Buying Mystery Books Paid Off!

Athena ScalziA couple days ago, I went to a local used bookstore. After doing some perusing in the main area, I saw they had a shelf in the back with brown paper bags. They were mystery bags, with a book inside, the genre of which was written on the front of the sack, along with the cost, which was 50 cents a bag. There was a lot of drama, some romance, and then I saw them. The only two bags I cared about. “Recipes” and “Cooking”. I wasn’t sure what the difference was, but I was for sure getting both.

I thought I had gotten one cookbook per bag, but it turns out I got a ton of the tiny kind:

Seventeen different recipe booklets laid out on the table.

(Please excuse my hand in the shot, the light from above was causing the worst glare ever on the damn purple chicken book.)

Seventeen recipe booklets in total! For one dollar! I was shocked. I had thought at first that I got some repeats, since there’s two Bisquick books and three Campbell’s books, but they were all different, thankfully.

Two Bisquick recipe books sitting on the counter next to each other, both bright yellow with blue lettering and the Betty Crocker logo at the top.

I actually didn’t know Bisquick was owned by Betty Crocker until I saw these. The one on the left is from October 2000, and the one on the right is from 2001. Clearly, they didn’t change the design much, but hey, whatever works for them. I am disturbed by the “impossibly easy cheeseburger pie” image on the cover. Is there a more difficult cheeseburger pie? If it’s so impossible, how’d they make it at all? Jokes aside, I thought it was cool to get two that were so close in date.

Two Pampered Chef booklets next to each other on the counter.

Unlike Bisquick, The Pampered Chef clearly had a glow-up between 1995 and 1997. Both of these are the fall/winter editions of their year, and apparently the 1995 one is the 15th anniversary year! I had certainly never thought about the year that The Pampered Chef was founded before today, so that’s neat.

Two Pillsbury booklets side by side, one titled

Another 1997, this one from Pillsbury, accompanied by its predecessor from 1996. I was shocked to see a cookbook from the nineties that was meatless. It seems progressive given the time. I feel as though vegetarians may have been a bit more uncommon back then. Then again what do I know, these two books came out before I was born. One of my favorite things about cookbooks from back in the day is when they say “a photo with every recipe”. How tantalizing.

Three Campbell's cookbooks in a line, the one on the left spiral bound, all three with red and white covers.

As previously mentioned, I got a whopping three Campbell’s cookbooks, the one on the left being the oldest of the three. I find the design change from spiral bound to stapled interesting. They also seemed to have added the blue ribbon to both of the newer ones. Really makes those covers pop. I was also intrigued by the one on the right claiming that it had a whole three dollars worth of coupons inside, so I took a look at them.

A page from one of the booklets, displaying three separate coupons. One for 30 cents off any three Campbell's soups, another for 25 cents off two Campbell's soups (excluding cream of mushroom and cream of chicken), and the last being 25 cents off one soup of your choice from the list provided.

I am SO tempted to test if that “no expiration date” claim is true. It has been over twenty years since these coupons were released into the world, and by god I am going to get 25 cents off Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom w/Roasted Garlic soup if it’s the last thing I do.

Two Betty Crocker booklets next to each other, one titled

Aside from the two Bisquick ones, I also got these other two Betty Crocker booklets. I have found through experience that most cookbooks that are only microwave meals, especially those before the year 2000, are TERRIBLE. Like, what even is on the cover there?! Orange slices and the saddest carrot chunks the world has ever seen? Dubious concoction, I say, dubious indeed.

A Tyson booklet, featuring a cartoon chicken on the cover with a chef's hat and apron, mixing things together in a bowl. The background behind the chicken is purple.

This Tyson brand booklet was one of the only ones I could not find a year on. It is rare that there is no publication info at all, but it does happen from time to time. If I had to guess, with my formidable knowledge on old cookbooks, I’d place this one anywhere from 1995 to 2005.

The most interesting thing about this booklet was that the recipes inside were submitted by Tyson’s plant employees.

Two recipes, each one from a different plant worker, whose headshots and info are at the bottom of the page. The one on the left is the first place winner, and the other is second place.

The first place winner, Mattie, had been working at the plant for 28 years. TWENTY-EIGHT YEARS. At Tyson. A place known for its awful treatment of employees (and animals). Does she still work there to this day? Does she still make her award-winning chicken breast supreme? I must know her story.

A Swanson cookbook, titled

Along with the Tyson one, this Swanson Broth booklet had no year listed either, but whatever year it was, computers looked like this:

A page in the book telling you to visit their website, with a picture of an old looking monitor.

Thank GOD Swanson Broth is online for all my brothy needs.

Three cookbooks beside each other, a

These three are relatively un-notable. I am intrigued by the prevalent redness amongst their covers though. I actually am a huge fan of Christmas Cookie editions of popular magazines like that Taste of Home one, and I usually buy one a year on impulse in the checkout line of the store. I mean who doesn’t love holiday-themed desserts?! I also believe that Taste of Home one is the most recent out of everything I’ve procured, being from 2007. That’s just a guess though since a couple of them didn’t have years.

Finally, my personal favorite of the bunch, this lovely 1969 “Meals for Two”:

A predominately orange book cover with steak and vegetable kabobs pictured, with the words Meals For Two Cookbook in a green box.

Published in Chicago and made by the Culinary Institute of America, this 60-year-old, 50-cent booklet is the thing I’m most pleased with out of the various booklets. With a whole page dedicated to “cooling beverages”, there’s so much to love:

A page with the title

There’s also classic favorites you’re sure to love, such as tuna-sour cream dip, and cottage cheese-deviled ham dip.

A page titled

I am totally going to make these.

Anyways, that’s everything I got for a dollar! I am super pleased with my mini haul, and I definitely recommend buying a mystery bag from your local bookstore if given the chance. I will likely go back for more the next time I’m in the area.

Which is your favorite? Or at least looks the least terrible (almost all cookbooks from the early 2000s are just the worst)? Do you happen to have any of these lovely booklets? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!


52 Comments on “Buying Mystery Books Paid Off!”

  1. I had that Meals for Two cookbook! I recall making some of the less frightening recipes in the late 70s, and probably some of the tasty beverages, too. I think my mother had some Campbells, Bisquick, and Betty Crocker mini-cookbooks stashed away in her kitchen.

  2. What a great post. Thanks for sharing all your cookbook finds. Having lived through those years, I can be happy that no one chose to make for me the Made for Two meals.

  3. Oh wow, that Culinary Institute one has all the same fonts and typesetting habits as my c.1965 Good Housekeeping cookbook! You’ll have to report back on whether it contains all the same adorable assumptions about its audience (the reader is a bride on a budget who nevertheless wishes to impress her neighbors & husband’s business associates with her worth as a human being/fancy food (same thing, right?))

    I’m not mad; it was of its time. But it’s amazing what a strong reaction of recognition I can have to a typeface. Almost like a scent with powerful associations.

  4. Good grief – “canned chocolate syrup” and sweetened raspberries. No wonder there is a problem with type II diabetes. That would be like a nuclear bomb of sugarosity in a glass.

  5. Great article Athena! Perhaps this is the first step towards a life passion: Integer Vitae Tellus archeology… or in rather less grandiose terms, Cook Book archeology. There are recipes for beer from ancient Egypt, recipes for hummingbird tongues from ancient Rome (how many hummingbirds does that call for?), and oatmeal recipes from Viking Scandinavia. So much past goodness languishing in obscurity.

  6. “Meatless” was not necessarily vegetarian; the further back one goes the more likely the intent is “budget.”

    Fascinating little batch!

  7. I’ve actually made some of the Betty Crocker recipes in that book. I will say that almost all of Betty’s recipes are very, very bland if you season them as indicated. If that’s your thing, great! But I have very little spicy food tolerance and I’m usually at least doubling the spices those recipes call for, and adding in others.

  8. I love old cookery books, and yes , there were vegetarians before the year 2000. The Moose wood Restaurant was rather famous, and I have collected all their cookbooks. A fascinating fact: primarily vegetarian and plant based diets were the norm for most of human history. In Britain, cheese was known as “white meat” and the primary animal protein for al but the top 1% of the population. Daily meat consumption has historically been a sign of significant wealth.

  9. Hey now… published in 1969 is most assuredly not 60 years. I, ahem, was born slightly before that year (still in the same decade) and I am most assuredly not turning 60 this year or next.

    Let’s see here, errr, 2022-1969,
    carry the 1….
    TaDa! = 53 years!!

    Hope I helped :)

  10. If historical recipes are of interest, the British museum has published recipe books, including the British Museum Recipe Book (one of which might have the tongue recipe).

    Clara’s Kitchen is based on her and her grandson’s YouTube series on cooking during the Great Depression.

    Cooking with Mona: the Original Woodward’s Cookbook, for those of us who remember that department store. I bought it for the Strawberry Glazed Pie of my childhood.

  11. Nice haul! I would love to see you cook your way through that 1969 Meals for Two book on the blog, if you’re so inclined.

  12. There are a lot of Victorian cookbooks for the working classes, some of which have been reprinted, such as A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes by Charles Elme Francatelli (HM’s chief cook).

    Early editions of The Joy of Cooking have game recipes for muscrat, squirrel, beaver, woodchuck, racoons, and bear, as well as ‘farces’.

  13. Another thumbs up for Lileks’ Gallery of Regrettable Food. You’re probably already familiar with Dylan Hollis…

    Let us know how/if the coupon redemption works. And I’m sure you’re ready for your father to use some of those “classic favorites” as burrito fillings…

  14. I often find myself reading through old cookbooks (Mom gave me several of hers when Tammy and I got married) and old recipes (same) and chucking out anything referring to salt or prepared foods like Campbell’s Soups–which may as well be called “Cream of Sodium”! I’ve often found that I can swap out Cream of Mushroom or Tomato Soup with low-fat sour cream and unsalted tomato sauce for a low-sodium, low-fat substitute. It’s still 30 mg. of sodium, but that beats Cream of Mushroom Soup’s 843 mg!

    How/what do you substitute for processed foods like those which are loaded with sodium and/or fat…?

  15. Daily meat consumption has historically been a sign of significant wealth.

    Which is why our parents and grandparents so often refused to give up meat – it was a much as sign of “Made it!” as home or car ownership. To them, meat every day meant you were wealthier, and thus healthier, than…those other people who were vegetarians or worse vegans!

    My own generation (I’m ten years older than your father, Athena) has trouble giving up the idea of owning a home or a car. I’d have probably been as bad my brothers are about it had I not lived in NYC for over a quarter-century, where car ownership was limited to either the superrich…or people working in the service industry….

    …because at the end of the day, it all comes down to class, doesn’t it?

  16. My mom was a vegetarian in the 90s, or at least a mostly-vegetarian that also occasionally ate McDonalds hamburgers.

    She also went through a Tastefully Simple phase in the late 90s – we probably had both those books. If one of them has the “Banana Split Brownie Pizza” recipe in it, I highly recommend you try it out. I still have a pizza stone and make my own memory-variation of that recipe for special occasions. It’s just cream cheese and fruit on top of a brownie, but it’s always super popular.

  17. Yes, there were plenty of vegetarians before 2000 (vegans, not so much). I had vegetarian cookbooks in the 1970s! Recipes for a Small Planet, and The Moosewood Cookbook were must-haves.

  18. You’re reminding me of one of the funniest old cookbooks I remember Mom having:

    The original “I Hate To Cook Book” by Peg Bracken.

    I’ve got the 50th anniversary edition myself, and it is just as funny as the original. I do however have one query on that original book: Hurry Curry. Is it made with leftover beef, apple and onion, or is it a shrimp-based recipe? Mom’s hand-written recipe which claims to be from that original book under that name is the beef/apple/onion variant, but the Hurry Curry in the new book is a shrimp recipe.

    Still, even without that query, the book is one worth reading just for the text. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever laughed that hard at a cookbook before.

  19. Excellent post. I hope your coupons are honored.

    I note that the two ladies in the Tysons cookbook live (ed) in Glen Allen, VA. I’m just south of there, and there is a Tysons plant 15 minutes from my house. Perhaps they’re still there?

  20. What a wonderful find. Definitely enjoy making some of these. I had a full sized Betty Crocker cookie cookbook where I discovered some great cookies to make that have been in my baking rotation for decades.

  21. I’m sure I worked with the designer of those two Pillsbury ones (which BTW have the same font with different letter spacing). Her hideous font choices were unmistakeable.

    We each had a little office within a converted storefront in Minneapolis (where Pillsbury HQ is). In the early 90s, I had “desktop publishing” software and she didn’t, so she hired me and stood over my shoulder art directing.

    It was then I developed my remark to clients, “if we keep tweaking, it will cost $nnn. Is it worth it?”

    Anyone else remember Quark Express?

  22. Reading the headline, I was thinking this was going to be about MYSTERY BOOKS, you know… like Agatha Christie! haha. I was very, very confused reading this, waiting for you to talk about MYSTERY BOOKS. (I get it now. Felt like a real facepalm!)

  23. While I’m being nostalgic, I’ll note that James Lileks (the guy behind the Gallery of Regrettable Food) was a columnist for the St Paul Pioneer Press. Thanks, commenters, for pointing me to the site!

    He was funny enough to be a reason to keep a newspaper subscription. I even own a humor book he wrote back in the day.

  24. You inspired me to go rooting through my old cookbooks, and I found Jane Ashley’s NEWEST RECIPES for BETTER MEALS, copyright 1952. The poor thing is wreckage, completely falling apart. The tape holding it together is falling apart! Interesting to leaf through, noticing my margin notes (usually reducing the amounts of Karo syrup and sugar in dessert recipes).

    I also found (now living in a manilla envelope because it has become a collection of loose pages) The Impoverished Students’ Book of Cookery, Drinkery and House Keepery (1965), containing a recipe for Chicken Paprikash which I really liked and am now inspired to make again. And there are directions for beer-making.

    I gotta check out what else is on that shelf…

  25. Also, it occurs to me that I found the Whatever via a link on James Lileks’ blog. Long time ago; I think you were 2 at the time.

  26. I think you’re really sleeping on Zippy Shrimp Dunk (also my next band name) from the Meals for Two cookbook. It apparently doesn’t have shrimp in it; it’s just a creamy dip for dunking shrimp in– delightful.

  27. When my mom and sister passed away, I inherited their entire collection of little cookbooks from the 40s to the present. Also random church cookbooks and community cookbooks.
    I also wanted to put a plug in for you to come to Columbus for the Ohio State Fair. It’s not that far. I used to commute to tipp City everyday. Hey, you can get a whole boatload of free cookbooks. You should also enter a cooking competition either in baking or canning whatever we whatever you want. It’s so rewarding to enter thing’s in the fair.

  28. I was straining my eyes to read it, but that “Apples a la Hong Kong” is like a candy apple fondue? Somehow I doubt they eat apples that way in Hong Kong, but an amazing recipe nonetheless.

  29. If you find that you like the Pillsbury recipes, you should go to their website & sign up for the newsletter! I don’t browse their recipes a lot, but I will click on a link in an email, lol.

  30. Don’t know about the 90s, but in the late 70s and early 80s, most of the people I knew (including me) in their twenties and thirties at least tried out vegetarianism. At least two of those friends are still ovo-lacto vegetarians.

  31. LOL. I’ve been a vegetarian since 1976. I was not the first one. Vegans also existed, as did vegan restaurants, although the whole Vegan Movement trend you see today is more recent.

  32. Church cookbooks are the absolute best, IMO. Our old church put one out eons ago and I raised my kids on their casseroles and Mexican dishes (we were broke and that stuff was cheap/lasted long/easy to reheat). I’ve had a few of the smaller cookbooks over the years and as I recall, the dessert ones are best. Meals for Two sounds the most promising as far as the bonkers recipes of the mid-twentieth century, so I second (third?) the suggestion of cooking your way through that one!

  33. Awesome post. Thanks for sharing! I am definitely going to hit up my used book store with the idea of “Mystery” books.

    Athena, with your passion for all things food related, have you considered going to culinary school instead of “traditional” college? I ask as someone who loves to cook (literally cook all dinners for my family of 3) and who has been asked why I don’t open a restaurant by people who have a meal from me the first time. The answer for me is “Hell, no!” to opening a restaurant because I don’t want the headaches that are not cooking related.

    If that’s your response, too, it makes perfect sense. I hear the sadness in your posts about your college experience and, admittedly unsolicited, thought I would throw that idea out there to you, if you hadn’t considered it before. My logic being, if you are studying something you are so clearly passionate about, you might stick with it better.

    Regardless, you are awesome and love reading everything you write here.

    @NannyMcC: Quark Xpress! Yes! I loved it in the 90s. My STUDENT license at the time was $600! I just googled and they are still around $300 annual license (which includes upgrades and support) or $530 for “just sell me the software” license (which doesn’t). Wish I had a need to still own it. I loved it. That may be nostalgia talking.

  34. Steenbock Library is the life sciences library on the University of Wisconsin campus. Being also the Food Science library, they collect all kinds of cookbooks, especially the weird and wonderful post WWII style you have here. If these are your jam, I highly recommend visiting them if ever you find yourself in the neighborhood.

  35. I did a quick search on linkedin for Mattie Dyer.

    Although there were matches, sadly none of them appear to be your Mattie.

  36. OMG…”Impossibly Easy Cheeseburger Pie” is in fact stupidly easy. It’s a variant of their “Impossible Quiche” recipe that used to be on the back of the box: the “impossible” refers to how it makes it’s own crust. I now make all my quiches using the skeleton from that recipe:

    2c SOMETHING (chopped formerly-frozen spinach? browned hamburger meat? roasted cauliflower?), layered into a greased pie plate

    1c shredded cheese wot goes well with the something (swiss? cheddar? pepper jack?), sprinkled on top.

    4 eggs, 1c Bisquick, 1c milk, and seasonings wot go with your thing/cheese combo, stirred/whisked together in a bowl (I use a 4c Pyrex measuring cup for the spout) until smooth, then poured carefully over the stuff in the pie plate.

    Bake at 400f for 30min or until a knife comes out clean.

    See? Easy. :)

  37. Nice haul. I have one of the Bisquick minis, but not the ones you have.

    I’ve collected recipe books – some complied by churches (they’ve got some rather tasty recipes), but for S&G, I picked up a couple edited by Anne McCaffrey: Cooking Out of this World (1973) & Serve It Forth (1996), which have recipes submitted by various Fantasy & Science Fiction writers.

    I also picked up (alright, I grabbed it as soon as I saw it) an odd one from a used book store: Official Star Trek Cooking Manual (1978).

  38. My sister still has our Betty Crocker children’s cookbook from the mid-60s, though I don’t know that she uses any of the recipes from it. I too had the Impoverished Student one, but it was mostly starchy stuff, so it went away after a while. I still cook from my first Asian cookbook, Oriental Cooking the Fast Wok Way, from the early 70s. Another favorite recipe I got from an SF collected stories of Anthony Boucher that he called Curry DeLuxe (might have been in one of the McCaffrey books above) and I call California Curry. Of course I tweaked it. I liked the look of the float recipes on the pages you showed. It’s ice cream season, after all. Thanks for whetting my appetite!

  39. What fun! Several of those look familiar to me, and I have at least one very old cookbook myself – a battered vintage copy of a Betty Crocker cookbook that my mother got from her mother as a wedding present. (1950s, that was.) I still make a few of those recipes, though I’ve fallen away from the reliance on condensed-soup-as-ingredient – perhaps it was because I used to snack on condensed cream of mushroom directly from the can when I was a teen…

    Was pleased to see several nods to James Lileks in the comments, and one to The Impoverished Students’ Book of Cookery, Drinkery and House Keepery (1965) – I own a copy of that, mostly for the hilarious tone.

    I’ll put in a word for the YouTube channel “Tasting History with Max Miller”; some of his recipes are from ancient Greece or Babylon, etc., but a recent one was a 1950s fish pudding that has to be seen to be believed.

  40. “Thank GOD Swanson Broth is online for all my brothy needs.” …triggered a giggle, so thanks

    you ought look into who is a collector of these mini-cookbooks… for sure if there’s a category of ‘thing’ there are those collecting ’em… good topic for a column…

    what could be potentially funny (or disastrous or both) is if you and your father videotaped you working through the recipes one-by-one to following by a snarky mock-dinner party ala Julia Child… if not a full web site then a YT channel…

    especially if you researched one of those most critical ingredients and ab-libbed a 5 minute briefing on the history of “greasing a pan” or “liner-paper” or the fire hazards of allowing curious cats in the kitchen or… or… or…

  41. As a Canadian, that “Maple-apple ice cream punch” made with corn syrup is triggering.

  42. Do you have an era or genre in your cookbook collecting — 1940s and earlier, processed foods, church and organization fundraisers or ??? Most of the donated cookbooks I see at the local Friends of the Library stores are ca. 1980s, when Betty Crocker et. al were putting out those 15 volume series: Meat, Vegetables, Crockpot Cooking, Microwave, etc. Collect Them All! That, and the ones like you found that were frequently included in new appliance purchases, or as premiums with XX number of proof-of-purchases.

  43. This was very entertaining. I haven’t actually used a cookbook in… err… has it been decades, already? I usually fling a bunch of things together and yet, somehow, they have never once come out like a John Scalzi Burrito[TM], so fortune is with me.

    Some of the recipes look plausible, and do let us know!

  44. Just think, if you find one more coupon, you’ll have turned a profit on your $1 for your mystery recipe books.

    Also, I just love how the chocolate-pineapple float in the CIA book calls for “chocolate sirup.” I didn’t know that the word had another spelling so recently!

  45. Some of my extended families favorite casserole dishes came out of these sort of promotional cookbooks. You definitely got a great bargain. I think that CIA one in particular will be full of goodness.

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