Why the Best Cookbook in Your Collection is Your Community Cookbook
And Southerners know why.
A community cookbook is a collection of recipes submitted by members of a local group, intended to be sold as a fund-raiser or as memorabilia. While that is true, it says little about its long-lasting allure. Community cookbooks are, of course, cookbooks. But they are also histories, storybooks, souvenirs, and heirlooms. When it comes to their devotees, you have us at “spiral bound.”
A great vintage community cookbook, especially one created in the South, holds good food and a good read, the equivalent of a brimming recipe box plus the scribbled notes and whispered secrets that cover the tips, advice, and stories that a generous cook shares with family members, friends, and neighbors. Although some community cookbooks are highly polished productions, most are humble, homey paperbacks full of cherished recipes from home kitchens.
Community cookbooks are scrapbooks of vernacular cooking. They give us a peek into the way people lived, cooked, and ate in a specific place at a specific time. Finding an old community cookbook is like opening a time capsule.
Although there is likely a community cookbook somewhere that touches on nearly every subject and locale, no one book set out to be an exhaustive encyclopedic tome. Cookbook committees aimed to sell a collection of local recipes in the service of a good cause. It’s as though the cookbook committee, which was often a one-woman force of nature, asked their cohorts to prepare their signature recipes for a potluck dinner fund-raiser. A great community cookbook not only shows who brought what, it gives us a copy of all the recipes to boot.
Community cookbooks might be written for a bit of posterity, but most are written to sell, and sell big. These books are fund-raisers.
Historians tell us that Maria J. Moss wrote the first community cookbook in 1864. A Poetical Cook-Book was a small, simple volume that she sold in Philadelphia to raise money for Civil War field hospitals. In a time when nearly all women were financially and politically dependent on men, producing and selling a cookbook was a rare opportunity to make money and direct its use. Determined women could band together to produce a cookbook without overstepping their social bounds. It was a benign yet effective way to give themselves a voice on local issues and to fund their chosen causes. In turn, purchasing a cookbook was an innocuous way for a housewife to donate money.
By 1920, as many as 6,000 community cookbooks had been published in the United States. Working primarily through churches, the most powerful avenue of the time, women were raising money to fund civic causes even though they were not yet allowed to vote. It was also a way to be acknowledged. Having a recipe in a community cookbook was the only place that many women would ever see their names in print, even though they were usually only the “Mrs.” that preceded their husband’s name, a practice that persisted in some communities until the 1970s.
Community cookbooks remain powerful fund-raisers. A volume can stay in demand for decades. For example, River Road Recipes from the Junior League of Baton Rouge has sold over 1.3 million copies, resulting in donations in excess of $3 million to local causes. Not all books have sold that well, of course, but if we imagine their cumulative effect over the years, their benefit is formidable.
That being said, it would be unfair to exclude the community cookbooks that were written solely as love letters, gifts, and mementos. A reunion cookbook that gathers and memorializes a family’s recipes is invaluable. A collection of recipes from the annual dinner on the grounds at a local church is surely some of the best food ever committed to paper. A construction paper cookbook compiled by a group of kindergarteners is priceless. Those cookbooks go right to the heart of the matter.
Considered individually, a community cookbook is a snapshot of local appetites and proclivities. Considered collectively, these books serve as a documentary of American foodways. They reveal how our regional cooking evolves and changes, swiftly and profoundly at times. We can see one era’s bedrock ingredients, techniques, and dishes nearly disappear, to be replaced by more modern and convenient ways. We see the introduction of new foods, sometimes displacing or diluting local traditions. We see ingredients that were once exotic become ordinary. We see the effect of new appliances and technologies. We see classics endure and silly trends come and go. We see cooks respond to times of privation and we see them celebrate abundance.
As both personal and social histories, community cookbooks are mirrors and projectors, diaries and exhibitions. A defining characteristic of a community cookbook is that they say much more about the contributors and their circumstances than about any intended audience. These books are, at their core, a form of folklore.
Almost everyone who owns cookbooks has a community cookbook in their collection. For many cooks, this was the only type of cookbook they ever bought or consulted. The worn and spotted pages reveal the favorite recipes. The stains and drips are badges of honor. If, heaven forbid, we dropped our most-used community cookbook into a pot of water, it would make tasty broth.
Community cookbooks have integrity. A volume from our hometown, school, church, or club bears the names of people we know and trust. Even when we don’t know a particular group firsthand, we know people like them, so we give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they shared a good recipe, or at least gave it their best shot. We give community books latitude we never grant to professional cookbooks.
Although there have been glossy exceptions in recent years, most community cookbooks weren’t orchestrated. The group might have had an agenda, but the contents of their book do not. When it came to recipe selection, all comers were welcome. If eight cooks submitted a recipe for deviled eggs, then the book included all eight. Recipes were printed verbatim and afforded equal regard and respect. Locals might well know whose version of a recipe was best, but the book’s pages remained impartial. Then again, what cook would submit a recipe that reflected poorly on his or her cooking skills?
Cooks were writing for other cooks, as peers. Until only a generation or two ago, it was not a leap of faith for a recipe writer to assume that anyone who planned to use a cookbook could cook, or at least had a working knowledge of the basics. Their rudimentary recipes listed ingredients and a few expedient words of instruction or advice. The users filled in any blanks later, based on their own experiences and adaptations, sometimes literally. People who would never dream of writing in any other book often wrote in their cookbooks. The cookbook marginalia scribbled along the edges of the page are equally precious to collectors and inheritors of community cookbooks.
Community cookbooks are the source of some of the best recipes ever penned. Nonetheless, it would be naive to imply that there were never any bad recipes in these books. Oh yes, there were. Some recipes are infamous for their awfulness. Outdated, obsolete, and outlandish recipes can sometimes be more entertaining than the great ones. Tastes change and time marches on. Thank goodness.
Many paths can lead a community cookbook into our kitchen. We buy books in support of the cookbook’s charity, as souvenirs, or because we remember them from our past. Perhaps we inherit them. These books take on heirloom status as part of our family history. Sometimes the names of our relatives are in the book, giving us a glimpse of our culinary genealogy. How the book was used within a family, and by whom, adds another facet to the story, imbuing the book with even more value. Dishes, recipes, and foodways take on cachet the more generations they are handed down, not necessarily because they were the best, but because they mattered enough to be kept.
Community cookbooks from our childhood are evocative. Coming across a misplaced volume in yard sale, thrift shop, or while cleaning out the home place can turn us teary with nostalgia. So can coming across a long-lost recipe, one we never dreamed we would find again. Look! It’s the recipe for such-and-such that sweet ole so-and-so used to make for us! It’s not every day that we can reclaim a sliver of our past.
In the end, however, no one can say definitively what makes a community cookbook feel valuable. All responses to great books are subjective. It’s the recipes, the stories, and the memories. It’s their pure entertainment value. It’s the facts we can articulate and the feelings that defy words. It’s also, surely, because community cookbooks are an exaltation of the power and persuasion of food in our lives, our families, and our communities. As the late John Egerton, one of the most insightful scholars of Southern food, wrote: “In practically every good and lasting memory any Southerner holds—of family and friends, of home and countryside, of school and church, of joyful and even solemn occasions—food is there, working through all the senses to leave a powerful and permanent impression.”