You don’t need a physical copy to read Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book. I first fell in love with the digital version here, on Google Books. I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to curl up with it in bed, which is difficult to do even with a laptop, so I ordered a copy from Alibris. The one I got was printed in 1912, falling apart (I sort-of fixed it with packing tape), and contained a clipping from another book tucked between its pages (“Miss Olive Allen’s Tested Recipes,” which turned out to be an ad for Crisco).


Unfortunately, it had a disappointing lack of penciled notes in the margin. I did so want my old cookbook to have penciled notes in the margin.

It’s obviously been used, though; some of the pages are a little grease-spattered and wrinkly, and it has that general air of being heavily thumbed through, even more than you can chalk up to its being 100 years old. I started at the very beginning and have read straight through page 475 so far. (OK, I’ll admit I skimmed some of the recipes for cold jellied fish soup and stuff like that.)

Why do I love a 100-year-old cookbook?

Well, it’s not the mellifluous prose, although Mrs. Lincoln isn’t the worst writer I’ve come across (I’m looking at you, Dan Brown). And it’s not even really the recipes, although a lot of them look delightful. There is, no joke, a 26-page chapter — in very small print — on how to make bread, and it goes into more detail than I would ever have conceived of. And that’s before she even gets to the recipes.

And that, I guess, is a good example of what I love about it: It’s a textbook, but for real life. It was intended for real people to use in their real homes, but it’s also quite scientific and incredibly detailed. Reading it, you get a very thorough explanation of fire, fuel, and how they work; the chemical reactions that make baking successful (or not); the proper way to wash dishes, and why this is vital in a very practical sense; which flour to buy and which to avoid, and why this is vital in a very practical sense; and instructions on cooking for invalids, and why they might need albuminous or nitrogenous foods, for example, or gum, mucilage, pectose and cellulose.

It’s not touchy-feely at all. This book expects you to be an excellent homemaker whatever the circumstances. Mrs. Lincoln is like the anti-Oprah. There is no excuse for failure in her mind. “People who are inclined to shirk think it a deal of trouble to make yeast of any kind; but there are none so independent as those who make their own yeast,” she says sternly. And reading on, you start to understand why. The section on “The Making and Care of a Coal Fire” gives a whole new appreciation for how freaking hard it must have been to achieve simple tasks I can do today in 20 minutes in my toaster oven. Not to mention it helped me understand why all the housewives in the ’50s ads look so damn happy about their GE stoves. Housework back in the day was brutal. I knew that, of course, but reading about it as the norm, not some archaic long-gone practice — as something that you would have to tackle because there was no other way — really brought it home.

In a sense, certainly, this book is recipes. It’s also an interesting peek into food science (there’s a whole section at the back for teachers, helpfully titled “Food”) and ideas about nutrition. Especially in a culture full of fat-free this and obesity-epidemic that, it’s interesting to read a cookbook from a time when nutrient deficiency was far more likely than calorie overload. But more than anything, to me, the Boston Cook Book is a journey back in time. From my apartment window I can see a graveyard dating back to the 18th century. A lot of the recipes in the Boston Cook Book would have had very little difference from the ones known to the women buried there. This was how they made bread, or mustard pickles, or split pea soup. I like that. I like thinking I can skip back a few generations to learn about food, back to a time when (in my mind, anyway) it was neither a huge source of guilt or a huge source of indulgence. It performed the same functions as it does today, but in a sense it was a totally different part of life.

I love my toaster oven. And my microwave, and my Crock-Pot. I am still not so independent as to make my own yeast. But I sort of, kind of, wish I were.

And I love the sincerity of this ad, found in the back, for a measuring spoon.

spoon ad