Between life’s pages

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 I noted the ways these items, often used as book marks, are a sort of historical document – of other lives or of our own: old photos, press cuttings, pressed flowers from treasured summer days…

Barley water for the invalid…’

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!)

Written in her own hand

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?





22 thoughts on “Between life’s pages

  1. That makes me finally want to put all my recipes together. I’ve got them ranging across different notebooks, and these days, just bookmarked on the internet. It’d be nice to put them together in one place, a place that’s not online.

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    1. It sounds like a lovely thing to do and to be able to pass on. It’s one of those occasions where online material cannot replace physical books – seeing annotations and marginalia, sections pasted in, even gravy stains… It all calls to us from the past.

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  2. I admit I have never found anything tucked in a book. My parents are not avid readers like I am.

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    1. Interesting how reading does not run in families – I could put a £50 note in many a book and my daughter would never find them 🙂

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  3. I do stick things in books but rarely find any. This was a haunting read.

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    1. I hadn’t thought of it that way, that finding artifacts from the past is like the little shiver of a ghost – pleasant or otherwise!

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      1. I remember finding a note in one library book with the perfect script that used to be taught. It made no sense but I still imagined the older lady writing it carefully, putting it in the book for safe keeping and then forgetting it.

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  4. great post :)) I’m also collecting recipes such as, ‘jugged hare’ or ‘Ayrshire shortbread’ LOL it doesn’t mean I’d ever cook them, but I love to look at them, time to time, imagining that ONE DAY 😂😂😂 I shall… as for the books from my family: unfortunately, dont have any. I dont think my grandmother could write and my mum never read unless its a pictures in the magazine 🙂 mmm, relatives from father’s side – a bit better, but they lived toooooo far away = and died long time ago, when I was a teen /and my father too/, so if there were any books – I never seen them.

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    1. I read recently that about 70 per cent of people use digital sources for recipes, at least in UK, think use cookbooks. Yet the cookbook market seems strong. I guess most people buy them as ‘recipe porn’ particularly all the gorgeous pictures, or to adorn kitchen shelves.
      No family recipes for me either – my mother carried on the tradition of being an uninterested cook 🙂

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      1. Crazy wow… but yes, I think the easiest way to find recipe we need – via inet 🙂 & never thought about it as “recipe porn” haha I’m rarely buying cookbooks :/ I think I got 9-10 in kitchen & im using only 3 (regularly) so… there’s no point unless there’s a house party or family gathering but then ~ best place is a restaurant cuz what a fun to cook for 9 or 12 ppl lol 😂

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  5. My favourite treasured book story is actually about one I began myself in 1965: https://derrickjknight.com/2015/10/25/chocolate-surprise-pudding/

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  6. Wow. The beauty in your writing is you find simple things and weave everlasting beauty. Never thought like this, you surely have an aberrant view. Next time I am at my parents, will sift through the pages of old times

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    1. You’re so kind. It’s amazing how many ‘family heirlooms’ we have beyond items of value. I recently had the box of a wooden chess set repaired that was my Dad’s, to give to my son. It’s a simple wooden set, but has history.

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      1. Wow. That’s sublime. I am sure he will cherish it for a lifetime. Thank you for sharing the story with me

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  7. What a wonderful artifact! A grandmother that wasn’t the ‘best cook ever’ seems to be a rarity, especially in the past.
    Although my passion for cooking grows each year, it’s not to a point where I actually treasure cookbooks, so random recipes from the Internet it is. However, a couple of years back, I’ve encountered a person who had all of their recipes nicely organized (printed out and sorted – the ones she liked most to those she only cooked from time to time). I thought I’d do the same, but it never came to be. It’s so different – then and now. All of the cookbooks filled with other recipes written on all sorts of different scraps of paper. And now? Nothing. Nothing to pass on… It feels so impersonal, which is strange because cooking is anything but.

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    1. I am the same – I am a decent cook and like the *idea* of writing such a thing, and meant to do it for my son as he leaves for university – but haven’t got round to it!

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  8. There are treasures inside books. Indeed. I have several of. my mother’s most treasured children books. The ones she kept. (Didn’t have much I guess, she was form a blue-collar family. She once told me: “we didn’t have nay money but we weren’t poor…” Times when clothes were passed on from elder to younger children, socks and trousers were mended over and over again. I have many books of my parents, father and mother. And one from my paternal grandfather.
    I wonder where my books will go? Hmmmm.

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    1. Books are special because of the personal interaction people had with them. It’s so hard knowing what to keep. Whilst I don’t have the actual copies of my childhood books, I have tried to pass on some favourites in terms of what my children have read. Thanks to nostalgia, I even found some second-hand copies with the same covers.

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      1. Second-hand copies are good. I keep buying second copies of childhood books I didn’t keep to leave for the next generation. Nice that you could pass some stuff on to your children.

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        1. We’re off to England’s main ‘book town’ in Cumbria at the weekend, so browsing second-hand – and new – books is high on the agenda.

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          1. Enjoy book browsing. I miss that so. I still don’t know whether we will indeed be able to fly to Paris in july. Or whether there will still be bookshops or bookboxes alive along the Seine.

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