July 31, 2014 at 1:00 am

Car Culture: Cookbooks were a traditional recipe to sell cars

Cookbooks were a folksy way for automakers to dish out goodwill

Automakers these days can commune with fans in myriad ways beyond traditional advertising, from tweets and YouTube videos to discussion boards, Instagram and Vine.

Those are the 21st century methods corporations use for staying on a first-name basis with prospective customers and for keeping their images spruced.

In decades past, car companies, like so many other consumer product makers, wooed public goodwill in a folksier fashion: recipe collections.

Whether they offered gourmet restaurant fare road trips around the world or the ingredients for a moister pound cake, books and pamphlets published by auto-related groups and companies are probably lurking in many a Metro Detroit attic, basement or bookcase.

They’re a modest niche in the world of collectible volumes, experts say, but like most 20th century cookbooks they reflect more than just menus: They’re a window into the economy, the social mores, the aspirations and trends of the era in which they are written.

“Auto companies would have issued them for the same reason as other companies: marketing,” said Danielle Kovacs, curator of the McIntosh Cookery Collection at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries. “The 1930s to the 1950s was the heyday; while corporate cookbooks continued to be issued after that, they aren’t the great beauties we see from the mid-century, with lovely illustrations and graphics.

“Many new foods and products were introduced in that era, and manufacturers needed a way to teach people how to use them.”

General Motors, for example, was behind a number of cookbooks published by its Frigidaire subsidiary; the refrigerator maker’s guides date to the 1920s; one posted on Etsy offers this introductory text: “This booklet is published so that Frigidaire users may have at their disposal a variety of recipes for frozen dainties. And at the same time they may have many helpful hints as to the most practical and simplest way each recipe may be prepared.”

The University of Massachusetts collection also features a “Cooking Across America” compilation of recipes offered by Ford Motor Credit employees.

And Wendy Guerin, co-founder of the online Cookbook Village site which specializes in vintage volumes, found several examples in her records as well, including “Cakes Men Like” and “Simple Backyard Cookery,” two of the pamphlets published by GM in the 1950s.

Guerin’s also spotted a Rolls-Royce club cookbook from Atlanta in the 1970s, a more modern-day Volkswagen recipe tome and a 1979 volume called “Look What We’ve Cooked Up!” produced by the Independent Garagemen’s Association and the Automotive Service Association in Austin, Texas.

The Ford Times, a monthly magazine the automaker published for nearly nine decades from 1908-96, featured recipes from restaurants around the country. Starting in 1950, many of the recipes were compiled in a series of “treasuries” issued from time to time, lavishly illustrated with original artwork of the restaurants.

“The message there was ‘hit the road and explore,’ ” noted Kovacs.

Volume 6, published in 1974 for $4.95 with menus tested by the “women’s editor” of the Ford Times, features dishes that reflect ’70s foodie flair. Michigan entries include flaming mushroom caps from the Eastman Gaslight Room at West Grand River and Bagley in Detroit, the Swiss mushroom soup from the city’s ‘swinging” Jim’s Garage and the beef, rice and green pepper casserole from the Weathervane Inn in Charlevoix.

Auto dealers doled out cookbooks stamped with their name and address; a recent Etsy listing offers “Menu Magic” from Ross Chevrolet for $5. And a number of car clubs nationwide have published recipe collections for fundraising or just for fun. More recently, Mercedes-Benz lent its name to a volume of picnic recipes, and

If you’re looking for some retro recipes for a Dream Cruise party a few weeks hence, you shouldn’t have much trouble turning up a copy of the Ford Times cookbooks, said Tom Heitjan, a manager at John King Books in Detroit.

“The Ford Times are definitely the most popular; we’ve had to stop buying them because we have so many duplicates,” he said. “They aren’t really of huge value. Now, a cookbook with ‘Packard,’ on it, we could sell that!”

Less available but floating around on Internet sales sites are auto-related menu minders like the “My Favorite Desserts” booklet credited to “Chrysler Women,” and some UAW recipe books. Such community and fundraising tomes are popular nostalgia pieces for more recent generations, Heijtan said.

“Twenty years ago, people weren’t thinking anybody would want these someday,” so they were often thrown away, Heitjan noted. “Now we’re getting the sons and daughters and grandsons looking for cookbooks their grandmothers’ recipes are in.”

Melissa Preddy is a Michigan-based freelance writer. Reach her via mpreddy@aol.com.