Food History: Tips From Grandma's Recipe Archive

On a recent visit home, I received a wonderful collection of my great-grandmother's recipe booklets and clippings spanning the 1920s through the 60s. As I paged through the old recipes and cooking tips, two things stood out…

First, did you know that butter was once its own food group?! In 1943, the United States Government released the National Wartime Nutrition Guide, which highlighted seven food groups, among them butter and fortified margarine. (The other "Basic 7" included green and yellow vegetables; oranges, tomatoes, and grapefruit; potatoes and other vegetables and fruits; milk and milk products; meat, poultry, fish, or eggs; and bread, flour, and cereals.)

However, few cooks at that time were smearing thick slabs of butter on their bread or whipping up decadent pastries and sauces — which brings us to the second big theme in Great-Grandma's clippings: frugality.

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Wartime homemakers had to be creative with less. As described in Your Share, a Betty Crocker booklet from 1943, women of America took their positions as "soldiers on the Home Front," which required being ever-mindful of scarcity while ensuring the nutrition of their families. My great-grandmother's cookbooklets and clippings are filled with tips for stretching and substituting ingredients, using leftovers, and storing foods properly to avoid waste.

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Not all of these materials are relevant to how we cook and eat today (yikes, all those jellied creations!), but they do have some real value besides curiosity or amusement. I had already begun a stronger effort to curb food waste after reading American Wasteland and now, thanks to Great-Grandma's clippings, I'm considering things even more carefully. Here are a few of my favorite tips:

Your Share (General Mills, 1943)

• Spread the butter thin — prevent the waste of little dabs that cling to plates and are washed off

• Save fresh milk — rinse milk bottles with water, and use in cooking

• Use all of the vegetable — celery leaves in bread stuffings, stews and soups, and roasts

• Roll out leftover pastry, sprinkle with cheese, cut into fancy shapes, bake, and serve with salads or tea

• To decorate a wedding cake, place a single rose across the top or arrange a heart shape in the center using delicate blossoms in season

Metropolitan Cookbook (Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, 1948)

• Save the water in which vegetables are cooked to make stock

• In cakes with chocolate, raisins, or nuts, replace the sugar with honey, cup for cup

Beyond these particular tips, I've found that my mindset has shifted. I look at the food in my refrigerator and pantry with greater appreciation and perhaps even creativity. My Great-Grandma passed away many years ago, but I am grateful for her recipe collection and the inspiration it brings!

Related: Do You Cook from Vintage Recipes?

(Images: Emily Ho)

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Emily Han (formerly Emily Ho) is a writer, recipe developer and educator on topics such as food preservation, wild food and herbalism. She is author of Wild Drinks and Cocktails (Fall 2015), co-founder of Food Swap Network and creator of Miss Chiffonade