated or wipeable pages), to teach little girls (and hopefully at some point, little boys) about the joy of cooking.”

But when you really look at the history of children’s cookbooks, you’ll see something quite startling: until the late nineteenth century there were no cookbooks just for children. According to Jan Longone, Six Little Cooks, or Aunt Jane’s Cooking Class, first published in 1877, may well have been the first children’s cookbook in the United States.**

And so just imagine: that raggedy red-and-white-checked (“Red Plaid”) Better Homes and Gardens Junior Cookbook sitting on my bookshelf is a relative newcomer. First published in 1955, “Red Plaid’s” popularity led to a number of reprints and revisions, the most recent being 1997. Since my parents subscribed to a magazine called Better Homes & Gardens, still being printed, I clipped out the centerfold recipes and punched the pre-located holes. Then I stuck those pages into the various appropriate places in the three-ring binder that held my cookbook together.

In the preface of that 1955 Better Homes & Gardens Junior Cookbook, the editors say:

Cooking is great fun …  sure, you’ve known that ever since you had let’s-pretend tea parties out in your back yard. But now you’re about to make the most luscious, the most beautiful gooey rolls and sizzly hamburgers and thick chocolate milkshakes — all the yummy stuff you love to eat but maybe didn‘t dream you cold make yourself.

You’ll cooks Pigs in Blankets like the Junior Cook’s putting on the platter across the page; fix French fries; and make salads that get eaten to the last crisp little nibble. Desserts — wait’ll you see the desserts! And cookies and candy.

The six-sectioned book starts out with “Beverages,” then comes “Breads and Sandwiches,” followed by “Candy and Cookies.” After that, the cook can work on “Desserts.” Only then do “Main Dishes” appear, in the fifth section, with “Vegetables and Salads” bringing up the rear in the sixth and final section.

Basic skills covered in this, and other children’s cookbooks, include tasks common to cooking under most conditions (cutting, chopping, stirring). But in many of these books, the most commonly demanded skill seems to be the ability to open a can or a box of cake or pancake mix! The act of cooking seems trivialized somewhat and the cook directed to purchase convenience products, many of which Better Homes & Gardens’s advertisers produced. The trend toward big food was well on its way in that 1955 cookbook.

Think about the cooking process as practiced by nearly all the households in the world until the electric cookstove revolutionized cooking. Imagine the tasks necessary for a properly working nineteenth-century kitchen:

Skills required carrying wood or coal for the stove, bending and lifting heavy pots and pans to cook and boil dish water, and preparing batter, dough, or pastry by sifting, rolling, stirring, creaming, and whipping.*

Other skills included raising and slaughtering animals, and gardening, among others.

The bottom line is this: most female children learned to cook by watching their mothers, starting with simple food preparation tasks and gradually moving into the more dangerous cooking tasks like leaning over the fire to stir the pot or baste the joint, risking burns and other injuries.

The fun and recreational cooking touted in many children’s cookbooks of the late nineteenth century reflect a wealthier, more educated demographic. And the increasing emphasis on sweets and baking simply could not have occurred prior to the prevalence of cheaper white sugar and flour.

The Mary Frances Cook Book

As Longone stresses, many of the nineteenth-century cookery books for children aimed to create docile women and girls at the service of husbands, fathers, and brothers. Books like The Mary Frances Cook Book illustrate this trend quite clearly.

To cook in the past was serious business, and hardly child’s play. Survival, nothing more, nothing less.

For more about the history of children’s cookbooks in the United States, see:

*Hertzler, A. A. “Nutrition Trends During 150 Years of Children’s Cookbooks,” Nutrition Reviews 63 (10): 347 – 351, 2005. See also information about the Ann A. Hertzler Children’s Cookbook Collection at Virginia Tech (scroll down to the middle of the page).

**Longone, J. “ ‘As Worthless as Savorless Salt?’ Teaching children to cook, clean, and (often) conform,” Gastronomica 3: 104 – 110, 2003.

BISCUITS (from BH & G’s Junior Cook Book, 1955)
(Photos of the steps provide some amplification of the text)

2 cups biscuit mix
2/3 cup milk

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Put biscuit mix in bowl and add milk. Sprinkle some biscuit mix on a board or counter. Knead dough 8 times. [No explanation of kneading.] Dust rolling pin with more biscuit mix and roll dough to 1/2 inch thick. Dip biscuit cutter [no alternatives given] in biscuit mix before cutting each biscuit. Place rounds on ungreased cooky sheet [sic]. Put in oven. Bake 10 to 15 minutes. Tops will be golden brown. Makes about 12 biscuits.

© 2010 C. Bertelsen

12 thoughts on “A Few Choice Morsels: Children’s Cookbooks

  1. Do you know of a cookbook for children, written in French? I have always enjoyed cooking and, in my early old age (I’m 66), I have decided to learn French. It occurred to me that i could integrate these two interests by using a French cookbook. I’m looking for one that is geared for children–a “learn to cook” sort of book.

    Chuck Anceney

  2. Scroll down — it’s the source of the quote:

    **Longone, J. “ ‘As Worthless as Savorless Salt?’ Teaching children to cook, clean, and (often) conform,” Gastronomica 3: 104 – 110, 2003.

  3. According to Jan Longone, Six Little Cooks, or Aunt Jane’s Cooking Class, first published in 1877, may well have been the first children’s cookbook in the United States.**

    -what does the asterisks mean?

  4. For Germany I can say that the first cookbooks for girls were written in the middle of the 19th century and they were called “Puppenkochbuch” what means cookbook for dolls. It was the time of the first little kitchens for girls with little stoves, but most recipes didn’t require heat, the books were more meant for playing than for real cooking. Real cookbooks for children didn`t exist in Germany before World War II I think.

  5. Maria,

    Take a look at Longone’s article if you can — she goes into a number of different types of food books aimed at some aspect of children’s food and nutrition, feeding, cooking, etc. One of those areas is the one you refer to — books for mothers to make their own baby food — I have to admit I cooked food especially for our son in the weaning phase from a book like one of those junior books.

  6. Hi Rachel,

    Yes, it is amazing to look at those recipes and realize the way in which the processed foods snuck into the daily diet. One of my old all-time faves was the green bean casserole with cream of mushroom soup and canned fried onion rings — how much more processed can you get?

  7. Wow, that’s amazing that even in 1955 there was the open-a-box-of-this-or-that thing going on, but of course it makes sense because that’s when processed foods became de rigeur in the United States. Of course they existed before that, but maybe we can link not knowing how to cook with the advent of the T.V. dinner. I guess that was the best way to enjoy/express that post-Depression, post WWII prosperity and freedom. I mean wasn’t it more fashionable to eat that sort of thing than to have a garden or chickens, or even to go to the butcher or supermarket to get you ingredients and prepare a meal? So interesting. I never thought about this in the context of children but have long pondered it with women and cookbooks. Thanks for getting the wheels turning about this…

  8. i’ve used UNICEF’s junior cookbooks with my kids – they use primary produce, although they may use canned products for, say, corn
    another interesting avenue in junior food books is the line showing mothers how to make their food more nutritious or interesting for their baby-toddlers (eg annabel carmel is an author of one of these): the meals presented take ages to prepare (they need careful artistic plating – eg the food is made to look like a snail or a ladybird!)

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