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October 18, 2011 at 7:00 PM

Recipe box: Seattle newspapers have historic perspective

If you’re someone who would grab your ancient recipe box before running for the door in a fire, you’re not alone. To many of us, old recipe collections (Grandma’s cursive writing! Recipe cards stained with boeuf bourguignon!) are historic and familial documents that — with all due respect to the backlit computer screen and — are an important link to our past. One that deserves to be preserved for our future.

Which is why I got a cry for help from Jodee Fenton. As managing librarian for Seattle Public Library’s Special Collections, she’d certainly have her hands full in a fire.

Fenton said the library had inherited a vast collection of published recipes from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, dating back to the 1940s, and was unsure exactly what should be done with it. “Would you be interested in looking at the collection?” she wondered.

Does Betty Crocker sell fudge brownies?

These recipe archives from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, once destined for the Dumpster, have been secreted away at the Central Library thanks to retired librarian Linda Saunto.

“I didn’t know the recipes existed till Linda asked me to take them,” Fenton told me as she pointed at six mail-bins piled high with recipe cards stored in a locked office at the Central Library.

Linda Saunto retired in March after curating the library’s cookbook collection for 30 years, bequeathing Fenton with her “secret” recipe stash. It had been passed from one Seattle culinarian to another over the last decade in an effort to save them from the recycle bin. But what to do? I helped convince Fenton to begin the process of cataloging and digitalizing them so the public might someday have access via the Internet.

“Those recipes are about our culture, our roots, our history,” Saunto said. “A file like that reflects what was interesting to Seattle, and what we put on our plates.”

Fenton echoes her sentiment: “Those recipes are very much of their time, which is what made me think that the collection has a real role in the history of eating. What was good? What did we desire? What were the holiday dishes? The recipes are a very important piece of social history.”

That’s what Hsiao-Ching Chou thought when she was hired at the P-I in 2000 and later charged with determining what to do with the company’s yellowed recipe files. “As a young food writer, I was looking for what was new, looking for trends, and perhaps I was too naive,” recollects the P-I’s former food editor. “But I didn’t put weight in the archival value of those recipes.”

OK, so we might not want to put this on our plates anymore. Seafood risotto with Lawry’s spaghetti sauce mix and canned shrimp? Feh!

Molded aspic with artichokes remoulade. The height of sophistication, in 1969.

She did, however, know someone who would find a proper resting place for the files’ culinary currency. Enter longtime cookbook collector Judy Amster, who carted off the treasure trove, then shared that news with her friend Saunto.

At the time, said Saunto, “The library was in the midst of moving to temporary quarters, so Judy took the collection and put it in a storage locker.” Once Saunto was settled into the city’s new Central Library, Amster turned over the booty. But not before examining the boxes’ contents.

In addition to recipes for salmon loaf and ambrosia, Amster found handwritten pleas from readers, begging for lost pickle recipes and screaming for help: “I’m having Thanksgiving at my house for the first time. What should I make?”

These days, you might turn to websites, blogs or TV celebs like Paula Deen and Rachael Ray for answers. But back in the day, recalls Seattle Times food editor Sharon Lane, those queries were the purview of Dorothy Neighbors (at The Times) and Prudence Penny (at the P-I) — pseudonyms for the home economists who manned the phones and filled the food pages.

Need a recipe? Dorothy Neighbors and Prudence Penny are your gals! [photos/Nancy Leson]

“We had four home economists,” remembers Lane, a longtime Times employee. “Readers would call and say, ‘I want a nice meatloaf recipe,’ and they’d go to our files and read them the recipe, or mail it to them.”

Those files still sit in the Times’ newsroom, comprising 42 drawers housing thousands of recipes, including the much-adored “John Hinterberger’s Clam Spaghetti” and the “Better-Than-Sex Cake” that predated Paula Deen’s version.

And you thought halibut cheeks were so au courant, didn’t you? This recipe from the Seattle Times files dates back to the 1930s. [Seattle Times/Courtney Blethen Riffkin]

Every Wednesday, says Lane, a home economist would clip the recipes from the paper, glue each to an index card, date it and file it. Computerization put an end to that task. The papers’ home economists went home for good and those recipe files, for the most part, became relics worthy of the library’s special collections.

In a few months, Lane and I, along with our colleagues, will be moving from the historic Seattle Times building to cozier quarters next door. Recycle bins at the ready, we’ve been told to clear the decks and purge our files. And when I inquired about our old recipe collection, the Times’ food editor fixed me with a defiant stare.

“We’re hauling them across the street, and they’ll stay there if I have to sit on them!”

So tell me: Do you have a favorite newspaper recipe still in use? What is it? And where did you get it?

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