Off-Ramp listener Felicia Friesema shares her vintage cookbook haul.

Inspired after reading my entry on the Gourmet Cookbook, FOO (Friend of Off-Ramp) Felicia Friesema sent this in …

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Dear John,

There is nothing quite like flipping through the pages of a dusty old cookbook, stained from recipe splatter and carefully annotated by a previous owner with personal thoughts, alterations, and outcomes. In some ways, it’s a bit like flipping through a meta-diary, the creation of a pre-food blog world that lacks the artifice of the general self-aggrandizing nature of a blog (no offense, John). The words I read were meant for a select few, so the language is personal and familial.

The other reason I love these books so much is because they are markers on a culinary timeline that evolves as fast as technology. Each one puts a pin in its year – this is how we ate, drank, and lived – and acts as a tether to a life of flavors we may no longer know except through nostalgia.

I have a few places where I go to mine the leftovers of someone else’s cookbook libraries. My most treasured of these I will keep a secret – they always ALWAYS have the most interesting titles and collections for pennies on the dollar. And this past weekend, I walked out with an armload of 13 vintage cookbook treasures.

I have two particular favorites from this haul: a 1923 copy of the “Los Angeles Times Prize Cookbook” by A.L. Wyman …

… and a 1953 printing of “The Cook is in the Parlor” by Marguerite Gilbert McCarthy, a once well-known California hostess and wife of a “motion picture lawyer.”

The McCarthy book fits my previous description. It is FULL of personal notes, including one heart-breaking little sentence that reads, “Very sad. No one liked it but me,” referring to a minestrone recipe that she had crossed out using a big black wax pencil.

Other recipes get gold or red foil stars or little penciled happy faces. It’s one of the most charming cookbooks I own, thanks to the diligence of this anonymous homemaker.

The LA Times Prize Cookbook has no charm whatsoever. It’s methodical and spare. But what it lacks in flair it more than makes up for in sheer volume of content. Hundreds of recipes lines pages measured out in newspaper column inches. The endpapers are splashed with LA Times advertising data, bureau descriptions, and conversion tables. It’s one part cookbook, one part chemistry manual, and one part corporate tool, all of which make for a fascinating read.

The trick with this obsession is making it all fit on my shelves, which with this purchase, I’ve just maxed out. Don’t ask me to cull the herd to make room for others. They aren’t so much books as voices, and mine is among them.
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Read Felicia's work in the LA Weekly, and check out John's weekly show Off-Ramp!

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