The 1942 Modern Family Cook Book


Old cookbooks are one of the things that perpetually hold my interest. They aren’t just a source of old-time recipes that have been weeded out of today’s cookbooks (like burnt sugar cake), but also a tiptoe through a different era and its unique views on society. I was recently gifted with a copy of The Modern Family Cook Book written by Meta Given from one of the attendees at the recent retreat. (Thank you, Connie!)
There are a few pages torn out from the front of the book, including the copyright page, so my best source of dating is the foreword, which is dated January 1, 1942, along with the start of said foreword. This cookbook was released in the midst of World War II. “Feeding the family has always been a matter of supreme interest to the individual; now, in the present emergency, it is a matter of national concern.” Feeding your family properly was patriotic.

This cookbook doesn’t include just recipes, though. It includes meal plans for every day of the year. That’s right, 365 meal plans. “Think of the hours of time and the brain-rackings this will save you!”

Sometimes forewords are the most entertaining parts of old cookbooks because that’s where many of the juicy societal observations can be found. The menus are planned for a family of five, and in 1940s pricing, that was estimated at $12 to $14 in grocery costs per week if the plans were followed strictly. The perspective of the book is described as seeking the middle ground between “slavish” adherence to “modern” diet notions and “the cheerful heedlessness of the old woman who’d ruther eat what she’d ruther.” (Which explains why cookbooks older than the 1940s are even more fun.)

Each section opens with a detailed tutorial on the basics of whatever the topic is–breads, pie crusts, cakes, even an entire section on measurements. Its existence in this 1940s cookbook plays commentary to the fact that this was a time when people were beginning to move away in droves from rural environments to more urban and suburban locations, spreading out families and taking away the natural “teaching kitchen” of older family members mentoring the younger ones as they took on their own households. Young women needed a book to tell them how to do things. And this book is absolutely directed at women, without any sense of sexism or shame. “This book is written for you, Mrs. Homemaker,” the introduction states. (Yep, she’s married, too. Single girls don’t need this book–they’re supposed to be living at home with their parents!) And being a great cook is, with no equivocation, “the grand climax” of a woman’s achievements in life. “Every woman should feel herself to be a hostess to her family.” There is even a meal planner’s creed at the beginning of the book.
The meal plans themselves are quite detailed. Here is a typical meal plan:

Breakfast–orange juice, prepared cereal with “top milk” (they were getting milk deliveries at the door in those days, and there would be cream at the top), toast with butter, jelly, coffee for adults, cocoa for children.

Lunch–grilled cheese and bacon sandwiches, pineapple cabbage date salad, milk for all.

Dinner–stuffed beef heart, creamed peas and potatoes, baked acorn squash, head lettuce, thousand island dressing, bread and butter, apple pie, coffee for adults, milk for children.
The meals are geared to a family of five, so I’m left wondering what happens to the leftover pie. The next day’s dessert is chocolate blanc mange. Every dinner comes with dessert (all the meal plans note the accompanying recipe and its page number where it can be found), but as the introduction stated, this book was for the homemaker. She had time to make dessert every night. Hostessing to her family was her full-time job.

She was probably sneaking pieces of leftover pie when she was doing the dishes. And maybe some sherry she kept under the sink, but that’s not in the meal plans so let’s not mention it.
Recipes include such concoctions as Swan Cream Puffs (pictured around a floating water-lily candle), Jellied Tomato Bouillon, Veal and Vegetable Pie, plus tips like how to create butter roses and butter curls. There’s a whole section on canning. Most of the recipes direct to seal with paraffin wax. There are, of course, still the more old-fashioned country staples to be found, such as pan-fried summer squash, apple sauce cake, and baking powder biscuits.

Overall, as stated in the foreword, this book is indeed sandwiched between that cheerful old woman who’d ruther eat what she’d ruther and used her lard accordingly and the coming new age of more diet-conscious recipes, though perhaps in more and different ways than the writer of the foreword could understand without the perspective of time. And, while the writer of this book may not have understood the entirety of her own social commentary, she did know that she was making one–which is one of the more sophisticated nuances in the book and in stark contrast to some of its accompanying unconscious sexism. “Philosophers, poets, and economists may smile at the idea of eating as a social force. But if this is a trifle, it is one of those tremendous trifles which help to shape the destiny of the family, even of the whole of society.”

I’ve always thought food was important, and the glimpse of how food was important and why in previous eras has long fascinated me, along with the question of what we’re saying about food today. Even as food becomes ever more convenient in packaged food products and fast restaurants, there’s also a revival of interest in home cooking. I see food prepared at home, from scratch, as a touchstone, a source of grounding, in our ever advancing society. But a walk through The Modern Family Cook Book of 1942 reminds me that my vision is as clouded as its author. Only the perspective of time will tell what we are really saying about food today and its relation to society.
But for the record, pie fixes everything.


  1. Senny says:

    I have that very same book. It is green, it was my first cookbook when I got married 55 yrs ago. It believe it use to have a green cover, but after so many years of constant use, the cover has disappeared and my pages are falling out. I may have about 100 or so cookbooks but I still take this one out to see. 🙂 Been my standby.

  2. Audrey324 says:

    How neat is that?! I love old cookbooks. Like you were saying, in addition to some really great recipes that can’t really be found anymore, there are lots of little insights into kitchens of the past…or at least how they were perceived to be. I sat for hours in an old bookstore one afternoon mesmerized by this really old cookbook for its stories and expectations of women in the kitchen. I still kick myself for not buying it. Thanks for sharing!

  3. deleatable says:

    How cool! I have this cookbook, also. I inherited it from my mother-in-law. While I have all the pages, the cover (what is left of it) is grey. No idea what color it might have been originally. Its held together with a big wide rubberband, just to be safe. The copyright dates in my copy are 1942, 1953, and 1961. I go to it constantly for bread and cake recipes, pastry recipes, and the substitutions. Our mothers and grandmothers were much better at getting along without the Superstores than we are.

  4. bonita says:

    When I was young, more than half a century ago, I thought I’d get my mother a great birthday gift. I bought her a fresh New Settlement House Cookbook. Her old one was falling apart, stained, and very well used. And so the nice crisp new cookbook replaced the old one. Imagine my disillusionment when I found that the new cookbook did not contain drawings on how to set a table, house cleaning tips, and worst of all, the recipe for my FAVORITE dessert! I wasn’t old enough to understand. Of course, now I am. And I’m still looking for the recipe for snowball dessert with custard sauce. (sigh)

  5. saitisntso says:

    I spend more time looking at recipes then making anything. Usually am out of an ingredient and I move onto another recipe that calls to me. My observation from pics is simple to the nitty gritty. Seasonings. Not a pinch of this that and another, which I’m usually out of thats or another’s.
    Thank goodness for canned or jars of tomatoes and have never heard of rarebit, don’t recall that in any recipe book I have skipped to my Lou through. :moo:

  6. Faith says:

    Love “The Meal Planner’s Creed”! Looking at old cookbooks I find myself amazed sometimes at how old certain products are, like; They made velveeta and cheez whiz back then? (I’m not even 50 and I didn’t see velveeta in my mom’s house till they started giving away legos with it, maybe in the late or mid 70’s, thought it was a new product then) or, the lily candle above, they made candles like that back then? Really neat gift, Suzanne!

  7. UlrikeDG says:

    “The meals are geared to a family of five, so I’m left wondering what happens to the leftover pie.”

    Look at that last photo. The top pie has obviously been cut into precise fifths. No leftovers. (Is there a tutorial on how to cut precise fifths? Because that’s tricky!)

  8. jodiezoeller says:

    I agree, PIE fixes everything! I need more pie in my life. We make it sugar-free style because my husband is diabetic, but he makes the best pies I’ve had…. almost. I love pie at the Bluebonnet Cafe in Marble Falls TX. Google it… it’s a shrine to pie!

  9. holstein woman says:

    I have a Meta Givens from my mom when I graduated high school in 1968. I enjoy the recipe and the pie recipes are the ones I used to use when I sold pies over the holidays.
    I recently got a Kindle cookbook things mother used to make. I kept it because it gave instructions for making your own baking powder. Use 2 times as much cream of tartar as you do baking soda and mix well. I tried it and it works.

  10. Suz says:

    Bonita, I have my grandmothers 1941 copy of the Settlement Cookbook. There are 2 different recipes for “Snowballs”. One is a deep fried sweet dough with lemon juice and the other is angel food cake dipped in a choice of 3 different frostings and rolled in fresh grated coconut. Also a recipe in the Pudding Sauce chapter for custard sauce.
    Let me know which snowball recipe and I’ll send it along. Love these old cookbooks!

  11. Miss Judy says:

    I downsized my cookbook stash…but couldn’t get rid of my “oldies”. I have some paperback books that were printed for a certain product like Spry shortning and Royal baking powder. It’s even hard for me to get rid of recipe magazines. Thanks for this post on one of my favorite things.

  12. City Kid says:

    Ooooo! I love old cookbooks! If you need directions for making just about everything, old cookbooks are the way to go. Example: recipe #988 in my American Family cookbook is “Buttered Toast.” My favorite cookbook to just read was published in the 60s. It’s by a woman who inherited her grandmother’s recipe collection going back to the American Revolution (Baked Stuffed Cow’s Udder, anyone?) and includes instructions on making a proper spit for roasting meat and how to build a brick oven for baking bread. My absolute favorites, though, are church cookbooks. Long before I ever moved away from home, I found a new edition of my favorite cookbook that Mom wouldn’t let go: “Our Favorite Recipes by the Lades of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, West Bend, Wis.” I needed it as much for the little line drawings as for the recipes for Banana Bread and Molasses Crinkle cookies. Nothin’ beats the hunt through old cookbooks for a particular recipe.

  13. City Kid says:

    Ack. “Ladies of St. John’s”….

  14. LucySue says:

    I have a newer version of this cookbook from 1961. I inherited it from my sis-in-law’s mother. It is one of the few that I will not get rid of. I love it. Mine has color pictures.

  15. Squeegees Mom says:

    I inherited a bunch of old cook books from my mother in law. One of my favs is one that was published in 1939. “Woman’s World Edition of the American Woman’s Cook Book” Edited by Ruth Berolzheimer.It is very similar to Suzanne’s. It assumes the reader is a new wife without any or hardly any kitchen skills. It teaches her every thing. From stocking the pantry to setting the table for a 12 course dinner. Amazing pictures (color!) and information. I love reading cookbooks. Especially the older ones.

    Some of the sayings from the cook book: “Strike up a warm acquaintance with your oven and its special temperament.” “Time and your oven await the occasion and the man.” “Cheese with wafers, fruit and a mint julep promote good conversation in the late afternoon.” Fun stuff! A bit sexist…

  16. PaulaA says:

    I would love to know what “stuffed beef heart” is! I haven’t known anything to do with my cow heart except slice in tiny pieces to stir fry. It is interesting to see the author take herself and her instruction so seriously. What a lot of pressure! I bet my mean old home-ec teacher in 1971 had a copy of this book.. Or maybe not, she probably would have made us vow to The Creed. Fascinating to think we went from that to Fast Food Nation in what, 25 years.

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