Community cookbooks – collections of recipes gathered by churches, women’s societies, rotary clubs, and other regional clubs and foundations – have been the foundation of home kitchens across America for decades. These collections often present an air of nostalgia, using old-fashioned techniques, offbeat ingredients, and occasionally include really great anecdotes. They are—in their best versions—a direct reflection of the region of their origin and an admirable labor of love. The recipes are seldom fancy, and most often highlight the kind of meal that is made in an average kitchen on an average evening by an average cook who finds an epiphany of enlightenment in a great recipe. Even more captivating is the community cookbook filled with family recipes passed down from prior generations and lovingly shared with the community at large.
Caxton Press in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania published what is believed to be the very first charity cookbook in 1864, during the time of the Civil War. This assortment, titled A Poetical Cook-Book, by Maria J. Moss, was filled with foods common to that era, like leg of mutton, mince pies, johnnycakes, and hasty pudding. The book was sold to provide funds for field hospitals and aid wounded soldiers.
Many, like the ones I was given by my mother, grandmothers, and aunts, are overflowing with sense memories of a location and an era. While similarities exist among the cookbooks, there are distinct differences between what the women of the Virginia Eastern Star were making in the 1920s and the dishes prepared by the late 1960s Junior League of Coastal Louisiana. Regardless of the when and the where, there is copious information on what the (mostly) women were like in each specific time and place. The ingredients tell a story of rural vs. urban landscape and wealthy vs. working class cooks. If a recipe called for a pinch or a handful, you might assume that the writer was a seasoned home cook who learned passed down recipes and perfected dishes by taste, not by measurement. If a recipe was “eggless” or “butterless”, you might suppose that it originated during wartime, when certain foods were rationed.
Among the most valuable characteristics of a community cookbook are the stories that accompany each chapter or each recipe. You might learn the history of a family through a specific dish; you might read poetry or bible verses, learn various household tips, farming do’s and don’ts, or find photographs of the organization’s members. Some cookbooks have a clear political or religious agenda, as cookbooks were a relatively innocent way to spread a message; suffragettes found an easy method of communication targeted directly to women and girls. However, traditionalists also used this technique to spread their agenda. One of my favorite cookbooks passes on information “To Marriageable Girls.”
Some of my favorite recipes have amazing names that hint at untold family stories, like Great Grandma’s Sheep Wagon Carrot Cake (from West Virginia’s Treasured Recipes, published by the West Virginia Extension Homemakers Council) or Crazy Curt’s Coney Sauce (courtesy of the St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana). Without a doubt, you will find recipes for dishes that are uncommon in most of today’s kitchens, like Sour Cream Rabbit, Squirrel Mulligan, Jell-o Foam Delight, Liver Pudding, or even Roasted Raccoon. I have cookbooks that also include “recipes” for refrigerator magnets, silver polish, and sore throat remedies. Almost every community cookbook I own (I’m known to grab them at various garage and estate sales) has handwritten notations in the margins. Someone excitedly jotted down that a particular BBQ Chuck Roast was “delicious!” Another home cook wrote that the Pick Lickin’ Good Cake was “just like Betty’s” and, on the Divinity: “It always works!”
Each cookbook has a distinct style. Most in my collection have comb binding, though some are pamphlets, some stapled, and still others held together by brass brads; only a few are hardbound. Regardless of presentation, the remarkable thing about most community cookbooks is their infinite practicality. They are filled with recipes that the user might actually make, written by cooks who really serve those dishes to their families. For many women, having a recipe in print was, and still is, a claim to fame.
A few years ago, the Southern Foodways Alliance published its own version of the modern community cookbook. This slightly evolved adaptation of the traditional community cookbook maintains the spirit (and the spiral binding) of its inspirations. The SFA surveyed their members, who submitted their own personal, practical recipes, all of which are classic, delicious, and unintimidating. Personally, I return to these recipes again and again – so much so that the pages are slightly stained and warped by steam and water. The cookbook has no pictures and isn’t meant for your coffee table; it’s a tool that is meant to be used.
We challenge you to sort through your own cookbooks for these buried gems. Look for one (or three) from the used bookstore or the neighborhood rummage sale. They might cost you a quarter, each. And pick up a copy of The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook at your local bookstore or from their online store.