About eighteen months ago I wrote a post (Bookmarking our Lives) about the ‘found objects’ that we sometimes come across tucked inside second-hand books – or perhaps inside those books that we ourselves have owned for a while. I noted the ways these items, often used as book marks, are a sort of historical document – of other lives or of our own: old photos, press cuttings, pressed flowers from treasured summer days…
I am revisiting this topic as I (finally) get around to repairing the spine of an old cookery book I took from my grandmother’s house, shortly before she died a few years ago. It is a copy of Cookery Illustrated and Household Management, edited by Elizabeth Craig and published in 1936 (a couple of years before my grandmother got married). Even in very good condition it is worth just £30 (about $41 US) and in this poor condition, effectively nothing. But no matter. It is a family artefact, part of our small shared history, so it has a place on the shelf alongside my collection of vintage (vegetarian) cookbooks. These themselves have been a source of torn-out recipes and inscriptions, which I cherish as a part of the books themselves.
In the process of my amateur repairs to Cookery Illustrated, I came across a few more found objects stuffed between the pages- including envelopes of scrawled bill calculations, a leaflet of recipes published by the Milk Marketing Board, the hand-written instructions for ‘Easy Pizza’ that includes beef suet, and another for a ‘quick’ currant cake – that also calls for suet (yikes).
It might suit a happy, rose-tinted narrative to mention what an excellent cook my grandmother was, how the cookbook reminded me of the many traditional home-baked treats she pulled from the oven during my childhood, an ever-present pinny tied around her waist. But that is not the case: she was a reluctant and poor cook. Eager to learn shortcuts and get herself back out of the kitchen, she embraced her microwave from the 1980s onwards. The recipe for ‘easy’ pizza, for instance, is far more representative of her approach than the recipes for ‘jugged hare’ or ‘Ayrshire shortbread’ that the book contains. So my memories are not of Proustian madeleines, but of swallowing down gristle and grey-edged boiled potatoes (that may be the image of English cooking you have in any case, but it’s not always like that – honest!)
Anyway, I guess the book does remind me of her – albeit in some indirect way. And it is the hand-written items that are the most personal, of course. In a recent article, food writer and critic Jay Rayner writes of family collections of recipes, cut out, pasted and loosely bound, now imperilled by access to recipes online. Rayner quotes one family-recipe book compiler as saying: “And there’s a Yorkshire curd tart recipe from my late sister written in her own hand, and that’s very important.” As someone with a late sibling myself, that brought a tear of empathy to my eye.
The Forgotten Books website, kept by owner of Popeks bookstore Michael Popek, collects and catalogues the various, often unusual, things he finds inside the pages of old books – bookmarks, of course, also drawings, letters, poems, banknotes, invitations, postcards… He includes images of these items, and they’re wonderful, well worth a look. Popek has also published a scrapbook of the items and a digest of found handwritten recipes. The latter appears to be as much a peek into other lives and modern history as it is a recipe collection.
Recipes aside, Abe Books has an article on Things Found in Books. These include baseball cards; a baby’s tooth(!); an airline boarding pass from Liberia to the US, and more valuable items, including money and a diamond ring. The most valuable mentioned (in many ways) is a letter by author CS Lewis, and amongst the least pleasant items a dusty chocolate chip, a dead cockroach, and a (mercifully, unused) condom.
Aside from the items themselves, some of these could be used as the stimulus for a piece of creative writing. There’s an idea.
Do you have treasured books passed on from your family?
What strange or interesting items have you found tucked between the pages of old tomes?