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    Community Cookbooks | Winter 2012 Out Here Magazine

    'Treasure troves' offer insight into American history

    cookbooks laying on a desk with one open and a notepad and pencil on top
    Out Here

    By Hannah Wolfson

    Photography by Mark Mosrie

    You probably have a community cookbook on your shelf: a spiral-bound collection of recipes from friends and neighbors, sharing their special dishes to raise money for a cause. It may even be wrinkled and stained from use.

    But beyond the ingredient lists and splashes of sauce, there's more than just a good meal waiting. These hometown cookbooks can give us insight into American history and a snapshot of the communities that produced them.

    "These are just wonderful treasure troves," says Elizabeth Englehardt, an associate professor of American Studies at the University of Texas who studied food culture. Her most recent book, A Mess of Greens: Southern Gender and Southern Food, uses community cookbooks as a historical source.

    Community or charity cookbooks are thought to have first appeared in this country in the 1860s as a way to raise money for wounded Civil War soldiers.

    When the war ended, women's religious groups and aid societies took the idea and ran with it, and more than 3,000 of the charity cookbooks were published between 1864 and 1922, according to Feeding America, a project at Michigan State University to collect historic cookbooks.

    What makes the books interesting is that they depend on the contributions of ordinary women, who aren't always represented in the histories of the day. In some sense, these cookbooks offer insight into how women lived outside the public eye by showing the food they put on their family tables.

    At the same time, instructions for the most common meals — basic dishes every cook was expected to know — were probably left out, because they wanted their very best recipes published.

    "You can learn things about what kinds of ingredients were popular in that era. You can get some sense of how the community — whether it was regional or religious affiliation — thought of a meal, especially a fancy meal," Englehardt says.

    Some of the dishes and ingredients are familiar today, but others speak of a distant past. A Presbyterian cookbook from Dayton, Ohio, dated to 1873 has several pages of recipes for oysters, veal, and "catsups" made of gooseberries, walnuts, and mushrooms. Turtle, squirrel, and other game are frequent ingredients.

    The luckiest researchers find charity cookbooks dotted with handwritten notes in the margins that provide helpful context. Englehardt was inspired by her family's copy of a charity cookbook from Western North Carolina, annotated by her mother and grandmother.

    Other dishes just sound charming (if not necessarily delicious): The 1910 Woman's Club Woman's Cook Book: A Collection of True and Tried Receipts from New Market, N.H., includes a recipe for "Rinktum Diddy," a concoction of scrambled eggs, pureed tomatoes, cream, cheese, and hot sauce, served on crackers.

    The luckiest researchers find charity cookbooks dotted with handwritten notes in the margins that provide helpful context. Englehardt was inspired by her family's copy of a charity cookbook from Western North Carolina, annotated by her mother and grandmother.

    One note explained that the author of the quick banana bread recipe was a busy teacher with little time.

    Although libraries and archives have started to recognize the importance of community cookbooks, thousands are still tucked away in attics, junk stores, and flea markets. Englehardt recommends seeking them out or saving the ones you already have, especially if they have family significance.

    But the best thing you can do is to actually cook the recipes in the community cookbooks that end up on your shelf, Englehardt says.

    Just realize that you may have to make adjustments: oven temperatures differed, ingredients in our pantries such as baking powder weren't available, and recipes often start with butchering a whole animal or using odd cuts.

    "It can get interesting really fast," Englehardt says. "That's all part of the adventure."

    Alabama writer Hannah Wolfson's favorite recipes are found in community cookbooks.

     

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