SMU’s “Joy of Cooking” Exhibit on Historical Cookbooks

In 1883, the Ladies’ Association of the First Presbyterian Church in Houston made history when it compiled the Texas Cook Book. It was the first collection of recipes printed in Texas and the third west of the Mississippi.

The Texas Cook Book includes hearty recipes like stuffed veal and calf’s head, but almost half of the recipes are pies, puddings, and “fancy dishes” like charlotte russe, lemon meringue, and chocolate cream drops. There are also several pages dedicated to beverages like scuppernong wine, which takes several months to ferment.

The book finishes with “miscellaneous receipts,” a guide similar to what a mom today might send to college with her eighteen-year-old: how to remove black ink from floors; excellent hair wash. A recipe for cough syrup requires “ten grains tartar emetic, twenty grains of opium, one-half sweet spirits nitre, one ounce licorice ball, six tablespoons of honey.” Don’t worry—sometime in the past 139 years, an owner of the book took a pencil to the page and wrote over the recipe in cursive: “Don’t use.”

The book is now at Southern Methodist University’s DeGolyer Library and will be one of many cookbooks on display in its “Joy of Cooking” exhibit, which shows the evolution of recipes, especially Texas ones, through the decades. Most of the books displayed have Texas ties. The exhibit runs October 6 through December 22 and is a journey through technological advances, as well as sociological ones.

“A cookbook is more than just the words on the page,” says Russell Martin III, director of the library. “It’s a time capsule that tells you about the diet and customs of the time. It shows the real fabric of life.”

The library has about six thousand cookbooks that were acquired through donations and purchases—three thousand of them from George Anne Myers, an Arlington resident who had a personal interest in the culinary world and had been building her collection for 25 years. When a book is donated, its history is usually known because it has been in a family for generations. Other times, as when purchasing a handwritten manuscript, the librarians must research its story.

Often, a previous owner has written her name inside and a quick Google search can shed some light on the background of who used it and when. Frequently, researchers find out that these Texas cookbooks were written by women of charitable organizations, such as churches, with the intent of raising money for a worthy cause. It’s a trend that continues today.

Christina Jensen, head of public services at the library, had the task of thumbing through the thousands of cookbooks—most of which have Texas ties—in the stacks and putting together the exhibit. She started with the earliest (1816) and ended with the 1995 version of the wildly popular Irma S. Rombauer cookbook the exhibit is named after.

Eighteen years after the Texas Cook Book, the Ladies of the Dallas Free Kindergarten and Training School printed its own Lone Star Cook Book. The recipes are a little more robust and show a time when the city was coming into its own as a major metropolis at the beginning of the twentieth century. One section includes four types of gumbo and Delmonico Oyster Stew, an homage to the New York City eatery that is considered the country’s first upscale restaurant. It was common to find recipes with Delmonico’s name in cookbooks during that era, Jensen said. “I think it says something about the success of the Delmonico’s fine-dining brand, and desire to find a piece of it in what was at the time a much smaller and less wealthy community,” Jensen says of Dallas. There are distinct Texas aspects of the book, though. On page 44, there’s a recipe submitted by a Mrs. T.P.M. for chili con carne. The first ingredient? One can of kidney beans.

By 1920, the format of cookbooks had shifted to focus solely on food and not to include cures and household tips. And during the world wars, rationing was on everyone’s mind, so books were printed to show how the same dishes could be made with what was available. On a 1942 pamphlet from Dallas-based Borden Company, Elsie the cow leads a group of marching women. “374 ways to use cream,” it says. “Or—Can war meals be delicious meals, too?”

Once victory was secure and the baby boomers became adults, a new era of cooking was ushered in, and books became more specialized. The Powers Career Club Cook Book was filled with tips that are still widely used today by busy working parents, but it was a new concept in 1966. “Learn to make good coffee, good salad dressing, good gravy, these are the basics,” it reads. “Shed your mother’s format for cooking and entertaining. You haven’t the time, experience or patience.” The advice given was reflective of a changing dynamic in homes across the country. “It has things like how to prioritize your shopping and how to cook faster,” Jensen says. “It was very much geared towards not only the working girl, but the single girl of the sixties.”

About that time, quirky kitchen fads came and went. Jensen set up a table with books that either didn’t age well (those focused on fondue and Jell-O molds) or are just plain ridiculous (How to Have an Affair and Cooking in the Nude). Jensen, who is originally from California, placed a vintage Frito-Lay pamphlet among the eccentric cookbooks. Jensen’s fiancé, a native Texan, spotted the mistake. “Fritos aren’t an oddity in Texas,” she remembers him telling her. “They’re a way of life.”

There are other homages to the Texas culinary scene in the exhibit. Of course, Helen Corbitt’s books make an appearance, and Lucille B. Smith is honored. A 1960 version of Lucille’s Treasure Chest of Fine Foods, a boxed set of recipes on note cards, was purchased by the library in 2020. Smith was a Black chef who was hired in 1927 by Fort Worth ISD to teach Black students how to prepare for domestic service jobs. More than a decade later, she invented the All Purpose Hot Roll Mix, the first in the country, and sold her personal recipes as a boxed set. She is the inspiration behind the celebrated Houston restaurant Lucille’s, which was opened by her great-grandson.

Even with the assistance of the internet and stories passed down, the library’s collection holds mysteries, like a leather-bound handwritten recipe book penned by Doña Maria Josefa de la Luz Tapia in 1816. Unlike with other cookbooks at that time, one woman wrote all of it. But translating recipes isn’t easy, Jensen says. The library staff is eager to learn more about the author.

“I think this is definitely something a researcher could dig into,” Jensen says. “Somewhere in these pages, there must be hints to a private life.”

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