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Thursday, August 30,2012

The new kitchen ingredient: old cookbooks

By John Grossmann

Peter Peckham and Patricia Edwards, who goes by the nickname Ed, are the husband-and-wife team behind an Internet company called www.oldcookbooks.com that sooner or later will show up on the computer screen of any serious cook or food lover. Their inventory of vintage cookbooks, heavy on 20th century American classics, numbers well over 10,000 volumes. All are for sale. And, as these avid cookbook collectors attest, the volumes offer far more than recipes.

What’s the attraction of vintage cookbooks?

Patricia Edwards: Old cookbooks appeal to three kinds of people. First, there are collectors — maybe they collect a particular subject, like cookbooks from the old South, or maybe they specialize in illustrated cookbooks. There are also replacers. Maybe their mom passed on a cookbook they want to replace because their copy fell apart. Or they want to get it as a gift.

Peter Peckham: Others enjoy vintage cookbooks because often they’re fun to read and offer a good way to learn about history and culture. They tell a lot about life when they were written. Several of the American classics are thick cookbooks, which give a lot of information not just about recipes and how to cook, but also about homemaking in general, how to set the table, how to serve food, how to entertain.

PE: There are some very interesting wartime cookbooks that talk about how to cook with the lesser amounts of rationed sugar and eggs and so on. It provides an interesting picture of what life was like during World War II.

Are cookbooks appreciating in value and how much do autographed copies increase the value of a cookbook?

PE: They are going up in value, but only for specific titles, for instance, rare and difficult to find cookbooks, such as a first edition Joy of Cooking, and mid-20th century cookbooks in excellent condition. An example would be a 1965 Betty Crocker binder cookbook. It’s relatively easy to find, but difficult to find in excellent condition. Those are going for $100 to $150 in excellent condition.

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What genres appeal most to cookbook collectors?

PP: American classics, which cover a wide range of American recipes from the 20th century. The most popular tend to be the larger, more comprehensive cookbooks: Betty Crocker, Fanny Farmer, Meta Given. Also popular are what we call community or fundraiser cookbooks put out by churches or junior league organizations. What’s interesting about these is that they are from a group of folks in a specific area and a specific time, so they offer a picture of that community at that particular time.

PE: And they often use the regional foods. Cross Creek Cookery, while not a charity cookbook, is a regional cookbook from Florida, and was written by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who wrote The Yearling. It has a recipe called Creamed Pokeweed on Toast.

What are some of the things you’ve found between the pages of old cookbooks that come into your possession?

Peter: We have folders full of stuff. We often find handwritten recipes someone has taken down from someone else and tucked into a favorite cookbook. A lot of old coupons, which are fun to see, because they’re often for products that don’t exist any more.

PE: We’ve found letters. Flowers pressed between the pages.

PP: Grocery store receipts from 40, 50 years ago, some handwritten.

PE: Mostly we come across recipes that people have clipped or written in the margin of their cookbooks.

PP: Cooks often write notes in their cookbooks, and to a lot of our customers, these are very desirable. They give the cookbook a provenance, an authenticity of somebody having used this book for a long time and an indication of which recipes are good. Often there are suggested ingredient substitutions or recipe changes.

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Does that add a kind of voyeuristic dimension to acquiring a vintage cookbook?

PE: I think that’s sometimes part of the charm. I’ll read what’s been written in the cookbook and think about the person who was using it and what their life was like.

What’s your most requested cookbook?

PE: Our most requested offering is a tiny advertising booklet put out by Baker’s Coconut called Animal Cut-Up Cakes. It sells for about $40. There are four or five different versions and each has different cakes. We hear all the time: “Oh, my Mom let me pick a cake from this for my birthday every year. And now I want my kids to be able to do the same thing.” The cakes are just adorable.

For a lot of people, cookbooks offer an emotional connection, don’t they?

PE: I’ve had people send me emails telling me, “My mother cried when she opened up her Christmas present.” Most recently, it was Lily Wallace’s New American Cookbook, a thick, ’40s cookbook a daughter gave to her mother, who is now in her 80s, because her original copy had fallen apart.

Who does the cooking in your family? Do you consult your vast shelves of cookbooks for recipes?

PP: I’m the cook in the family. I’ve always enjoyed cooking. I’m really excited about food from other parts of the world, especially Thai cooking and Vietnamese cooking. One of the hardest parts of the job is to be constantly looking at all these cookbooks and want to try everything. But there are only so many meals in a day.

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