The Modern Family Cook Book

I try to limit my vintage cook book collecting to Canadian titles and publications, I need limits. But I can make an exception to my own rules. Recently I bought a book, The Modern Family Cook Book, by Meta Given (doesn’t sound like a real name?) published in Chicago in 1942, revised 1953.. This is a serious book on how to feed your family, while managing your household budget, “Mrs Homemaker.” It’s also humorless, formal, and superior in tone. But, that was they way it was in the post war world. The predominant white Anglo culture had just survived the Second World War, they were currently engaged in a Cold war and they just didn’t find things all that funny. For example, as part of the introduction;

“Each woman should feel herself to be a hostess hostage to her family. This is the grand climax of a procession of achievements. A woman who is a good planner, a wise purchaser, an excellent cook and a gracious hostess to her family is truly a MASTER HOME BUILDER. MRS HOMEMAKER, THIS BOOK IS YOUR BOOK.” ( Apparently single women didn’t own cookbooks, therefore they didn’t cook?) The book also offers at the beginning of each section, in case once wasn’t enough,  “The Meal Planner’s Creed.”

The Meal Planner’s Creed

The health of my family is in my care, therefore-

I will spare no effort in planning the right kinds of food in the right amounts.

Spending the food dollar for maximum value is my job; therefore-

I will choose from the variously priced foods to save money without sacrificing health.

My family’s enjoyment of food is my responsibility; therefore-

I will increase their pleasure by planning for variety, for flavorful dishes, for attractive color, for appetizing


My family’s health, security, and pleasure depend on my skill in planning meals; therefore

I will treat my job with the respect that is due it.

(After reciting The Meal Planner’s Creed once every chapter, each “Homemaker” is then given her Honorary Stepford Wife Diploma)

Surrounded by hundreds of sensual and evocative cookbooks, it’s difficult for me to imagine someone going out to buy this book; before the late 1970’s, it was rare for a woman to own more than one or two cookbooks, and usually they were received as a shower or a wedding gift, “a guide for the inexperienced bride.”  BUT, what I love about this book, and the reason that I bought it, are, the hand written notes, and the check marks on various recipes throughout the book. However, what makes it special, is the name plate on the first page; “Mrs L. Dawson, Thamesford Ont.” Her check marks, notes and most importantly, her name, make this book a small primary source of Canadian women’s history in the mid-twentieth century. If we were interested in looking at what women cooked and what families ate in Southern Ontario small towns, this cook book with her notes and markings would be of use.  We can begin to understand people by what they eat. It is as important to also understand and acknowledge the history of those (women) who cooked the food.

Mrs Dawson liked the cabbage rolls on pg. 321, the meatballs with sauerkraut “too watery,” there was a question mark beside the recipe for “braised zucchini squash,” Salisbury steak,”delicious”, and the date cake, she’d “make again.” From this short list of dishes; Mrs Dawson was afraid to try new things, (the meatballs) she was frugal (the Salisbury steak called for rump roast) she was a traditionalist with a sweet tooth (date cake) and she had probably never seen a zucchini in her life.

Cook books, the women who wrote them and the women who cooked from them all tell stories of time, place and of change. When we collect them, read them and most importantly to me, cook from them, we are giving them a legitimate place at the table in Canadian history.

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