Review: Better Homes and Gardens Recipe Card Library, part 1 (1978)

Before I begin, I have to say that I have an obsession with recipe card libraries.  At this point, I have 10 different card indexes, and I love looking through all of the pictures of the dishes and reading the recipes.  Most of the card libraries I own are from the 1970s, but I have one from the 1950s and a couple from the 1980s too.  These recipe card libraries are great because they offer a lot of variety for home chefs.  They are all organized thematically.  Some, like Cookindex, are organized by ingredient.  Others, like the Betty Crocker Recipe Card Library, are organized by occasion (outdoor cooking, just for kids, tea time, etc).  Most of them have a few international dishes, as well as entrees, appetizers, side dishes, and desserts.

The card library that I’m reviewing today is the Better Homes and Gardens Recipe Card Library published by the Meredith Corporation in 1978.  Better Homes and Gardens is the fourth best-selling magazine in the United States.  It is the flagship magazine of the Meredith Corporation which was founded in 1922 by Edwin Meredith, US Secretary of Agriculture from 1920-1921 under Woodrow Wilson.  The magazine is a monthly periodical that specializes in information about homes, cooking, gardening, entertaining, and crafts.

There have been at least three recipe card indexes published under the Better Homes and Gardens brand.  The others include a diet recipe card library (I’m working on adding this to my collection) and one dedicated to microwave cooking.  Both were published in the late 1980s.

The 1978 recipe card library came in a large plastic container with a hinged lid that opens lengthwise.  The most common colors for the cases seem to be white and yellow, but I have seen a couple of red and avocado green cases as well.  There are 39 sections to the card library with 17 cards apiece for a whopping total of 663 cards!  Each section is differentiated by a numbered divider card which stands a half inch taller than the recipe cards.  As is standard for this type of card library, the divider cards have cooking tips on the back.  The recipe cards are lettered from A to P and have a color photograph on the front with one or two recipes on the back.  The set also includes a card index and a series of booklets with meal planning suggestions and cooking tips.  The box is absolutely packed.  I’m missing the recipe index and I can’t see how it would fit in the box.

Skillet Enchiladas 2
The recipe calls for fresh or frozen tortillas.  I didn’t know that tortillas were sold in a can at one point.  As it turns out, they were either sold in a short, squat can which allowed the tortillas to lay flat in their natural position or they were sold crammed into an upright can.  El Paso sold canned tortillas in a short, squat can until the mid-1990s.

In many ways, my podcast and blog are a love letter to the creators of recipe card libraries. I was inspired to start this project after I purchased the Betty Crocker Recipe Card Library because I wanted some sort of reason to try cooking some of the recipes.

Some of the recipes may seem appalling to modern tastes, but there is a certain charm to them.  These card indexes harken back to a different time.  It was a time when there weren’t Mexican and Chinese restaurants in every town and city, let alone Ethiopian and Venezuelan.  It was also a changing time when more married women were working outside of the home than ever before, but they were still largely expected to do a majority of the cooking and cleaning.  These recipes represent a desire for balance.  Rather than every recipe being cooked from scratch, we see a lot of time-saving shortcuts.  The Skillet Enchiladas call for cream of mushroom soup, canned enchilada sauce, and canned chili peppers rather than fresh tomatoes and chilies.  Canned salmon is used in the place of fresh salmon in many recipes.  At the same time, there’s a surprising amount of care written into these recipes.  The tops of the Harlequin Sandwiches are decorated with sliced pimiento, and the Della Robbia Wreath Salad is lovingly decorated with cream cheese and frosted grapes so that it looks almost too precious to eat even if it is made with canned fruit.

Harlequin Sandwiches 2
Such adorable little sandwiches.  They contain tuna salad, deviled ham salad, or a blended peanut butter-apple filling and are decorated with sliced pimiento, green pepper, and snipped parsley.   I am a bit uncertain how the pimento decorations go with the peanut butter-apple filling.  I can’t imagine that it goes well.

Below are some of the recipe cards from section 1-13.  These represent some of my favorite recipes from the first third of the box. Admittedly, I have not cooked any of these recipes.  They are just some that I found interesting.

Wine Jelly 2
I love this idea.  Sterilized wine glasses are filled with hot wine jelly.  The wine glass is then sealed with paraffin wax.  After the wax has hardened, additional hot paraffin is whipped with an electric mixer and spooned over the hardened paraffin in the glass to give it a snowy appearance.  While it looks super neat, it is inadvisable to actually do this.  First, many wine glasses can’t withstand the heat.  Second, the USDA recommends against sealing jellies with paraffin because there is no guarantee of a perfect seal.  If it’s being stored in a refrigerator, it might be safe for a few weeks, but I wouldn’t recommend saving it for any longer than that.
Upside Down Pineapple Mold 2
It wouldn’t be a recipe card index from the 1970s without at least a few gelatin-based molds.  Above is a really cute pineapple mold made to look like a pineapple upside-down cake.  The base is made with lemon and strawberry flavored gelatins.  Pineapple juice and rhubarb are used to enhance flavor the gelatin.  Below is a Salmon-Avocado Mold which is thankfully made with unflavored gelatin.  Overall, this recipe may seem strange to our modern sensibilities, but overall, there’s nothing about it that seems like it would be overly offensive.  It’s essentially a salmon salad coated in an avocado/sour cream mixture.  While the look of the dish is a bit off-putting, I dare say, it might actually be tasty. (I would probably switch out the olives for capers since I’m not a fan of green olives).

Salmon-Avocado Mold 2

Polynesian Pork Steaks 2
It’s ok, the wormy looking things are just coconut.  I’m including this recipe because I’m unsure if it translates to today.  It calls for strained plum baby food which I couldn’t find during a cursory internet search.  Sure, you could make your own plum baby food to use, but if you’re going to all of the trouble, you could probably find a more authentic Polynesian sauce for the recipe.
Oyster Stew 2
There’s an adage in the food blogging world that soup rarely photographs well.  They tried so hard in this picture.  They chose an attractive tureen to serve it from, and even floated crackers with pimiento stars on top of the soup, but it still just doesn’t look attractive.  The recipe, however, looks quite good.  It doesn’t call for any short-cuts, and it even calls for fresh-shucked oysters.
Jumbo Cornburger 2
This is another recipe that seems like it should be full of canned products, but it’s fairly can-free.  It does call for a can of tomato sauce and canned corn, but that’s about it aside from the ever-so-popular pimiento.  It has far more fresh ingredients than canned, including tomato, sage, green pepper, and onion.  It is a prime example of 70s cooking: simple ingredients, filling, meaty, and starchy with a nice smattering of convenience.  I’m sure this would have been a crowd pleaser back in the day.  Nothing about it is particularly offensive, and it suits a wide-range of tastes.  It seems like it would be a really fun, retro dish to serve at a pot-luck or themed party.
Hawiian Beets 2
Beets and pineapple.  I’m still trying to decide if they would work together.
Easy Sauerkraut Mold 2
I could see this working, if it weren’t for the lemon flavored gelatin.  As I found out in the Jell-O episode, I just can’t handle sweetened Jell-O with things that should be savory.  I do, however, love sauerkraut.  Like many of the recipes on this page, this recipe also calls for pimiento which seems like it was the height of class back in the 1970s.
Della Robbia Wreath Salad 2
This dish is named after della Robbia family.  Luca della Robbia and his nephew Andrea were fifteenth century sculptors. Many of the round pieces that the della Robbias sculpted were bordered with flowers, leaves, and fruits.  These sculptures were emulated by wreath-makers and later people who wished to entertain friends and family with attractive fruit salads.  Come to think of it, the della Robbias might have been imitating the medieval practice of decorating serving dishes with leaves, fruit, and feathers.  This is the sort of chicken and egg debates that keep me up at night.
Buffet Glazed Salmon 2
This is one of those quintessentially 70’s dishes that look so foreign to us today, but would not be out of place if served between two slices of rye bread or as an hors ‘d oeuvre.  It’s just salmon with sliced cucumber, radish, and flavored cream cheese, but this style of presentation is just not in style today.

All of these cards are under the copyright of the Meredith Corporation.  I do not claim to have copyright over these images, but the commentary is my own.  If you’re interested in learning more about these recipes, I recommend finding a copy of the Better Homes and Gardens Recipe Card Collection.  I purchased mine from eBay and there are quite a few still available there and on etsy.  The Better Homes and Gardens website and magazines are a great repository of information.  It’s well worth picking up an issue or subscription if you are so inclined.

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