From handwritten notes to those questionable Jell-O salads, old cookbooks are a great source of history

It's super easy to get recipes online these days, but there's a certain charm in leafing through an old cookbook. While some of the recipes might be odd, the chef's notes are priceless.

Old cookbooks are a great source of history, especially when the chef left handwritten notes. iStock / Special to The Forum

I’m going to go out on a limb and prepare for the subsequent hate emails — I don’t think Jell-O should be mixed with cottage cheese, mayonnaise or vegetables of any kind. Fruit and whipped cream with Jell-O? OK. Jell-O with savory condiments? Blech.

But such recipes appear in abundance in the old cookbooks that I simply adore. It’s a hobby, really — finding old cookbooks from before the 1960s. Whether they’re compiled by church basement ladies, sold as 4-H club fundraisers or given away by old businesses celebrating anniversaries, I immerse myself in every page.

So imagine my delight when I went to the Moorhead Antique Mall the other day and found an old cookbook that is not only circa-1960s, but is also from my employer.

The "Party Line" cookbook features the smiling faces of hosts Verna Newell and Boyd Christensen, with their autographs in the front inside cover. If you’re not familiar with “Party Line,” read a story I wrote about the former show earlier this year. To summarize, “Party Line” was an afternoon talk show on WDAY-TV that featured cooking demonstrations, community information and even celebrity guests.


This "Party Line" cookbook cost $4.95 at an antique store and is full of nostalgia. Tracy Briggs / The Forum

When I saw the simple blue and white cookbook (more of a booklet, really), I jumped at the chance to buy it for just $4.95. I got home and started thumbing through it — not just for the recipes, but the handwritten notes inside. Aren’t those the best?

Have you ever found an old recipe that belonged to your mother or grandmother and smiled (or cried) when you saw their handwritten notes beside the recipe? My mother, mother-in-law and grandmothers are all gone now, so it’s my favorite part of browsing through their old cookbooks. Seeing beautifully written recipe notes from long-lost loved ones makes me feel like they’re in the kitchen with me.

“Seeing beautifully written recipe notes from long lost loved ones makes me feel like they’re in the kitchen with me.”


Even though I didn’t know who this “Party Line” cookbook belonged to, I still got a huge kick out of the handwritten notes on the pages of the cookbook and even on the little paper notes stuffed within it.

The cookbook had a handwritten note tucked inside. Tracy Briggs / The Forum


So, I thought, let’s take a closer look at the notes the owner of this cookbook wrote and either take her advice or try to prove her wrong. I'm going to assume it was a woman as the neat, cursive writing reminds me of my mom’s writing, and also because “Party Line’s” audience skewed heavily female. For the sake of this story, I’m going to call the original owner of this cookbook — the woman who left the notes — “Joyce.”

One of the first recipe notes I found was an emphatic “no” with an exclamation point beside a recipe that I think looks pretty good. It’s for Almond Rice Casserole, which contains noodles, rice, hamburger, pork and blanched almonds, among other things. I think it looks kind of tasty.

But Joyce either disliked the ingredients enough to not even attempt the recipe, or made it and hated the outcome.

The owner of this cookbook either so disliked the ingredients of this casserole she chose not to even try to make it or she made it and hated it! Tracy Briggs / The Forum

So I decided I’d see whether Joyce was right or wrong. First, here's the recipe.

The Almond Rice Casserole had a nice kick of spice from the pork and crunch from the almonds. Tracy Briggs / The Forum


Almond Rice Casserole

Serves: 12


2 packages dry chicken noodle soup mix

1 1/2 pounds hamburger

1 pound pork sausage

1 large onion, minced

1 large red, green or yellow bell pepper (I used red because I liked the pop of color)

1-2 cups chopped celery (I only used 1 cup of celery, because my family doesn't love celery)

1-2 cups uncooked rice (I used 1 cup, but 2 would have made a heartier, less brothy casserole)

4 1/2 cups water

1/4 cup soy sauce

1 cup blanched almonds

1 cup canned mushrooms


Combine soup mixes in a casserole dish. Brown meat and drain off fat. Add onion, pepper and celery and stir. Mix water, soy sauce, almonds and mushrooms and add to meat mixture. Pour over soup mix and rice in casserole dish. Bake uncovered for 1 hour at 350 degrees.

Recipe inspired by "Our Favorite Recipes: Party Line Cookbook."

Casserole thoughts

So how did it turn out? Was Joyce right to leave the "NO!" beside the recipe? Or was I right to think it looked pretty good?

Sorry, Joyce. I was right. This was pretty tasty. The pork mixed with hamburger had just enough spice, the noodles and rice complemented each other, and I enjoyed the crunch of the almonds.

Joyce was more positive about a recipe she found in the dessert section called Pillsbury Bars. With no offense intended to whomever wrote this recipe, it’s a little vague and confusing. For example, there is no baking time listed, so I had to guess. I also took some liberties with how I put the bars together.

I decided instead of using a cookie sheet as recommended to use the Perfect Brownie Pan I bought off an infomercial a few years ago. I don’t believe this “As Seen on TV” gem existed during the Johnson administration, but I figured it would help me make more exact rectangles.

The previous owner of this cookbook wrote a note to "try these" Pillsbury Bars. Tracy Briggs / The Forum

I also updated the recipe to use unwrapped caramel bits, instead of having to unwrap the plastic on individual caramels. I’d like to say it’s better for the environment, but I think I’m mostly just lazy.

For the chocolate drizzle, I just used a prepackaged Betty Crocker chocolate icing already in a tube. Again, “Are you there lazy? It’s me, Tracy.”

I also changed the name of the recipe from the overly generic and branded Pillsbury Bars. Here is my slightly altered recipe.

Old Cookbook7
These were called Pillsbury Bars in the 1960s "Party Line" Cookbook, but the note of "try these" the original owner of the cookbook left beside the recipe inspired me to tweak the recipe a bit and call them Party Line "Try These" Bars. Tracy Briggs / The Forum

Party Line 'Try These' Bars

Serves: 12


1 cup butter, room temperature

1 cup brown sugar

1 beaten egg yolk

2 cups flour

1 teaspoon vanilla

11-ounce bag Kraft Caramel Bits

1/4-1/2 cup evaporated milk

Additional 1/4 cup butter, for caramel topping

1 cup powdered sugar

1/2 chopped pecans

Betty Crocker chocolate cookie icing in a tube


Mix butter, brown sugar, egg yolk, flour and vanilla until it reaches dough consistency. Spread into a Perfect Brownie Pan (for easiest cutting) or 9-by-13-inch pan, jelly roll pan or cookie sheet. The pan you choose might make a difference for how long it bakes. The brownie pan or 9-by-13 pan should take about 20-25 minutes. A jelly roll pan or cookie sheet probably will be closer to 15 minutes. Bake at 350 degrees. Cut into squares or rectangles while still warm.

While the bars are baking, make the caramel topping by melting caramel bits with evaporated milk. Add butter and stir. Add powdered sugar and pecans. Keep warm while bars finish.

Let bars cool before topping with approximately 1 tablespoon of caramel pecan topping per bar. Drizzle with chocolate icing.

Recipe inspired by "Our Favorite Recipes: Party Line Cookbook."

How were the bars?

So how’d they turn out? Fabulous! The bars were similar to a blondie — buttery and chewy. The caramel/pecan topping was luscious, and the dark chocolate drizzle added more depth of flavor. So, Joyce, thanks for suggesting we try these. Good call.

Both of these were certainly better than what I imagine those Jell-O recipes I talked about at the beginning of this story would be. The ones that stood out to me the most were something called Cottage Cheese Apricot Salad, which contains lemon Jell-O, cottage cheese, walnuts and maraschino cherries, or something called Bride’s Salad with lime Jell-O, cabbage and mayonnaise.

Do you think these might actually be good? Should I try them?

article7058035.ece Should Tracy make the Jello salads that scare her? Should Tracy make the Jello salads that scare her? Yes! Try them. It's fun to live dangerously! No! Sometimes history shouldn't be repeated.

Tracy Briggs is an Emmy-nominated News, Lifestyle and History reporter with Forum Communications with more than 35 years of experience, in broadcast, print and digital journalism.
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