Why we love old recipe books

When I was little, I had a dream.

I would sit on the floor with my mother’s copy of the Royal Hostess recipe book (“South Africa’s own cookbook” it said proudly on the cover) and wish with all my heart that my mother would one day make me the Royal Rondawel cake.

The 1952 rondawel cake
The 1962 rondawel cake

Now that I am a mother, I understand completely why she didn’t ever make it. But I loved everything about that picture: the colours, the little Father Christmas, the hint of a present in the corner.

At a recent gathering, one of the women present said to her sister (my friend, also present) that the cake we were eating tasted just like the apple cake their long-departed mother used to make. “I still have the Royal Hostess,” she mused. “I wonder if that recipe is in there?”

I also still have my mother’s Royal Hostess – so I asked them if they too remembered the rondawel cake and they were mystified. Their Royal Hostess had no such cake they declared. They hauled out that old recipe book – and found that it does have a rondawel cake, though nothing like a splendid as mine. It turns her book is the second edition from 1954, while mine is the fifth edition from 1962 (Completely Revised, it says).

The series was of course made to promote Royal Baking powder.

What they have in common are very battered white leather covers, the rather strange version of the old South African flag, glossy pages and tabbed sections. Both these books assume they are talking to a young housewife and have reassuringly commanding tones: “If you keep a check on your expenses you will maintain a balance between stinginess and extravagance,” says the 1962 edition in its section on The Household Budget.

The foreword to the 1962 edition says the books are based on recipes from the kitchen of Mrs Molly Wrightson, who had previously only sent a complete set of recipes into “the households of her married daughters. They and their friends found them invaluable, and soon pointed out to Mrs Wrightson how much her recipes would be appreciated by other young housewives.”

I have never been a housewife, but I did go and buy myself my own Royal Hostess in 1987. This has no references to young housewives but promises to provide “basic, economical and easy-to-prepare recipes, using ingredients that are readily available in South Africa” and deals with new cooking appliances like microwave ovens and slow cookers.

Sadly, it does not contain any version of the rondawel cake.

Jenny Kay, the current “Angela Day” on the Star newspaper, also has her Royal Hostess from years ago. “When I worked at Angela Day over 30 years ago this was one of the most used books when it came to sourcing reliable information,” she says.

“We have recipe books dating back more than 30 years ( sadly all out of print now),” she adds.

Why are we all so fond of these books? Partly they come from a quieter time, when there was no Google and no millions of choices abut what to do with trendy ingredients. No celebrity chefs. No foodie blogs. What you had was just an authoritative collection of recipes that really do work, the contents of your pantry and some common sense.

But mostly what these old books represent is continuity. Through the handing down of these familiar companions, our mothers were handing on memories and connecting generations over the love of what is both a daily chore and a source of life.

I asked my son if he minded that I had never made the famous rondawel cake. In his serious 12-year-old way he took a long look at the picture and the recipe and concluded that he and I can make it together. So we have made a pact to try it in the New Year.

And the Royal Hostess will live again.