I am a sucker for an old recipe book. I read them like novels. The ingredients, the instructions and advertising tell me about the place ...

I am a sucker for an old recipe book. I read them like novels. || vintage recipe books and the stories they keep
The ingredients, the instructions and advertising tell me about the place and time the story is set in, but the splashes of grease, where the book falls open and the magazine clippings tucked inside tell me about the character.

Most of the cook books I've gathered to my bookshelf are curated recipes for brands of cocoa, lard, butter or flour; a charity like Red Cross, the CWA; or, collections compiled by the likes of the NSW Public School Cookery Teachers' Association, author of the Commonsense Cookery Book, and by the magazine contributors of titles like The Australian Women's Weekly. || a strange recipe for an uncooked pavlova || vintage recipe brochure for Arnott's Party Starters

What a delight to stumble across, in an op shop, no less, a personal archive of handwritten and clipped recipes.

Surely every family has one of these - a purpose-bought book or exercise book of family recipes echoing the time and tastes of the individuals being cooked for.

I have several myself, charting those first years living away from home, through the years of cooking for four children (as a working parent and on a budget) to now, where, as an empty-nester, I can labour over fancy "adult" fare for my partner and I. || vintage recipe for orange sauce

This recipe compendium too spans those changes, from entertaining and Christmas cooking through to cooking with budget cuts of meat and in quantities that would suggest there are a few bodies around the table.

There are passed down recipes and shared recipes and recipe cards picked up from the grocer and then grocery aisles. There are the curiosities like a chutney cheddar cheesecake, jelly froth and an uncooked pavlova (take a good look at the recipe in the photos above). There are old faithfuls like tuna asparagus casserole, sweet and sour pork chops, chicken casserole and veal and cream and old favourites like a boiled chocolate cake, fruit squares with a side note stating "lovely", a mulberry cobbler and another "lovely" lemon cake.

There are clippings from newspapers and magazines. One from 1993 shows, on the reverse of instructions for "the basic French omelette", that a four-bedroom house in Sydney's Rooty Hill would set you back $200,000. In Rydalmere, $204,000 would get you a three-bedroom home with above-ground pool, spa "with room for six", separate workshop and your own garage.

A leather bookmark, in the shape of a cross, and hurried notes with scant details of measures and method mark the presence of children and school gate recipe swaps. A nod to menus with less sugar and more fresh veg suggests a possible health scare, forgotten as tastier and more tempting treats follow on.

I can't help myself. I hear dinner time conversation, the oohs and aahs of appreciation as a Christmas cake is cut or jar of fig jam is handed to a delighted neighbour. I can smell Anzac biscuits and hear the slap of chicken livers on a cutting board. As each page opens I know the planning and saving and hoping for the right moment to trial and taste, sample and serve up.

Each hand-written recipe is a story, a moment in a family's time line, and now, on my shelf will be a history to uncover, rediscover and maybe even write up here - in a new digital form.

You Might Also Like


  1. Those handwritten recipes are like finding treasure...and the handwriting, oh my! A family favourite here is the Nursing Mother's cookbook. So many memories of Mum's cooking in there.
    I love them too and you have reminded me to write down some of our family favourites and add them to those I have from Mum and Granny. I can't hand on a Pinterest board!
    Kate x

    1. It's so true. We've even had the conversation at home about what to do with our digital profiles should the worst happen, and the kids do want us to keep things live for them, but it's not the same as seeing handwritten notes and recipes. I feel a little bit like I've stolen someone's history.