I wasn’t sure if it was the motor skill-impairing Zombie I sipped — made with four kinds of rum — or the distraction of the fat that stung my arm as it popped and sizzled in the frying pan, but for the life of me, I couldn’t brown a dozen Swedish meatballs evenly. They disintegrated into a sloppy mess regardless of attempts to save them.
The meatball recipe in question came from a yellowing cookbook published before I was born. I was in the South End kitchen of Abby Ruettgers, who just opened a store called Farm & Fable, attempting to make dishes from the vintage cookbooks she stocks. She’s quickly becoming the city’s new authority on retro cuisine.
Farm & Fable also sells antique cookware, and newer items, such as cutting boards from Lostine in Pennsylvania, copper pots made in Rhode Island, waxed cotton aprons from Brooklyn-based Birdcage, and even baskets woven by her father. It’s a time capsule for foodies who want to look into the not-so-distant past or relive memories of their youth. The basement of the shop features a large kitchen where local chefs will teach. Ruettgers describes it all as a “clubhouse for foodies.”
At Ruettgers’s apartment, we are testing 50-year-old recipes. Swedish meatballs came from a 1967 cookbook. Ruettgers, who has been cooking and obsessing over these sorts of books since she was a child, was handily whipping up something called “Italian Delight” from a 1958 Good Housekeeping recipe. I never quite figured out what was so delightful about it. It looked, and tasted, more like American chop suey, but with the baffling addition of corn (her updated version omits it).
What was more fascinating was flipping through the beautifully illustrated books. We cooked from “The Art of Chinese Cooking: Benedictine Sisters of Peking,” and “Festive Snacks & Canapes,” until we had a kitchen full of food that seemed to entice Ruettger’s two dogs more than the humans in the room. Although some of it was quite delicious. “I like to adapt recipes, but I understand that it might be nerve-racking for people who have never tried,” says the entrepreneur. “You have to be a reasonably confident cook.”
The 33-year-old is not a chef, but growing up in a 300-year-old house in Carlisle, she lived a food-centric life. There was a family garden and her mother cooked every night. Books were an important part of her childhood, even cookbooks. But when it came time to make a career choice, Ruettgers had no interest in working in a kitchen. “I’ve been in and out of the restaurant industry since high school,” she says, sipping from the extraordinarily potent Zombie (from the 1965 “Esquire Party Book: For Entertaining Around the Clock”). “I’ve waited tables, or worked front-of-the-house,” she says. But she went to law school instead, then worked as a product litigator before realizing she missed the kitchen.
Struggling to figure out her next step, she took a job working the register at Flour Bakery + Cafe. She loved her interactions with the public. As her collection of vintage cookbooks and kitchen bric-a-brac grew, with tomes from Jacques Pepin to the Time-Life cooking series, she decided to open the store. “I didn’t have any interest in culinary school,” she says. “I’m sure no one would hire me anyway. I’m too bossy to get bossed around. I don’t like being hot, and I’m accident prone. I’m a total liability in a restaurant kitchen.”
Over the summer she took a road trip through the South to add to her collection. Titles that have made their way into the shop include “Fabulous Fondues,” “Peter Pauper’s Drink Book,” and “Betty Crocker’s Cook Book for Boys and Girls.”
Construction on the South End location delayed the opening of the store by about a year. When she first saw the space, it was a home for pigeons. “The building was in such terrible shape and all the character was stripped from it. It takes some time finding the right reclaimed floor boards,” she says. In the gleaming stainless steel kitchen, Ruettgers will lead occasional children’s cooking demonstrations and etiquette classes.
Vintage church and women’s club books tend to be Ruettgers’s favorites. “I always joke that if you’re going to cook from these books, start with the women’s club cookbooks,” she says.
“Those recipes have been tested more than any you’re ever going to find because these housewives were going to be judged by the entire community if their recipes were no good.”
Farm & Fable, 251 Shawmut Ave., South End, Boston, 617-451-1110.