Skip to main content

Manuscript Cookbooks: More than Handwritten Recipes

Mrs. Goodfellow’s Queen Cake Recipe. Source: Eliza Kane Recipe Book, New York circa 1847–1852, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan

The first in a series focusing on cookbooks as more than just recipe books. Stay tuned for upcoming themes such as Historical Cookbooks, Regional Cookbooks, Chef/Restaurant-focused Cookbooks, Celebrity Cookbooks, etc.

If you ever get the chance to look through manuscript cookbooks or other handwritten recipes from the past, please consider giving it a try. If you happen to be “gifted” one of these cookbooks or recipes by a family member, even better! “But I don’t like to cook,” you might say. No matter – these cookbooks and recipes are about more than cooking. They are slices of a person’s life and era in time.

I have been extremely lucky on both counts – I had the honor of going through a number of manuscript cookbooks while writing my first book, Mrs. Goodfellow: The Story of America’s First Cooking School, AND my mother gave me some recipe cards that belonged to her mother (my grandmother). I feel like I struck gold! I even used some of these recipes to write The Gilded Age Cookbook. I had to adapt the recipes for modern kitchens, but how fun and nostalgic to see the original recipes in her handwriting!

My grandmother’s Recipe for Lemon Sherbet

Although manuscript cookbooks mostly contain food recipes, they also often include tangential sections such as “Food for Invalids,” instructions for cleaning a number of household items and even etiquette advice. In centuries past, many of these books were passed on to other family members – daughters, granddaughters, nieces, etc. It was a way to keep this sort of knowledge in a family. Notes were often scribbled in the margins to outline where the recipe came from, cooking/serving tips, who liked it, etc. This is extremely useful information for historians, as I learned firsthand.

For example, the girls who attended Mrs. Goodfellow’s early 1800’s cooking school were instructed to come to class with notebooks. A few have survived, housed in historical libraries such as The Library Company of Philadelphia and Historical Society of Pennsylvania. These are really the first hard evidence of the kind of information that was being taught in cooking schools during this timeframe. The girls then took these recipes back to Charleston, Baltimore, Wilmington, or wherever they were from and passed them on to family and friends. As a result, Mrs. Goodfellow’s recipes and methods steadily trickled into mainstream cookery and were adapted by cooks around the country.

As an instructor, Mrs. Goodfellow liked to list ingredients first when dictating recipes to her students. Today, we take this for granted when reading a recipe, but it wasn’t the norm in the early nineteenth century. Back then recipes were usually written out in paragraph form, which could be somewhat confusing and allow more room for error. But the recipes found in the manuscript cookbooks from Mrs. Goodfellow’s were written down in this transcription manner, helping historians solidify the origin of this technique. And the fact that so many Philadelphia area nineteenth-century manuscript cookbooks contain Goodfellow recipes also provided concrete evidence of her extensive influence.

So hold onto those family cookbooks and recipes – you never know when they might be worth something. At the very least, give some of them a try. Perfecting the recipe might take a few times to adapt the ingredients and measurements, but it is great fun to go through this process!

Eliza Leslie

Look here for further reading: