These historic Pittsburgh cookbooks are a roadmap to our culinary roots | Food | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

These historic Pittsburgh cookbooks are a roadmap to our culinary roots

click to enlarge These historic Pittsburgh cookbooks are a roadmap to our culinary roots
Courtesy of HathiTrust
Pittsburgh is unique in its culinary history, not because of Yinzer favorites like pierogies, halušky, and (arguably) Primanti Bros. sandwiches, but because of the various families and cultures that have written our local cookbooks over the decades.

So what's special about the quintessential Pittsburgh recipes of yesteryear? The sheer volume of talented home cooks and chefs offering a melange of preserved cookbooks from different backgrounds.

Pittsburgh City Paper compiled a list of local cookbooks from the past 140 years that are worth a look, and a taste.
Keep in mind this list does not include every vintage cookbook in Pittsburgh’s history nor is it a compilation of “bests”, but each is a wonderful representation of its time in our local history.

Pittsburgh Tested Recipes (Prepared by the Ladies) (1885)

Reading recipes from 139 years ago puts our modern conveniences into perspective. We no longer need to think about curing our meats or making our daily bread like many in the post-Civil War era.

Like other local 19th-century cookbooks, many of these recipes are quite dated (stuffed leg of mutton, anyone?), but some are strikingly familiar. Chicken fritters — or, as we like to call them, tendies — were made much the same as they are today. The noodle, split pea, and tomato soups haven’t changed much, either.

Whether strangely vintage or familiar, each page of recipes is an absolute delight.
Woven throughout the pages are ads from local businesses of the era such as S. Hamilton, the largest piano and organ house in Pennsylvania, located on Fifth Ave., or J.B. Youngson’s Bakery, located down the street from City Paper.

The best recipe, in my opinion, is the precursor to the chipped ham sandwich on page 25. After boiling your ham, seasoning it, and spreading it on a fresh biscuit, “these will be found excellent.”

Valuable and Tried Receipts (1898)

This turn-of-the-century recipe book was sold for charity and features era-appropriate delights such as jellied meats, souse cheese and meat puddings, and a Chiffonade salad with homemade dressing.
click to enlarge These historic Pittsburgh cookbooks are a roadmap to our culinary roots
Courtesy of HathiTrust


One thing that stunned me about this local “Pittsburg” recipe book was the massive section of fish and seafood recipes. It made me wonder where landlocked people purchased crab and oysters in those days. Also, the authors got down with cooking every part of a calf, creating scrumptious dishes such as Scalloped Calf’s Head.

And for dessert lovers, the homemade vanilla ice cream recipe is worth a shot. It’s incredibly easy and doesn’t vary wildly from our modern recipes (sans a Kitchen Aid ice cream maker).

Cook Book - RJ Reed Missionary Society First Presbyterian Church (1920)

This book is a window into the post-WWI era, where the loosening of 19th-century propriety hadn’t quite untethered, leading into the roaring '20s. It begins with a reminder about nutrition: “Poor food stunts the physical and mental growth, and there can be no progress when good food is absent.” And then it shows us how to properly set a table for the perfect meal, with multitudes of flatware positioned just so around the plates. Orders of service, course by course, are noted in different cultural styles with menu suggestions for special occasions.

With cocktails, canapes, and fancy coffee drinks gracing its pages, this cookbook is the elevated version of its predecessors. Beautifully drawn illustrations allow the reader to emulate the finished products. Step-by-step directions from start to finish, including proper garnishes, help the reader to recreate these cherished centuries-old recipes flawlessly.

Heinz Recipe Book (1939)

When I think of quintessential Pittsburgh foods, I always picture Heinz. In 1939, Pittsburgh’s favorite manufacturer of condiments created a cookbook with “menus for every occasion.” Not to mention, it lists all 57 varieties of Heinz available at the time.
click to enlarge These historic Pittsburgh cookbooks are a roadmap to our culinary roots
Photo: Courtesy of The Kraft Heinz Company
Heinz Ketchup in a glass bottle
Of course, the reader is prompted to use Heinz products in creating dressed-up
 vegetables, side dishes, starters, main courses, and desserts — yes, desserts — made with Heinz. This book may contain the first recorded recipe for meatloaf with ketchup, a standard on my grandmother’s weekly menu, and it holds the key to ketchup-based dessert toppings.

Bess’ Cook Book 400 Original Recipes (1940)

Bessie Gant was the national food editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, and she later ran a successful catering company in Los Angeles, serving up Southern-inspired dishes to movie studios and the Black social elite. Bess was one of the most recognized Black “celebrity chefs” of her day, releasing three editions of her famous cookbook which later featured favorite dishes of Katherine Hepburn and other celebrities she served.

Bessie’s recipes were original, including her Sunkist cake and spicy creole shrimp. Getting your hands on one of Bessie’s cookbooks in pristine condition is nearly impossible today, and there is only one copy of her first edition in the archives' library at the University of Pittsburgh.

The Nationality Rooms Recipe Book (1975)

Instead of choosing one of the many 1970s cookbooks filled with cured meats suspended in gelatin, I decided to feature The Nationality Rooms Recipe Book for its healthful recipes and multicultural flavors reflective of our local population at the time. The book is jam-packed with authentic dishes from around the world including South America, India, Russia, Europe, and the Middle East.

The original 1975 Nationality Rooms Recipe Book is celebrated for its spectacular meatball recipe and sweet and sour cabbage. The Nationality Rooms in Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning continues to post new recipes on its website, many of which are in video form for ease of use.
click to enlarge These historic Pittsburgh cookbooks are a roadmap to our culinary roots
Photo: Courtesy of Etsy
The Super Steeler Cookbook (1982)

The Super Steeler Cookbook (1982)

If you’re not creating your NFL Draft Day spread from these tried-and-true, Steelers-approved recipes, what are you even doing with your life? This treasure includes delicious game-day snacks, cute caricatures of early '80s Steelers, and a table of contents separated into “quarters.” There’s nothing I don't love about this Pittsburgh Steelers cookbook. From Jack Lambert’s Italian appetizer to Jack Ham’s chicken salad to Franco Harris’ eggnog, you can experience the many flavors enjoyed by championship Steelers in their heyday.

This volume was easy to find in e-book format and in its original spiral binding on Amazon and Etsy. If you have a Steelers fan in your life who loves to cook, this vintage cookbook could be the best gift ever.