Central heating, French rubber goods, and cookbooks are three amazing proofs of man's ingenuity in transforming necessity into art, and of these, cookbooks are perhaps most lastingly delightful," wrote the great food authority—and, yes, cookbook author—M.F.K. Fisher. Anyone who's been immersed in a cookbook knows she's right, because a good one rewards us with much more than recipes. It provides us glimpses into the way people live and eat, giving us ideas for meals to share with our own families. The cookbooks that do this best aren't slick, art-directed tomes written by celebrities or restaurant chefs: Community cookbooks are the ones that capture our hearts.
These are the softcover, spiral-bound productions made and sold as fund-raisers by bands of ladies' auxiliaries, church sisterhoods, Hadassah chapters, parent-teacher associations, and other such groups. The books' defining characteristic is that they are composed of recipes created by local home cooks, people who could be your own next-door neighbors. They are often charmingly illustrated fonts of nostalgia, places we can turn to recall our grandmothers' signature specialties.
Historians write that the first of these cookbooks was published in 1864 by a band of women hoping to help pay for the medical care of Union soldiers in the Civil War. It is no surprise that the South, with our sacred food traditions, took to the concept. No doubt the single most renowned example is Charleston Receipts, first published in 1950 by the storied port city's Junior League. In it we find a wide-sweeping look at the dishes that made up the Lowcountry canon, including red rice and Awendaw—dishes associated with Charleston, South Carolina, to this day.
Short by nature, these books exist to showcase one small community, not to provide an exhaustive, encyclopedic perspective. Aficionados snap them up off used-book store shelves and garage sale tables. They visit the handful of shops around the country that are dedicated to selling these historic markers of how we eat, including Kitchen Witch Cookbooks in New Orleans and Heirloom Book Company in Charleston. They peruse the special collections at universities around the country, including Virginia Tech, Alabama, and Harvard.
Nowadays, chefs love snapping up these volumes as much as home cooks do. Most aren't looking for precise formulas for re-creating, say, Awendaw; they're looking to determine the essence of our food traditions. Sean Brock, the venerated chef at McCrady's in Charleston, says, "When you hold a vintage cookbook, you are holding people's history."
And despite the great range of communities, certain archetypal recipes appear over and over again from one book to the next: divinity, congealed salads of all colors and flavors; bowls of icy, boozy punches; chicken salads of every persuasion.
It's these quirks, the commonalities and the uniquities, that give these local cookbooks significance beyond their nostalgic value. They live on in our kitchens and in our hearts because, when it comes to Southern food, they show where we've been and where we just might go.