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The Joy of Old Cookbooks

Dan over at Casual Kitchen asked a fascinating question – Do cookbooks go out of date? [casualkitchen.blogspot.com].

Three thoughts immediately ran through my head, one right after the other:

  1. Yes! Old recipes are hopelessly out of date.
  2. But..wait. I have plenty of old cookbooks. Real cooking is timeless.
  3. Hmm. Maybe? Cookbooks are about inspiration.

Old recipes are hopelessly out of date. What recipes immediately popped to mind? Green bean casserole, topped with canned onions. Jell-o moulds. Anything made with cream of mushroom soup. Or, taking it the other direction, heavy cream sauces, terrines made with gelatin, recipes requiring a duck press to squeeze out the carcass. In my head, out of date cookbooks are about two things: convenience foods or stodgy  techniques only fit for a restaurant in the 1930’s.

But…we have plenty of that today, from Sandra Lee on one side, to the Alinea cookbook on the other. What about classic home cooking?

Real cooking is timeless. I thought about the cookbooks I have on my shelf, ones I use as reference materials. Do I cook from Julia Child? No…except when I make a stew; her beef burgundy technique underlies almost every stew I cook. How about James Beard? No…but his love for outdoor cooking has informed my rotisserie recipes. Diana Kennedy? Marcella Hazan? Irma Rombauer? I have cookbooks from all of them on my shelf, and check them often. Why? What makes these cookbooks classics? They all had the same goal. Teaching. Their aim was to teach how cooks around the world made dinner with real ingredients. Those home cooks are from Mexico, Italy, France, and the US, and the techniques they were sharing are timeless.

But…if those techniques are timeless, why don’t I follow Julia’s beef burgundy recipe, exactly as she wrote it? Diana’s mole poblano? James’s spit-roast beef?

On second thought, I need to try James’s spit roasted beef as written…

Cookbooks are about inspiration  I use my old cookbooks for ideas. Then I run those ideas through my own set of techniques and flavor preferences, which are constantly evolving.

Classic techniques are the foundation. Technique changes over time; it is improved and streamlined. See Christopher Kimball’s Fanny’s Last Supper to see how far we’ve come in about a century. Today we are combining cooking and science to explain those classic techniques. The work of Harold McGee, once unique, is now exploding; my favorite food writers are pushing the envelope of knowledge about cooking.
*See: Kenji Alt, Pam Anderson, Heston Blumenthal, Alton Brown, Christopher Kimball, Nathan Myhrvold…and too many others to name. They’re all using the scientific method to advance cooking techniques.

Flavors are also evolving. Classic flavor combinations are the foundation; everything builds from them. That is one of the advantages of old cookbooks – those classic flavor combinations don’t change. But, flavor combinations have also evolved; imagine Italian food before the tomato crossed the Atlantic. That melting pot is still going on; simple French and Italian flavors, emphasizing fresh food, formed the basis of new California cooking. Pacific Rim fuses the flavors of a wide range of nations. Tex-Mex combines the cooking of the southern frontier of one country with the northern frontier of the other.

The best of old cookbooks give me that foundation. They help me see the world through the eyes of a cook in a different place and time. My best cooking comes when I combine those ideas with my own skills and experience. I don’t cook from old cookbooks…but then, I don’t really cook from new cookbooks either. I read them for ideas, techniques, flavor combinations…then I combine them into my own creation.

So, what do you think? Are old cookbooks useful to you? Which ones are your favorites?

Inspired by:
Julia Child Mastering the Art of French Cooking
James Beard Complete Book of Barbecue and Rotisserie Cooking
Samuel Chamberlain Clementine in the Kitchen
Marcella Hazan Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking

Roger Verge Cuisine of the Sun

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Filed under: Ramblings


Hi! I’m Mike Vrobel. I’m a dad and an enthusiastic home cook; an indie cookbook author and food blogger with a day job, a patient spouse, and three kids who would rather have hamburgers for dinner.


  1. Anonymous says

    Farm Journal cookbooks are my absolute favorite. I especially love the one on bread and the one about baking.

  2. I’d say absolutely yes. Some thoughtful soul gave us an old Joy of Cooking as a wedding gift, and I’ve referenced that more than any other in the years since. But as you said – I’m looking for inspiration more than a specific recipe. Also, I cook a much wider variety than I learned from my mother, so Joy of Cooking often gives me a quick reference to basics (e.g., white sauce) that my mother never would have taught me. Or when I buy in bulk and then wonder – hmm, how much water would be the right ratio for oatmeal cooked on the stovetop? Joy of Cooking saves me every time.

    Also, love those old church lady compilation cookbooks just because it’s a window into another time. Who could resist those?

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