August 24, 2020

Sara Bir

  • Share this story
  • Share Grange Lifeon Twitter
  • Share Grange Lifeon Instagram

Grange Life

Time travel through the pages of a community cookbook

If you collect old cookbooks, you probably get hand-me-downs from friends and family.

I’m pretty sure that’s how I ended up with a copy of the Ohio State Grange Cook Book. When new arrivals come in, I either pile them on the dining room floor or shove them onto a bookshelf, which is what happened to that spiral-bound volume. The spine in question is red. It called to me. If you collect vintage cookbooks, you also know the thrill of discovering one that’s special. The Ohio State Grange Cook Book—or OSGCB, as we shall now call it—is special. It’s a bit of a puzzle, a hazy window into a faraway time, first published by the Grange, a farm-focused nonprofit, in 1938.


Peanut butter and chopped dates mixed with mayonnaise.

DAISY MARCH, Streetsboro Grange, Portage County

The puzzle, mainly: Did people really eat this way in 1938?

I’m not talking about the OSGCB’s bland yet inoffensive recipes for the likes of Hamburg Noodles or Hot Tuna Dish. The cookbook’s specialness is clearest in its sandwich chapter, particularly in its abundance of fillings. That date-and-peanut-butter special? It’s one of three date-nut-mayo sandwich combos. Such eyebrow-raisers are strewn throughout the book, amid scores of charmingly dated but benign dishes. The copy I have is the twenty-second edition, published in 1968. It doesn’t seem to have changed much in three decades. It just picked up some midcentury supplements, including an appendix of soy recipes like Soybean Loaf and Soybean Perfection Salad.

Grange Life - Quote

These people were thrifty. They made their own Grape-Nuts.

My favorite section is titled “Miscellaneous.” Quince seeds, rum, glycerin, rose water, and “5¢ worth oil geranium” make a Rose Cream Face Lotion. A soap recipe calls for sassafras extract, rain water, and ten pounds of clean grease. Want a DIY furniture polish from 1938? Try equal parts vinegar, turpentine, and motor oil, says Mrs. Fred Allen of Ottawa County.

The book has two formulas for homemade Grape-Nuts. They are not so different from the copycat recipes that you can find in seconds online today, but the instructions read differently. “Bake hard, cut into long, thin strips and bake again,” one of them advises. “Grind with coarse knife or food chopper.” That’s it. End of recipe.

I make my living developing recipes for home cooks, and I have questions. How do you mix the dough? What should it look like when correctly mixed? Do you roll it out, and if so, how thin? At what temperature do you bake it? How long? How many cups does it make? How do you store the cereal, and how long will it keep? A few generations ago, rural housewives did not need to be told those things. Woe be to women who didn’t have a knack for cooking. This book was not going to help. Few recipes offer yields. If there are baking temperatures, they are “hot” or “moderate.”

You’ll notice, if you look at this book side-by-side with its modern equivalents, a lack of vanilla in the cake and cookie recipes. That could suggest that the recipes were heirlooms, which hadn’t been updated for decades. Vanilla extract wasn’t widespread in the U.S. until the early 1900s. It could also suggest that vanilla was still a luxury, not for everyday use. These people were thrifty. They made their own Grape-Nuts.

Two of my grandparents, long deceased, grew up on muck farms in rural Ohio. I don’t know much about their young lives, but maybe I get a glimpse when I read the OSGCB.

I’d like to track down the descendants of the contributors and ask them to share memories of their grandmothers, great-grandmothers, aunts, and great-aunts—how those women cooked, and how their kitchens looked and smelled and felt. In an ideal world, I’d get to talk to the contributors themselves. I’d give them a chance to sell me on the nut-date-mayo sandwich. We’d swap quince recipes. It would be cool. The only time machine I have is that spiral-bound cookbook. There are tons of copies on Etsy and eBay. You can nab one and travel, too. Maybe whip up some of that face cream. I have some glycerin you can use. Let me know if it turns out. And please let me know if you try the Soybean Perfection Salad.


Thanks for checking us out!

We are now publishing on Substack—delivering new stories directly to your inbox.

Click here to subscribe to Midwesterner!