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Pieter Claesz via Wikimedia Commons // Public domain
Pieter Claesz via Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

15 Vintage Recipe Collections to Explore

Pieter Claesz via Wikimedia Commons // Public domain
Pieter Claesz via Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

Cookbooks and recipe collections don’t just record the delicacies and comfort food of the past, but also reflect social trends, immigration, and industrialization over the centuries. Each of these online resources offers a chef’s bounty of historic gastronomy, from 17th-century roasted peacock (served in its feathered skin) to broiled iceberg lettuce salad from the 1980s.

1. FEEDING AMERICA: THE HISTORIC AMERICAN COOKBOOK PROJECT

MSU Libraries // Public Domain

Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery is considered the first book by an American about American food, and is the earliest publication in Michigan State University Library’s Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook Project. The online project, started in 2001, focuses on 76 cookbooks from the library’s collections dating from the 18th to early 20th century. You can explore a glossary of old cooking terms and images of antique cooking implements, just in case you need to track down a sugar nipper, salamander, or centrifugal ice cream freezer for your classic cuisine.

2. WELLCOME LIBRARY'S RECIPE BOOKS

Recipe books were not always just about food. Often home remedies were included too, like the 1621 recipe collection of Grace Acton, which followed up an elaborate roasted peacock recipe with a bedwetting treatment that involved boiling a mouse in urine. The eccentric collection is among the Wellcome Library's trove of online recipe books, which are mainly from the 16th to 19th centuries and demonstrate how cookbooks were a personal connection between food and medicine. The 17th-century recipe book of Lady Ann Fanshawe, for instance, has notes on a red powder she used after a miscarriage, mingling with one of the earliest known recipes for ice cream.

3. THE HENRY FORD'S HISTORIC RECIPE BANK

The Henry Ford // Public Domain

The Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, Michigan, has an online Historic Recipe Bank neatly arranged so you can explore by category (whether appetizers or poultry) and era (from the 1700s to the 1990s). The resource mainly highlights American cuisine, including the 1894 Mrs. Rorer's Sandwiches, the first tome to focus on the American sandwich; the 1932 Macy’s Cook Book and Kitchen Guide for the Busy Woman with its economic pot roast and graham bread; and the 1960s vegetarian touchstone Diet for a Small Planet.

4. MILWAUKEE PUBLIC LIBRARY’S HISTORIC RECIPE FILE

Hundreds of recipes were clipped from newspapers by librarians at Milwaukee Public Library from the 1960s to the 1980s. Wisconsin residents could telephone to enquire on the directions for Beer-Cheese Bites, Broiled Iceberg Salad (made with a cup of mayonnaise), or the sturdy Breta Griem's Cathedral Fruitcake, which can survive in a refrigerator for a year. Now you can access over 200 of these concoctions in the library’s Historic Recipe File.

5. THE RECIPES PROJECT

The Recipe Project // Public Domain

The Recipes Project is an ongoing collaboration by international scholars to delve into the past through historic recipes, whether for charms, food, or medicine. Their recent explorations include 18th-century perfume, medieval toothache cures, and recipes with plants in Roman Egypt. The site also regularly interviews librarians and curators about their recipe collections, such as the New York Academy of Medicine Library and the University of Pennsylvania Library.

6. HANDWRITTEN RECIPES

Bookseller Michael Popek regularly updates the Handwritten Recipes blog with scrawled recipes he finds wedged in used titles. He published some of them in a 2012 book, and continues to add to the archive of ephemera with items such as a recipe for hot chocolate from the 1902 The Strollers by Frederic S. Isham, a notecard with a recipe for fudge discovered in the 1903 Capital Stories by American Authors, and a worn recipe for cheezy pretzels that was wedged in a 1914 copy of P. G. Wodehouse's The Little Nugget.

7. SZATHMARY RECIPE PAMPHLET DIGITAL COLLECTION

From 1880 to 1930, cooking radically changed alongside industrialization, which increased commercial food in diets and expanded the availability of products. To encourage consumer loyalty you might have received a "Now you're cooking with tomato paste" pamphlet in the mail from Contadina, or an "Around the kitchen clock with walnuts" brochure from the California Walnut Growers Association. The Szathmary Recipe Pamphlet Digital Collection, amassed by Hungarian-born chef Louis Szathmary at the University of Iowa Libraries, has over 4000 recipe pamphlets from these decades of change.

8. FOUR POUNDS FLOUR

On Four Pounds Flour, “historic gastronomist” Sarah Lohman deciphers recipes, mainly from 18th and 19th century American cuisine, and attempts to recreate or interpret the obscure meals. She recently purchased a bay leaf plant just to blend 18th and 19th century ice creams, cooked eggs for seven hours as if preparing for a 19th-century Jewish Sabbath, and tracked down the origins of that Thanksgiving staple: sweet potato casserole. Her upcoming publication Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine will further delve into this savory history.

9. DUKE UNIVERSITY LIBRARIES DIGITAL COLLECTIONS

Duke University Libraries // Public Domain

Among the formidable Emergence of Advertising in America: 1850-1920 collection at Duke University Libraries are hundreds of booklets and cookbooks published to promote food products as part of modern consumer culture. The 1920s “How Phyllis Grew Thin” has lean dishes throughout its pages, but is basically one long advertisement for the quack medicine Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound pills; "Sixty One Uses for Salt with Some Comment on the Kind of Salt to Use" was distributed by the Diamond Crystal Salt Co.; and the 1916 "Excellent Recipes for Baking Raised Breads" extolled Fleischmann's Yeast.

10. SERVICE THROUGH SPONGE CAKE

The Indiana University Library and Indianapolis Public Library joined together to create Service through Sponge Cake. Launched in 2010, it celebrates DIY cookbooks from churches, community organizations, and synagogues, where everyone suggested their favorite cookies or casseroles. The resource includes 200 Years of Black Cookery from 1976 by the Indianapolis Black Bicentennial Committee, 1944 baking from the 4-H Club, and a 1975 Spanish & Latin-American Cookbook from the Hispano-American Center of Indianapolis.

11. TEXAS TECH UNIVERSITY LIBRARIES

The historical cookbooks collection online at Texas Tech University Libraries Digital Collections definitely has a Lonestar State feel. One title is the 1914 Cooking Tough Meats, with a chicken fricasse "for a tough fowl" and directions on how to make mutton stew from neck pieces. Yet there’s a lot to explore beyond such carnivorous conundrums, like the exhaustive 1978 Sixteen Cottage Cheese Recipes, and the patriotic World War II-era Food Is Ammunition put out by the Georgia Agricultural Extension Service.

12. VIRGINIA TECH CULINARY HISTORY COLLECTION

Virginia Tech's History of Food & Drink Collection features several hundred publications on the culinary arts, mainly from the 19th and early 20th century, although there’s also a digitized recipe book from 1731 [PDF] that opens with guidelines on how to pickle everything from a "great cucumber" to kidney beans. Among the vintage cookbooks, you can also find a 1930s cocktail manual, and the 1923 Salads, Sandwiches and Chafing-dish Dainties which answers such pressing questions as "are midnight suppers hygienic?" alongside its recipes for "pineapple-and-cream-cheese salad, Easter style" and eggs à la king.

13. GASTRONOMY BOOKS FROM THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

The Library of Congress selected works from its cookery collections within the Rare Books & Special Collections to make available online, with material dating back to the 15th century. The gastronomy books include The Accomplish'd lady's delight in preserving, physick, beautifying, and cookery from 1675, with directions for dressing fowl as well as “Excellent receipts in physick and chirurgery.” The 1498 Apicius. De re coquinaria. Milan, Guillermus Le Signerre is the earliest surviving collection of recipes from Europe, believed to have evolved from a 1st century version compiled in Rome. And Lydia Maria Child’s 1829 Frugal housewife. Dedicated to those who are not ashamed of economy represents the thrifty work of one of the first women to support herself as a writer.

14. INTERNET ARCHIVE

The Internet Archive nonprofit digital library is a great resource for just about any media, cookery included. A search for cookbooks on the site turns up over 1000 results including examples from libraries and rare book collections. Among the vintage and historic publications are a California Mexican-Spanish cookbook from 1914, part of the University of California Libraries; a 1928 compendium of "salad secrets" from McGill University Library; and the 1913 The White House Cook Book, also from University of California Libraries.

15. BRITISH LIBRARY’S BOOKS FOR COOKS

The British Library’s online Books for Cooks is a chronological exploration from medieval banquets adorned with pastry ships to frugal Victorians in London recycling their coffee grounds. Publications with highlighted recipes include the 1595 The Widdowes Treasure, which advises on killing lice as well as preventing mold on pears; the 1670 The Queen-like Closet with recipes for calves' foot pie and oyster pie; and the 1729 The Queen's Royal Cookery, in which you can attempt to learn how to master the collaring of an eel.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Stuffing and Dressing?
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For carbohydrate consumers, nothing completes a Thanksgiving meal like stuffing—shovelfuls of bread, celery, mushrooms, and other ingredients that complement all of that turkey protein.

Some people don’t say “stuffing,” though. They say “dressing.” In these calamitous times, knowing how to properly refer to the giant glob of insulin-spiking bread seems necessary. So what's the difference?

Let’s dismiss one theory off the bat: Dressing and stuffing do not correlate with how the side dish is prepared. A turkey can be stuffed with dressing, and stuffing can be served in a casserole dish. Whether it’s ever seen the inside of a bird is irrelevant, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong and should be met with suspicion, if not outright derision.

The terms are actually separated due to regional dialects. “Dressing” seems to be the favored descriptor for southern states like Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, while “stuffing” is preferred by Maine, New York, and other northern areas. (Some parts of Pennsylvania call it "filling," which is a bit too on the nose, but to each their own.)

If “stuffing” stemmed from the common practice of filling a turkey with carbs, why the division? According to The Huffington Post, it may have been because Southerners considered the word “stuffing” impolite, so never embraced it.

While you should experience no material difference in asking for stuffing or dressing, when visiting relatives it might be helpful to keep to their regionally-preferred word to avoid confusion. Enjoy stuffing yourselves.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Food
The History Behind Why We Eat 10 Dishes at Thanksgiving
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Halloween is for candy comas, and on Independence Day we grill, but no holiday is as completely defined by its cuisine as Thanksgiving. No matter what part of the country you're in, it's a safe bet that at least a few of the below dishes will be making an appearance on your table this week. But what makes these specific entrees and side dishes so emblematic of Thanksgiving? Read on to discover the sometimes-surprising history behind your favorite fall comfort foods.

1. TURKEY

A roasted turkey on a platter.
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Turkey has become so synonymous with Thanksgiving that most of us probably imagine the pilgrims and Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans chowing down on a roast bird in 1621. Although we don't know the exact menu of that first Plymouth Colony feast, a first-person account of the year's harvest from governor William Bradford does reference "a great store of wild turkeys," and another first-person account, from colonist Edward Winslow, confirms that the settlers "killed as much fowl as…served the company almost a week." However, culinary historian Kathleen Wall believes that, although turkeys were available, it's likely that duck, goose, or even passenger pigeons were the more prominent poultry options at the first Thanksgiving. Given their proximity to the Atlantic, local seafood like oysters and lobsters were likely on the menu as well.

As the holiday grew in popularity, however, turkey became the main course for reasons more practical than symbolic. English settlers were accustomed to eating fowl on holidays, but for early Americans, chickens were more valued for their eggs than their meat, and rooster was tough and unappetizing. Meanwhile, turkeys were easy to keep, big enough to feed a whole family, and cheaper than ducks or geese. Even before Thanksgiving was recognized as a national holiday, Alexander Hamilton himself remarked that "No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day." The country followed his advice: according to the National Turkey Federation, 88 percent of Americans will eat turkey in some form on Thanksgiving Day—an estimated 44 million birds!

2. STUFFING

Pan of breaded stuffing.
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Stuffing would have been a familiar concept to those early settlers as well, although their version was likely quite different from what we're used to. We know that the first Plymouth colonists didn't have access to white flour or butter, so traditional bread stuffing wouldn't have been possible yet. Instead, according to Wall, they may have used chestnuts, herbs, and chunks of onion to flavor the birds, all of which were already part of the local fare. Centuries later, we're still stuffing turkeys as a way to keep the bird moist through the roasting process and add extra flavor.

3. CRANBERRIES

Dish of cranberry sauce.
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Like turkeys, cranberries were widely available in the area, but cranberry sauce almost certainly did not make an appearance at the first Thanksgiving. Why not? The sugar reserves the colonists would have had were almost completely depleted after their long sea journey, and thus they didn't have the means to sweeten the terrifically tart berries.

So how did cranberries become such an autumnal staple? For starters, they're a truly American food, as one of only a few fruits—along with Concord grapes, blueberries, and pawpaws—that originated in North America. They grow in such abundance in the northeast that colonists quickly began incorporating cranberries into various dishes, such as pemmican, which mixed mashed cranberries with lard and dried venison. By the Civil War, they were such a holiday staple that General Ulysses S. Grant famously demanded his soldiers be provided cranberries for their Thanksgiving Day meal.

4. MASHED POTATOES

Bowl of mashed potatoes.
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Potatoes weren't yet available in 17th-century Plymouth, so how did mashed potatoes become another Thanksgiving superstar? The answer lies in the history of the holiday itself. In America’s earliest years, it was common for the sitting President to declare a "national day of thanks," but these were sporadic and irregular. In 1817, New York became the first state to officially adopt the holiday, and others soon followed suit, but Thanksgiving wasn't a national day of celebration until Abraham Lincoln declared it so in 1863.

Why did Lincoln—hands full with an ongoing war—take up the cause? Largely due to a 36-year campaign from Sarah Josepha Hale, a prolific novelist, poet, and editor, who saw in Thanksgiving a moral benefit for families and communities. In addition to her frequent appeals to officials and presidents, Hale wrote compellingly about the holiday in her 1827 novel Northwood, as well as in the womens' magazine she edited, Godey's Lady's Book. Her writing included recipes and descriptions of idealized Thanksgiving meals, which often featured—you guessed it—mashed potatoes.

5. GRAVY

Plate of turkey and potatoes covered in gravy.
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Despite a dearth of potatoes, it's likely that some type of gravy accompanied the turkey or venison at the earliest Thanksgiving gatherings. The concept of cooking meat in sauce dates back hundreds of years, and the word "gravy" itself can be found in a cookbook from 1390. Because that first celebration extended over three days, historian Wall speculates: "I have no doubt whatsoever that birds that are roasted one day, the remains of them are all thrown in a pot and boiled up to make broth the next day." That broth would then be thickened with grains to created a gravy to liven day-old meat. And, if Wall's correct, that broth sounds suspiciously like the beginning of another great Thanksgiving tradition: leftovers!

6. CORN

Plate of corn.
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Corn is a natural symbol of harvest season—even if you're not serving it as a side dish, you might have a few colorful ears as a table centerpiece. We know that corn was a staple of the Native American diet and would have been nearly as plentiful in the 17th century as today. But according to the History Channel, their version would have been prepared quite differently: corn was either made into a cornmeal bread or mashed and boiled into a thick porridge-like consistency, and perhaps sweetened with molasses. Today, we eat corn in part to remember those Wampanoag hosts, who famously taught the newcomers how to cultivate crops in the unfamiliar American soil.

7. SWEET POTATOES

Bowl of mashed sweet potatoes.
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In the midst of so many New England traditions, the sweet potatoes on your table represent a dash of African-American culture. The tasty taters originally became popular in the south—while pumpkins grew well in the north, sweet potatoes (and the pies they could make) became a standard in southern homes and with enslaved plantation workers, who used them as a substitution for the yams they'd loved in their homeland. Sweet potato pie was also lovingly described in Hale's various Thanksgiving epistles, solidifying the regional favorite as a holiday go-to. More recently, some families further sweeten the dish by adding toasted marshmallows, a love-it-or-hate-it suggestion that dates to a 1917 recipe booklet published by the Cracker Jack company.

8. GREEN BEAN CASSEROLE

Plate of green bean casserole.
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Beans have been cultivated since ancient times, but green bean casserole is a decidedly modern contribution to the classic Thanksgiving canon. The recipe you love was whipped up in 1955 by Dorcas Reilly, a home economist working in the Campbell's Soup Company test kitchens in Camden, New Jersey. Reilly's job was to create limited-ingredient recipes that housewives could quickly replicate (using Campbell's products, of course). Her original recipe (still available at Campbells.com), contains just six ingredients: Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, green beans, milk, soy sauce, pepper, and French's French Fried Onions. Her recipe was featured in a 1955 Associated Press feature about Thanksgiving, and the association has proven surprisingly durable—Campbell’s now estimates that 30 percent of their Cream of Mushroom soup is bought specifically for use in a green bean casserole.

9. PUMPKIN PIE

Slice of pumpkin pie.
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Like cranberries, pumpkin pie does have ties to the original Thanksgiving, albeit in a much different format. The colonists certainly knew how to make pie pastry, but couldn't have replicated it without wheat flour, and might have been a bit perplexed by pumpkins, which were bigger than the gourds they knew in Europe. According to Eating in America: A History, however, Native Americans were already using the orange treats as a dessert meal: "Both squash and pumpkin were baked, usually by being placed whole in the ashes or embers of a dying fire and they were moistened afterwards with some form of animal fat, or maple syrup, or honey." It's likely that Hale was inspired by those stories when pumpkin pie appeared in her culinary descriptions.

10. WINE

Two glasses of wine.
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Chances are good that a few glasses of wine will be clinked around your table this November, but did the pilgrims share a tipsy toast with their new friends? Kathleen Wall thinks that water was probably the beverage of choice, considering that the small amount of wine the settlers had brought with them was likely long gone. Beer was a possibility, but since barley hadn't been cultivated yet, the pilgrims had to make do with a concoction that included pumpkins and parsnips. Considering the availability of apples in what would become Massachusetts, however, other historians think it's possible that hard apple cider was on hand for the revelers to enjoy. Whether or not the original feast was a boozy affair, cider rapidly became the drink of choice for English settlers in the area, along with applejack, apple brandy, and other fruit-based spirits. New England cider thus indirectly led to a less-beloved Thanksgiving tradition: your drunk uncle's annual political rant. Bottoms up!

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