My mother and I share a mutual hobby (compulsion?): collecting old cookbooks. While I've managed to keep my own collection fairly trim over the years, hers now reaches library levels at nearly 500 and counting. And when we find really juicy ones—cookbooks with hilariously outdated recipes, cookbooks with interesting notes written in the margins, cookbooks steeped in Houston history—we share them with each other.
Our most recent acquistion is a 1957 copy of To the Bride, a cookbook-cum-home economics manual discovered in a Houston antique bookstore that's notable for several reasons. Though most people would expect a Leave It to Beaver-era guide for the bride to be hopelessly old-fashioned, the book is surprisingly sophisticated.
In between chapters on picking the perfect bath towels and caring for bed linens is one on investment techniques. As my mother reminded me, "Back then, women were expected to run the home...all of the home." This included banking and budgeting—a point often forgotten or overlooked as the 1950s mostly portrayed housewives as the stereotypical Donna Reed-type, prepping dinner in a pearl necklace.
The book also makes no judgment calls on women who choose to work outside the home. In fact, the menu section helpfully lists ideas for women preparing box lunches to take to their offices, and suggests: "If you both carry your lunch why not let him do yours? You would certainly enjoy it more as the element of surprise makes the boxed lunch much more attractive."
To the Bride also provides a look back at the origins of the bridal registry. In fact, most of the first half of the book is devoted to showing brides which home products to register for. "Time was, the bride-to-be meekly went to showers and gratefully accepted whatever she might get," the book's editors—Dorothy Hurst and Mary I. Barber—explain. The modern bride should speak up, the women claim. Don't accept useless candlesticks or lingerie that doesn't fit!
"Our Bride is equally grateful but not quite so meek," the book continues. "She knows what she wants and sets out to get it!" Get that set of copper-clad cookware, riot grrl.
And if you thought Rachael Ray was the first person to build a brand on 30-minute meals, you'd be wrong. There's an entire section in the book that assures housewives they don't need to slave away on meals all day long. "Even without a job, you'll find there are days when you're busy shopping, in community activities, or just plain having fun." FUN! Without a man around!
On the other hand, To the Bride rather clumsily weaves in product placement throughout. Although I can find no indication anywhere in the book, seems to have been wholly sponsored by such companies as Revere Ware, Martex towels, the E.W. Axe & Co. investment firm, Kellogg's, and Chase & Sanborn coffee. The book goes so far as to suggest entire week's worth of meals—with recipes—that include a cup of specified-by-name Chase & Sanborn coffee with every meal.
And those recipes. Woof.
Most call for canned meat and vegetables, although this is to be expected. Aspic and savory Jell-o molds were the height of sophisication. Every meal seems to inexplicably begin with some hot, clear soup and crackers, as if all of your dinner guests were recovering from the flu. A plate of celery and olives was considered something polite to put out for company, instead of a passive-aggressive way to get unwanted guests to leave.
In fact, it's the recipes which are the most anachronistic part of the book—the rest of it is filled with advice which mostly stands the test of time.
Mutual funds are still good investments; making your own salad dressing is a great thing; a dozen bath towels and two "tufted bath rugs" ain't a bad way to stock your bathroom; coffee is indeed "the beverage of the Gods"; you should totally use your silver every day (and you totally shouldn't clean it with chemicals). As To the Bride correctly points out: "It helps prevent tarnish and actually improves the appearance of your silver. Don't mind the minute scratches; in time there will be many of thousands of these, forming a permanent and handsome patina no craftsmanship can duplicate."
Thankfully, not everything in To the Bride has stood the test of time. Although I pine for Revere Ware—sadly discontinued, despite the cookware line's unimpeachable nature—I'm glad I'll never have to stare down the grim, cold, jiggle of a Silhouette Salad.