Thursday, March 27, 2014

The saddest cookbook in the world?

The Golden Age Cookbook: The Key to Happier and Healthier Golden Years
By Phyllis MacDonald Doubleday & Company 1961.

Don't bother opening me. I'll just bring you down.
Just in case the recent hint of Spring in the air was cheering you all up, The Golden Age Cookbook is here to bring you back down. From the gray-blue cover with its sad wheat ring to its mildly condescending tone this book just screams "Give up!" Well, actually, it more whispers in a despairing tone: "just give…up." While I believe the designer was aiming for dignified, the result 40 years later is just depressing.

According to the jacket copy, this is the first cookbook designed for older people. If that is the case, I applaud MacDonald for seeing a need and tying to fulfill it. Cookbooks for special diets and special populations are now a popular niche, but I can imagine that at some point they would have been innovative. A Kirkus Review entry from the time points out that the book serves a real need. But at least today we acknowledge that people with special needs still have full lives.

MacDonald begins with a list of do's and don'ts--helpfully reproduced on the back cover. The first one is the tip that sold me on the book: "Have at least one hot food at every meal." This made me laugh and shudder at the same time. And a reaction like that means I need to own that book!

As for the recipes, they are a mix of convenience foods and simple cooked meals. Considering the 1961 vintage, the use of canned soups and the like is actually restrained and perhaps realistic, in that it allows for its readers to purchase parts of their meals.

This is clearly a dietician's book obsessed with nutrients over flavor, but its woefully inadequate seasonings (there is little called for besides salt, pepper, paprika, and dried parsley) are also a function of its time and place--America before the ethnic food boom, before hippies and back-to-the-land (at least the 60s version) and before Julia Child had us all hooked on something better than Dried Beef Sandwiches and Baked Stuffed Franks.

Some gems:

Surprise Tomato Meatballs with Steamed Rice The surprise is a can of V8!

Deviled Ham French Toast I admit I am both repelled by and drawn to this idea.

Oyster Milk Toast Evaporated milk, canned oysters and toast.

Escalloped Macaroni and Tuna Tuna, noodles, cream of celery soup, pimento and American cheese. There's just something about tuna in these older books that makes my skin crawl. And I like tuna!


  1. The tuna of the old days was packed in oil and tasted of that oil with old fish. It was overwhelmingly greasy and bad parts of fish. The tuna you love is from Whole Foods, packed by nice Italian ladies with soft hands, and costs $8 a can. Maybe $10. So, when you say, "and I like tuna" what you mean is a whole other species than these cookbooks used.

  2. Au contraire!! While I do love (and hoard) the tuna you describe, it is not what I think of first when it comes to tuna. I'm talking regular old American tuna. It may be a genetic thing, as I have had spirited conversations about the shocking decline in tuna quality with both my mother and my grandmother. Now we all agreed that you had to be sure to get the "solid white albacore" kind--otherwise, you're right, it was greasy and shreddy. But today's tuna is almost pulverized and yet somehow also dry.