Cookbooks are among the most heavily annotated modern books

Written by: Andrew Lundeen

Primary Source: Special Collections Provenance Project at MSU

Cookbooks, we have found, are among the most heavily annotated modern books.  Previous owners often modified recipes, made comments on their favorite (or least favorite) entries, or left food stains behind  sure signs of (repeated) use!Notes in cookbooks are often very personal, revealing a great deal about the tastes of the former owner but they can also add to our understanding of a work by expanding on the printed text.  Such is the case with our 1880 edition of Cooking and Castle-Building by Emma P. Ewing.

An anonymous former owner has left copious marginal notes throughout the work, referring several times to a cooking class the author gave in Cleveland in 1891.  Based on Mrs. Ewing’s comments in the class, 11 years after the original publication date of this work, our annotator has altered some of the printed recipes and added a few new ones in the back.

On Mrs. Ewing’s omelets, our anonymous annotator has the following to say:

*Mrs. Ewing now mixes the cream with the eggs before putting them over the fire. In her class, she used 2 eggs, 3 teaspoons cold water, & put into the omelet pan 1 ½ teaspoons melted butter. Keep pushing the egg toward centre of pan, & lift with a fork at edges.

The commentary also references other knowledgeable cooking teachers:

*Mrs. Rorer says: Give the eggs 12 or 15 beats – not more – & says: to each egg take 1 tablespoon boiling water – she says milk makes a tough omelet – she says: run a limber knife under while cooking, & says: sprinkle on the salt & pepper when ready to fold over.

Regarding the printed recipe for fried oysters, our annotator has some additional updates straight from the author herself:

*Mrs. Ewing now directs, (as I heard her say in one of her cooking classes) to use, in frying in this way, a small quantity of fat, equal parts of lard & clarified butter.  She also now directs to merely drain the oysters, & not to lay them on a towel as the towel absorbs moisture from the oysters themselves. She mixes 1 tablespoon water or milk with the egg for rolling the oysters.

And toward the back of the book (on hand-numbered pages), Mrs. Ewing’s student has recorded an alternate version of the author’s recipe for scalloped oysters, given in her 1891 cooking class:

Scalloped Oysters

Receipt given by Mrs. Ewing in her cooking class, Cleveland, 1891.

She said, “I learned this method twenty years ago in Maryland, where they know how to cook oysters. Since then I have always been looking for a better method, but have never found one.”

Take fine oysters, wash and drain them. Prepare bread crumbs in this manner: Take bread three or four days old (not dry enough to grate) take two pieces in your hands, and rub them together, making crumbs somewhat like those obtained by grating reject the crusts, which may be otherwise utilized, especially in a delicious apple-pudding. 

To a half-pint of these crumbs, add a seasoning of salt & pepper – seasoning more highly than one would choose to do if they were to be eaten by themselves and three tablespoonfuls of melted butter. Butter small individual scallop dishes of fire-proof ware (or a larger dish not very deep), sprinkle in a layer of crumbs, then put in a layer of drained oysters, then another layer of crumbs followed by a second layer of oysters; finally, a layer of crumbs. 

Remember that the deliciousness of this dish depends very greatly upon an observance of these directions – using two layers only of oysters in a dish.  In this case, they cook very quickly, requiring only 15 minutes in the oven (if in a large dish, from 15 to 20 minutes). The oysters will be moist, plump & delicious. Do not substitute cracker crumbs for bread, or the dish will not be so delicious.

This is a great example of how notes left behind by past owners can really add something of value to a printed work, especially an old cookbook.  How lucky we are to have this annotated copy on our shelves rather than a clean, unmarked version of the same work! 


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Andrew Lundeen
Andrew Lundeen, a Special Collections Librarian at MSU, is a recent master’s graduate in Library and Information Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (‘14). Since September 2013, Andrew has spearheaded the MSU Provenance Project, an effort to document marks of ownership and marks of use in rare books at MSU.
Andrew Lundeen

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