- Associated Press - Sunday, January 24, 2016

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - History pokes out from the edges.

Yellowed newspaper clippings stick out of the top. The crumbling cutouts and scribbled notes have been there for years, tucked away safely in the pages.

There’s the handwritten pickled green tomato recipe on a piece of sample stationery. The rhubarb jam ingredients are faded, but legible. Pieces of a stuffed onion recipe are held together with two metal pins.

The papers are telling, like little windows into the cookbook owner’s life. It shows that she kept many pickle recipes and that using gelatin was a popular choice. Any piece of paper, an old bill or piece of hotel notepad, made do for writing down a recipe. Her life evolves on the pages. Over time, her smooth, flowing cursive transforms as she ages to shaky, jagged letters.

“Makes you wonder who was saving those articles with all of those recipes,” Heather Looney said. She’s slowly pulling out the delicate clippings tucked in the pages of the Ladies of Charleston, W.Va. Cookbook.

Published in 1892, the 124-year-old book was first discovered by Looney’s mother, Connie, during the holidays. With her family living in a giant farmhouse together, Heather said that she, her husband and her parents have enjoyed flipping through the cookbook’s recipes, examining the old ads and laughing at the tips in the tuberculosis flier - tips like “never eat too much” and “drink all the milk you can get, and very little tea or coffee.”

Connie had purchased the antique book months ago. She just didn’t know it.

She bought it at the Mountaineer Auctions in Clendenin. She and her husband, John, go there a lot. John likes to look for coins to trade. Connie looks for things that catch her interest.

Connie loves to cook. Living on a farm in rural Roane County, cooking is an enjoyed necessity in the Looney house. They grow most of their own food and installed a restaurant-grade kitchen when they built their home.

“She’d just as soon sit down with a cookbook and read through it as she would a novel,” Heather said of her mother.

A few months ago at the auction, Connie bid on a box of cookbooks. You couldn’t tell how many were in the cardboard box, just a ton of old cookbooks. Most were from the ‘70s, Heather guessed.

The box cost $2.

Connie took her time to clean it out, scanning one at a time. She found the small, old hardback over the holidays. It’s dirtied and weathered. On the cover, it’s almost impossible to read that the cookbook was produced by the Ladies of Charleston, West Va., to raise money for the “Home for the Destitute.”

The Charleston Daily Gazette’s printing press produced the book. It cost 50 cents.

The advertisements in the back of the book for home products and services paid for the production costs, Susan Scouras explained. She’s the library manager for the West Virginia Archives and History Library of the division of Culture and History.

There’s already a special collection of antique cookbooks at the library. Compiling various donated recipes was a common fundraiser for women’s or church groups, Scouras said. A cookbook was an easy and helpful thing to sell.

“That’s what was open to women. You have to give them credit because their lives were pretty boxed in,” Scouras said.

Prominent Charleston family names from the turn of the 20th Century stand out in the 1892 cookbook.

Mrs. Joseph Ruffner donated a recipe for Spanish pickles. Mrs. Lewis Summers explained how to make “transparent pie.” Mrs. J. L. Lewis offers a recipe for “duchesse potatoes.”

The antique cookbooks can tell historians a lot about the time period, Scouras said. Some of the cookbooks in the Archives and History Library indicate when various ethnic groups immigrated to parts of southern West Virginia. In the early 1900s, the cookbook collection includes many Greek, Lebanese and Italian recipes.

It shows the technologies, resources and food sources available, as well.

“When you look at the recipe ingredients, you can tell a lot about the common knowledge of the day, the technology of the day,” Scouras said.

The recipes give an idea for what was offered agriculturally. There’s a lot of recipes for oysters in the 1892 book. By that time the railroad systems were extensive enough to enable oysters caught off the coast of Maryland and Virginia to be thrown on ice and transported inland to towns like Charleston. The railroad’s expansion is shown through the 1892 cookbook’s recipes for fried and cream oysters.

Recipes aren’t the only revealing piece.

“The ads are just as important to historians as the recipes,” Scouras said. “This tells you the most popular, the biggest businesses at the time. . You can track a lot of changes that way.”

A copy of the book that Connie found already exists in the West Virginia Archives and History Library, but Scouras said they’d love to have this copy, too. The other copy appears to have belonged to a Gertrude Bramer, who used her book a lot. There are pages torn out. Pieces of paper are glued onto parts of the book. You can’t read the preface and some pages are too far worn.

But the pages of the Looneys’ copy are in much better condition. All of the pages are present and easy to read. The owner might not have used her copy as much as Gertrude Bramer, or if she did, she was careful to not splatter ingredients on the pages.

“Neither one is in ideal shape, but between the two we can put a whole cookbook together,” Scouras said.

Unlike the library’s copy of the 1892 cookbook, the original owner of the Looneys’ copy never signed her name to the book.

The only clue to its ownership is on two tiny scraps of paper. Typed on each is “Mrs. W. A. Foster.”

Scouras researched the clue Tuesday afternoon. And she found a possible match.

A William A. Foster, a contractor, did live in Charleston at the time with his wife, Luella May Foster. The timing works out. They would have been married and living in Charleston in 1892. Luella could have easily purchased the Ladies of Charleston book.

Maybe it’s Luella’s handwriting that’s been saved in the pages for 100 years. Maybe it’s her rhubarb recipe that’s scribbled on the yellow stationery. Maybe it’s her hand that started to shake as she aged.

Maybe it was her life that’s been pressed between the recipes, her scribbled down wisdom next to Mrs. Lewis’ chocolate cake or Mrs. Patrick’s cheese pudding.

To see a copy of the 1892 cookbook produced by the Ladies of Charleston, West Va., visit the West Virginia Archives and History Library located in the Cultural Center. Heather Looney has said that she will contact Scouras at the Archives and History Library to discuss how they can donate the book.


Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, https://wvgazettemail.com.

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