Homesteaders' Cookbook

A Cookbook with a Little History Baked In


Recently, I finally found a weekend to spend some time typing-in the recipes of this very old, well-used cookbook into my computer. This tattered book contains the recipes of homesteader ladies from Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula. I don’t know exactly how old it is, but it was probably published some time between the 1940’s and the early 1960’s. My best guess is somewhere close to 1950, but it could even be from the 1930’s. I imagine the women who made this book as fairly isolated, hard-working women, who were always busy doing something necessary.

This cookbook is unique for several reasons. First, it is typed out on a typewriter, complete with misspellings, little mistakes, and all that goes with the use of a typewriter. Another thing that makes this a special book is that the recipes come directly from the mouths of a large group of women who lived rather rough lives on the Olympic Peninsula. They probably rarely saw each other, except for special occasions, like putting a cookbook together. I have no idea how many copies of this book were made, but that is the third thing that makes this book stand out: it is completely handmade.

When I took a real good look at this book, I was very impressed with such a detailed, handmade volume. It was hard to see at first because it looks like a museum artifact from a hundred years ago, but, no, it got messy and worn from use in the kitchen. In order to get this book collected and published, the ladies first had to meet with each other to dictate or type out their recipes. This would be between milking the cow, and putting out the laundry, or maybe right after splitting a cord of firewood to keep the cookstove going. Before that, they had to spend some time choosing which of their recipes they’d want to represent them in this special cookbook. If you think about what recipe you’d want to put into a cookbook your neighbors would use, you better have a good one. I do not know if my Great Aunt Olga made just this one book, or if several of the ladies made a number of copies. I suspect there are more copies out there somewhere. I also haven’t figured out why my great aunt didn’t put in her recipe for oyster stew instead of the one she offered up. Maybe I should try it and find out.

  • homesteaders' cookbook

Once the recipes were collected and typed out, the pages had to be cut to fit. The heavier brown paper (where the binding was to happen) had to be cut, and folded in half lengthwise. Then each recipe page had to be pasted to a brown strip, and collated. I’m not sure if there was a specific order they were looking for. Most of the recipes are near others like them, but not always. The order is sometimes surprising. At times, alarming even. But it all works together, and would have been a time-consuming endeavor for the homesteader ladies. Once collated, the wallpaper cover would have been cut to fit, as well as a more narrow strip of wallpaper that wrapped around the spine, with short flaps on front and back, and another wallpaper strip just like it on the inside. The book was then collected with the covers, strips and pages assembled. Then an awl would be needed to make holes necessary for the thread to go through. Finally, the entire book was sewn together with bootlace-thick “thread” in side-saddle fashion.

  • stub-binding example

So then, the book was done. But the cooking had hardly begun. The following images are just a few samples of over a hundred recipes these ladies collected. Who made this book? I do not know for sure. But I am sure it took an entire community of homesteaders to make such a book.

There are many, many more recipes. They tell a story about the ladies of the Peninsula, too. There are rarely any oven temperatures or baking times listed, and who knows what pan you’d use. But these ladies often used wood-fire stoves and ovens. There is a process for making things like cake compared to bread, and since they’ve been making these foods all their lives, everyone knew what was expected of the recipe.

While I was typing the recipes, I could often hear the voices of the women telling the typist about their special cookbook recipe. And sometimes, I could hear the typist asking a question. Sometimes, there are little notes somewhere in the typed recipe that are out of order, since the typist couldn’t simply cut and paste like we do today. When you read these recipes, you’ll hear them talking, too. One will suggest a garnish for a dish, or what to do in case the butcher won’t cut to order, and, oops, maybe someone forgot to mention the amount of baking powder that goes into a recipe. If you learn to cook from this book, you will learn more and more about cooking, but you’ll have to be resourceful and patient. Make notes. This is the way things were cooked back then. The notes you write may be read in another seventy years by your own great niece. We can all learn to cook with the cleverness and creativity of a homesteader.

The pdf file I created is a “duplicate” of this book, except that it is like an e-book, not a handmade one. Anyone who would like a copy is welcome to download it. I have written an introduction that is intended to explain several details about this book. If you read the recipes closely, you’ll see this book shares the historical, social, cultural and psychological perspectives of these homesteader ladies of the Olympic Peninsula. When one of these recipes is cooked, it’s like smelling the aroma of a culture from the past. The recipes are all public domain by now, and I dare you to try either of the corned beef recipes. I just dare you to try.

Here is the pdf file.

Remember, cook like a homesteader.

—Anita K. Boyle