The oldest company cookbooks we own
Want to know what people who lived in America at the turn of the 20th century ate?
Just read one of the five cookbooks that we have in the General Mills Archives from that era.
Looking them over, you notice many similarities to today. For a main dish, we still serve beef, chicken and turkey. But back then our earliest company cookbooks also included tips for preparing a variety of wild game, as well as calf heads and turtles.
I’ll stick to a steak.
Jessica Faucher, corporate archivist for General Mills, says the vintage cookbooks provide an interesting look back at how people learned how to cook and bake. She also talks about how the books were distributed to consumers, in this audio clip.
Here are the five oldest cookbooks we have in our archives from our predecessor company, Washburn Crosby Co., and Pillsbury. If you have one of our cook books that we’re missing from this era, please see the note at the bottom of this post.
1880 – Miss Parloa’s New Cook Book
This was the first cookbook distributed by Washburn, Crosby Co., written by Maria Parloa. She was a big name in food at the time, and owned a cooking school in Boston.
In the preface of the book, she writes:
“When the author wrote the Appledore Cook Book, nine years ago, she had seen so many failures and so much consequent mortification and dissatisfaction as to determine her to give those minute directions which were so often wanting in cook books, and without which success in preparing dishes was for many a person unattainable.”
Miss Parloa’s New Cook Book included recipes for “Saddle of Venison, which told readers to “Carefully scrape off the hair and wipe with a damp towel…”
The book also included information about Washburn Crosby’s Gold Medal Flour and illustrations depicting scenes inside the company’s new mill, built after the 1878 explosion of its previous Washburn “A” Mill.
1894 – Washburn, Crosby Co.’s New Cook Book
14 years later, Washburn, Crosby Co. had its own cook book, from the Gold Medal Home Service Department, featuring an illustration of a flour miller on the cover.
Inside, advice for vegetables included:
“If the housekeeper who is so tired of the same old way of preparing vegetables would only study the art of cooking she need never want for variety. A little patience and skill, the use good judgment, and a proper degree of industry will render the task easy.”
1897 – Pillsbury’s Good Bread Good Cereal
The oldest Pillsbury cookbook that we have in our archives understandably focused on bread. But we were a little surprised it also gave some prominence to cereal, given that Jessica says Washburn, Crosby Co. didn’t even explore a cereal product until the creation of Wheaties about 20 years later.
The book highlights Pillsbury’s Vitos, described as “the ideal wheat food, needs to be boiled only and is then ready to serve as a breakfast food. It can be served in thirty other ways – bread, cakes, puddings, desserts, etc.”
The book also featured several recipes for croquettes – still popular today as a breadcrumbed fried food roll – using chicken, lobster, veal and potatoes, among other ideas.
Good Bread Good Cereal also had an ad for Pillsbury’s “Flaked Oat Food,” another would-be cereal for the time.
1903 – Gold Medal Cook Book
If nothing else, readers of this cook book learned how to make a few dishes that most of us would cringe at today.
The recipes included “Fillets of Tongue” (“Cut cold boiled tongue in pieces…”) Calf’s Head (“Take out the brains and lay them in ice-cold salted water…”) and “Stewed Frogs a la Poulette.”
1905 Pillsbury’s A Book for a Cook
The intro to this book, says the recipes came from a prize-winning home cook:
“It was not, however, until the World’s Fair of 1904, at St. Louis, that the contents of this book were compiled for them [American home-makers] by Mrs. Nellie Duling Gans, who there demonstrated her superiority as a baker and a cook by making the bread that took the Grand Prize, the highest award possible, using PILLSBURY’S BEST FLOUR, and secured for her personally the Medal of Honor for ‘Perfect Bread.’ Herewith are presented some of her well-tried and popular recipes … a help to the average housekeeper, in the hope that they will make easier her search after variety without calling too much upon her means.”
Recipes covered cakes, cake fillings, bread, soups, sandwiches and “Invalid Dishes” (“…the greatest weight is to be attached to the preparation of food for the sick… Do not consult the patient as to the menu, for the various surprises will help to tickle his appetite.”
And, perhaps, the first Pillsbury mention of “Crescents.”
The cake section had an interesting opening paragraph, saying:
“Cake-making requires more judgment than any other department of cooking. Nevertheless it is the one most frequently tried by the beginner.”
And, the book had proof that Pillsbury had been trying to figure out another breakfast cereal, with an ad for Pillsbury’s Best Cereal (“the creamy white breakfast food, so tempting that it compels you to eat”).
A Book for a Cook also was informational, with sections titled “What is yeast?” and “Hints for Housekeepers.”
In the early 20th century, Jessica says cookbooks proved to be expensive to produce so the Gold Medal Home Service Department focused more attention on recipe cards, available in flour packages and in grocery stores.
But it’s worth noting that while Washburn-Crosby created Betty Crocker in 1921, the brand didn’t create a cookbook until 1950 (the first edition of Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book), focusing instead on Betty’s cooking demonstrations, and appearances on radio and television.
66 years later, Betty Crocker’s cookbook is in its 11th edition, with sales of more than 65 million copies.
Editor’s note: In 2016, General Mills is celebrating its 150th anniversary. This story is part of a year-long series on “A Taste of General Mills” to highlight the people, products and projects that have contributed to the company’s legacy. Discover more about our past on GeneralMills.com and GeneralMillsHistory.com. If you have a question about our history, or would like to donate an item to the company archives (including vintage cookbooks), send our Archives team an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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