Vintage cookbooks have so much to tell us about the way we lived, the food we ate, and the customs, beliefs, and traditions that defined a particular place and period. They tell us about what we valued, and who we shared it with; what was scarce, what was plentiful; what was feared, and what was most desired.
Older cookbooks give meaning and flavor to the past in a way that ordinary history books cannot. By reading them – and cooking from them – we can tune into the past and be reminded that we are the product of bygone generations. The very best vintage cookbooks stand the test of time, and are a great resource for innovation – as chefs such as Heston Blumenthal know well. You may even find a vintage recipe that goes viral, such as this 19th century Russian recipe for cucumbers pickled in a pumpkin (yes, really), recreated by author Darra Goldstein.
We begin our new vintage cookbook strand with an American classic, Farm Journal’s Complete Pie Cookbook, which lives up to its name with hundreds of pies, sweet and savory, of every description. Some may seem unfamiliar to contemporary palates, but the book is also full of detailed tips and techniques for pie-makers, and a chapter chock-full of pastry and pie-case recipes, suited to every possible circumstance.
Nell Beaubien Nichols was a prolific food writer and chronicler of American foodways, with no fewer than 17 cookbooks to her name, written over a period of more than 50 years. If hers is not a household name among American food lovers, it deserves to be. Nichols is best known for the series of books written under the auspices of the leading farming, food and agricultural magazine Farm Journal, for which she was primary author and editor.
She lived through – and wrote about – the many significant changes in the way food was grown, produced and cooked in the U.S. in the aftermath the two world wars, and was also a respected food scientist. Her books are culinary and social time capsules, chronicling rapid post-war social change in the U.S. – but they’re a source of recipe inspiration for contemporary cooks too. Well-known Brooklyn-based pie maker and author Emily Elsen listed Farm Journal’s Complete Pie Cookbook as one of her top 10 cookbooks.
Nell’s granddaughter, Janet McCracken, below shares her memories of her grandmother and the story behind Farm Journal’s Complete Pie Cookbook, and picks out her family’s most memorable pie recipes.
My grandmother, Nell Beaubien Nichols, was born in rural Kansas before the turn of the last century. The family soon moved west near Dodge City where Nell grew up at the sunset of the era of cowboys, gunslingers and the Santa Fe Trail. She learned to cook at her mother’s knee on a wood stove with ingredients mostly grown or raised on the family farm.
Nell’s mother inspired her to go to high school (located on the famous Boot Hill of Dodge City), graduate from Kansas State College, and earn a Master’s degree in Home Economics at the University of Wisconsin. Her 1917 Master’s thesis into the nutritional value of soybeans, published in The Journal of Biological Chemistry, was eventually translated into five languages.
She once observed in a private note to her grandchildren, “It is difficult to comprehend how little Americans knew in 1917 about these legumes. In fact, I, as a farm girl, had never seen a soybean before I started cooking them for my experimental rats. The aim of the research was to determine the nutritional value of the soybeans, i.e., the efficiency of its protein, as well as to find if it contains the growth accessory substances in sufficient amounts to support life. (These substances were later called vitamins.)”
After graduation, Grandmother moved to Topeka, Kansas, far from the centers of magazine publishing. Sitting at a desk and letting stories come to her was not an option: She had to create her own career.
She wrote and published a cookbook in 1922 and she freelanced stories for magazines based in Chicago and New York City. Over the years, she wrote hundreds of articles for magazines including Ladies Home Journal, Farm and Fireside, The Delineator, Women’s Home Companion, and Capper’s Farmer.
Her stories came from many sources including university home economics departments, state agricultural extension offices, and food producers’ development labs – but her best sources for insight and flavor were always housewives from farms and cities. She traveled the nation to sit down in their kitchens and simply shared stories with them. The family recipes and secret tips these women revealed were “worth their weight in prime ribs of beef,” as she put it.
Eventually, Farm Journal coaxed Grandmother to Philadelphia to write full-time for their magazine and to create Farm Journal’s Country Cookbook. She later retired and moved to Iowa to be with family. Farm Journal asked her to continue to write cookbooks, which she did in collaboration with my mother, Betsy Nichols McCracken.
Mother really was the test kitchen for Farm Journal’s Complete Pie Cookbook and many of the other Farm Journal cookbooks written in the 1960s and ’70s. Grandmother and Mother collaborated for years to find recipes and critically assess them. Mother then tested each recipe and Grandmother wrote them up.
I once asked Grandmother to go through her books and mark the really good recipes. She replied, “They are all good, or else I wound not have included them!” When I asked her to point out the ones her grandchildren needed to know and remember, she acceded and chose some of her favorites. Many of them were well known to our family, as they had graced our meal tables for years, and here is a selection:
Fresh Cherry Pie is one of my sister-in-law’s signature dishes and brings excitement and joy whenever made and shared.
Onion Pie can be an unusual and excellent alternative to Quiche Lorraine at any brunch or dinner.
Glazed Strawberry Rhubarb Pie celebrates the old-fashioned flavors of springtime in the country.
Pink Party Pie elevates strawberry ice cream for any special party.
Peanut Butter Pie is an uncommonly good pie for an uncommon pie ingredient.
You can find all 680+ recipes in Farm Journal’s Complete Pie Cookbook, in full, on ckbk. Watch out for its sister volume, Farm Journal’s Country Cookbook, coming soon. It brings together recipes from farms right across the U.S.
Ckbk tip: when searching for books (use the ‘Books’ tab on the homepage), you can filter by era, and the results list can be reordered by publication date, either newest or oldest first
Food writer and prolific cookbook author Nell Beaubien Nichols (1894-1984) wrote for many magazines and penned two cookbooks before starting full-time with Farm Journal in the early 1950s, for whom she wrote numerous cookbooks about pies, bread, vegetables, entertaining, and more. Every recipe was rigorously tested, then written with clear instructions which, when followed, would garner success.
Her work is important for food historians because she observed and wrote about the many important changes that occurred in American food and cooking in the half-century following the two world wars. Her books remain a source of inspiration for modern cooks.