Pardon me while I fanboy. I've long wanted to write a piece about a singular special book that was a mainstay of my childhood home and family's hobby farm. But every time I start my research I fall down an extraneous rabbit hole of history and stories.
So, I've decided to write a DIY/homesteading article series with the first installment a tribute to a fascinating author who has, by account of her books sales and speaking tours (and despite her enduring humble presence) had significant influence on American culture for over 40 years.
My mom's first copy of Carla Emery's Old Fashioned Recipe Book has long since fallen apart and been replaced by one of the original printings that are still available. The earliest editions of the Recipe Book were unique in that they were mimeographed and hand-assembled by the author and friends. This was no small task, as those familiar with the book know that it's huge! At 700 pages, it earned a spot in the Guiness Book of World Records as the "largest mimeographed volume in general circulation".
Other early editions were printed on—hard to believe nowadays—a different color paper for each chapter. Imagine hefting around a five pound book printed on the equivalent of kids construction paper! With charming hand-drawn illustrations and typewriter typeface, it was a quaint work of art:
So what's the big deal about a recipe book?
First of all, it's far from just a recipe book (more on that title in a moment). Emery was essentially writing a treatise on sustainable living and the homesteading movement. From gardening tips to butchering to homemade remedies, it was the bible for those living off the land.
In my home, it taught us everything from food preservation to raising goats. Starting in 1982, we raised, at any given time, 7 goats, 40 chickens, a couple of turkeys, and a couple of geese. We baled hay, canned garden veggies, and tapped maple trees for boiling into maple syrup. But I digress (Hey, I warned you)...
Carla Emery was an early figure in the back-to-the-land movement that was taking root in America throughout the 1960's and 70's. By 1969 (age 30) when she began writing chapters of the book—first distributed as a newsletter—she'd made her way from her birthplace in Los Angeles to Idaho where she would eventually open a short-lived school for her teachings. The school was destroyed in a flood the following year.
The first edition of her book, an exhaustive 875 hand-assembled copies, was released in 1974. By the end of 1975, she had printed five editions and sold a staggering 13,000 copies. The book garnered a publishing deal and has since been released in many editions under the title Encyclopedia of Country Living (since it was far more enyclopedic than merely a recipe book). According to her daughter, the book has now sold approximately a quarter of a million copies.
Those who loved the book early on, loved it's conversational tone. In each edition Emery typed notes to her readers apologizing for previous grammatical errors and updating them on life on her farm. It was part autobiography, part homesteading philosophy, and part how-to manual. It was important. It broke the rules. And if Carla were alive today, I like to think she'd be at the helm of some popular, subversive, sustainable lifestyle blog.
But Emery died unexpectedly in October, 2005. She had just returned to her home in Texas after a nationwide speaking tour, when she succumbed to low blood sugar. Here's my mom meeting Carla in June 2005, four months earlier:
A week after her death, Carla's husband Don emailed the following tribute to her newsletter subscribers:
"Carla Emery DeLong, bestselling author of The Encyclopedia of Country Living and tireless crusader for the homesteading movement, passed away of complications from low blood pressure on October 11, 2005. She died in Odessa, Texas, on her way home from a national speaking tour, surrounded by her family.Carla's entire life was distinguished by her strength of character and her willingness to make her own way on her own terms. She will be remembered by thousands around the world for her writings on independent living, and for the doctrines of self-sufficiency and environmental stewardship she preached at speaking engagements across the United States…Shortly before her death Carla wrote down how she wanted to be remembered. "She was responsible. She loved a job. She loved being a wife, a mother, and a writer. She worked hard and did her best.""
Her legacy is expansive and enduring. For the full scholarly biography of Carla Emery's fascinating life—from writing numerous books to hitting the national talk show circuit—check out the University of Iowa dissertation by Kirsten Alicia Archer, Carla Emery and the Recreation of Homesteading. The University of Idaho houses Carla Emery’s full archive of donated manuscripts and diaries.
Sasquatch Books now prints the Encyclopedia of Country Living and in 2012 released the 40th Anniversary Edition- its enduring lessons as important today as they ever were. Generations who never knew The Encyclopedia would be wise to grab a copy.
Sasquatch Book's description:
Carla Emery's The Encyclopedia of Country Living contains 1,000,000 words, 2,000+ recipes, and 1,500+ mail-order sources (for everything she tells you how to do, she also tells you where to get the supplies to do it). This book is so basic, so thorough, so reliable, that it deserves a place in every home.
Table of Contents
2 Introduction to Plants
3 Grasses, Grains & Canes
4 Garden Vegetables
5 Herbs & Flavorings
6 Tree, Vine, Bush & Bramble
7 Food Preservation
8 Introduction to Animals
10 Goats, Cows & Home Dairying
11 Bee, Rabbit, Sheep & Pig
Check out this 1975 Mother Earth News interview with Carla Emery—as conducted in the midst of her cross-country promotional "tour" selling books from her vehicle. M.E.N. wrote, "Carla is certifiably one of the craziest, warmest, (sometimes unintentionally) funniest, wisest, most lovable, and idealistic zanies now walking the face of the earth and ... we think this old world would be a lot better off if we had a few more people like her."
Buy the latest edition of The Encyclopedia of Country Living on Amazon or look for a copy of the original Old Fashioned Recipe Book here.