What I don’t know about cooking could fill a book

I am not Suzy Homemaker. Let’s just get that out of the way. My house is a hodgepodge of things with little material value — thrift store kitchenware, mismatched furniture, accumulated art and knickknacks. If there’s one exception, it’s my collection of old cookbooks. Maybe not valuable, but definitely priceless.

Most were published midcentury, and each has a distinct personality. I’ve inherited a few and picked up others at garage and library sales, taking great pleasure thumbing through to see if the contents live up to what’s promised on the cover. The big score is when I find a cookbook that dispenses domestic advice along with the kitchen tips, a glimpse into the cultural expectations of the time.

“To be slender is an almost universal feminine desire,” wrote Lily Haxworth Wallace in “Just for Two,” a present from my father to my mother after they married in 1948. “The nibbles and snacks are the little foxes which make trouble.”

In 1938, Ruth Berolzheimer wrote about home entertaining in “The American Woman’s Cook Book,” informing would-be hostesses that “many guests are not interested in children and many are annoyed by them.”

“Silver should be placed one inch from the edge of the table … the water glass should be only three-fourths filled,” advised Lizzie Black (Mrs. Simon) Kander, author of “The Settlement Cook Book.” First published in 1901 (I have the 27th edition from 1945), this popular book became a primer for Jewish immigrant women navigating American domestic life in turn-of-the century Milwaukee, where Kander had helped establish a Jewish social service agency and taught cooking classes.

Household hints and Jewish assimilation aside, many of my cookbooks are entertaining simply for the recipe titles, like Penny Supper, Liver Loaf, Jellied Venison and Mock Chicken Casserole (the “chicken” is … tuna).

Though not technically cookbooks, I also have a stack of promotional booklets distributed by the manufacturers: “Easy Meat Recipes” from the National Livestock and Meat Board in 1946, “Foods for Baby and Mealtime Psychology” from Gerber in 1951 and “The New Joys of Jell-O,” published in 1973. I grew up eating Jell-O, but I can’t believe anyone besides me ever wanted this awful book, which includes a section of recipe suggestions titled “Things You Never Thought Of.” Um, no thanks.

How about a down-home cookbook produced by a Midwestern hospital with recipes by the doctors’ wives? This one I bought specifically because of the cover art, a spooky rendering of two zombie-eyed nurses wearing starched hats and carrying candles, presumably to light up the dark corridors of hell.

Those who know me well might find my interest in cookbooks incongruous. For one thing, I don’t cook. For another thing, I really don’t cook. I’m a decent baker, but I break into a cold sweat at the very idea of improvisation, which seems to be the hallmark of an excellent cook. For me, it’s a recipe for failure.

This glaring blemish on my résumé as a Jewish mother isn’t something I can pin on my own mom. She put a proper, coordinated meal on the table every night: spaghetti and meatballs, corned beef and cabbage, hot dogs and beans, meatloaf and mashed potatoes or, when we were lucky, sautéed ground beef with “taco seasoning” served in crisp Lawry’s taco shells that always shattered on the first bite.

I loved my mother’s cooking, but I think she got most of her recipes from magazines or off boxes. I still have a few of them copied in her own hand, although they are more artifacts than anything I’d want to make and eat today.

I’m a little envious of families who have treasured recipes passed down through generations. They all seem to have a loving bond created through time spent together in the kitchen, grinding whitefish or chopping liver or stuffing cabbage rolls. My own East European grandmother specialized in “yuck” food: boiled chicken and oily borscht soup, nothing I’d want to pass on to the next generation.

With Rosh Hashanah coming around, Jewish cooks are already thinking about their menus and making shopping lists. Even though I’m not part of that sub-tribe, I still plan to make my traditional contribution to the dinner at my sister’s house. It’s something I know our family and friends will appreciate, and I’m confident it will perfectly complete the holiday table: I will bring the extra chairs.

Sue Barnett is senior editor at J. She will also bring a dessert.

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Sue Barnett

Sue Barnett is J.'s senior editor. She can be reached at sueb@jweekly.com.