I’ve always loved used bookstores. When I was in school, not only were they the best place for a bookworm to score some deals, it was also a great place to find what my history teacher described as “primary source information”, artifacts of history to show the existence of a specific trend or set of expectations.
For example, a modern reading of “Jane Eyre”, would show that Rochester is a terrible human being and why the hell would anyone think he was decent marriage material?
Ok. So I still think that’s the case. But Charlotte Brontë was writing from a time when there were no mental institutions, and shutting one’s crazy wife in an attic with a caretaker, was the more humane thing to do. Not to say it wasn’t still awful for everyone involved. But it’s sort of like saying “well, the only things to eat at the time were bugs; otherwise everyone starved.”
The right response is not “why didn’t they just eat sandwiches?” Because this was a time before sandwiches! And you can’t learn about this sandwich free era by reading “Jane Eyre” because the author assumed her readers were contemporaries in this time of no sandwiches. You actually have to read books about the state of sandwiches in the early 1800s, England. (In case you’re unclear, in this metaphor, sandwiches = psychiatric care, which was very bad at that time.)
Now of course, we are in a heavily sandwich rich time, so there are no such excuses.
One of my favorite sources of primary source information are old cookbooks. They are so much more than just a collection of recipes that remind you of how novel a microwave used to be, or the prevalence of Jell-O as an ingredient, they can also be a reminder of who used to be famous enough that they assumed people wanted to know what they wished to eat. They are a reflection of the times in which they wre published, and the state of mind of their authors. They’re an unexpected window intro the fleeting nature of trends, of celebrity, of who used to be rich and famous…
Cookbooks are ostensibly about the preparation of food: everyone needs to eat. But outside of perennial, practical staples, like “The Joy of Cooking”, most of them are about something else. How to transform your body, and thus your life. How to solve some existential problem by cooking. How to somehow become more like someone successful by eating what they eat. The subtext of them say a lot about the culture from which they came; from the ingredient lists to whose recipes were considered worth collecting. They are advice and value systems, wrapped up in a food prescription.
Like, when you think “what should I make for dinner”, you probably never think, “what should I make if I were a Laker?” But maybe you should! Why wouldn’t you want to be like an entire well compensated basketball team? They seem like they have good lives! Eat like a Laker!
Or if you’ve just discovered an evil twin, committed incest, have amnesia, or are unfortunate to have experienced all three, The last thing you want to think about is what to make for dinner. So this is the cookbook for you!
Or if all of the above happens to you while trying to establish a political dynasty, AND you are a fan of the Renaissance Faire and Italian food …
There are a reminders of what events people at a time wished to commemorate, but people are vague about now.
Cookbooks about movies that were popular enough at the time to warrant a cookbook
Cookbooks for OCD physicists, or for those inviting some over for dinner.
Cookbooks for those seeking a creative solution to pest control, or who are unable to travel to restaurants who serve unusual proteins.
Cookbooks for lovers of a specific genre of music…
And of course, one for fans of Star Trek. Recipes for a long and prosperous life!
If you have favorite, very specific cookbooks, I’d love to hear about them!