For time immemorial women have been feeding our endless hunger. The influence of women in the kitchen is demonstrated through community cookbooks. Since the sunset of the Civil War, they have been published in droves, gaining momentum as news of their success filtered across space and time. The first community cookbook, A Poetical Cookbook by Maria J. Moss (1) was published in 1864, dedicated to the Sanitary Fair held for the soldiers and their families. The intent of community (sometimes referred to as charity, regional or fund-raising) cookbooks is to compile the culinary resources of the women in a community to raise money for a particular cause. During times when women had little political representation and literacy rates were low, these cookbooks “created networks of mutual support, training grounds for organizing, and acceptable platforms from which to influence American life.” (2)
Using the strength of their numbers, women raised an inordinate amount of money for the causes they cared about, primarily through the most powerful avenue of the time, churches. While churches predominated, there were other groups that compiled cookbooks including schools, sororities, children’s charities, the YMCA, cemetery associations and libraries. Women allied themselves with the local businesses by selling space for advertisements to cover the original publication costs. They dedicated their family ‘receipts’ for the greater good, recipes that frequently have been handed down for generations.
Vintage cookbooks as valuable artifacts have only recently come to light in the eyes of scholars and libraries. Often simple texts, it was not uncommon to republish a “canned” cookbook under the name of a different organization. Published locally, in small numbers and with cheap bindings renders these cookbooks not only hard-to-find but many are the only existing copy. They were used by their owners, hence the pages splattered by the evening supper, often condemning them to the trash rather than being passed generationally. Community cookbooks can be read for their chronicle of American history and domestic life of female culture, they can provide insight to the way food was prepared, the food choices that were made as well as food trends of times past and they can remind us of the “new” technologies as they became available through the pervasive ads interspersed between the recipes. There are photos of churches and local sights, prayers, household hints and literary quotations to add character and complement the recipes. It has been said that these cookbooks reveal the reality of America’s food trends, rather than the projected food choices demonstrated through commercially published cookbooks. The recipes include the ubiquitous Sunshine Cake, Aunt Sally’s corn bread as well as oddities for today’s taste such as calf’s head soup and Toad in the Hole. (3)
Often the authorship associated with the recipe is not the original author, indicating how a recipe can evolve among friends and family. The self-representation of Aunt Sally’s corn bread may actually have originated through several passings, and now the name “Aunt Sally” has been attached to it since it was given to the contributor by her aunt. As demonstrated by Toad in the Hole, recipe directions from the 19th century tend to sparse, a sign that women trusted their peers to understand the basics of cooking.
A broad search for community cookbooks around the country yields few cohesive collections. Although there are academic and public libraries that collect community cookbooks, only a handful of libraries have them fully catalogued. Many remain unknown and uncatalogued. One library that has taken a keen interest in providing detailed cataloging for their extensive collection is the University of Michigan’s Janice B. Longone Culinary Archive. (4) There are several scholars who have studied these books including Margaret Cook, Janice B. Longone, Anne L. Bower, Eleanor and Bob Brown, and others. The most prolific community cookbook bibliographer is Margaret Cook (5), whose bibliography documented over 3000 cookbooks around the country from libraries and personal collections, including her mother’s, Mrs. Thomas Scruggs, dating from 1861-1915. An assessment of Mrs. Listeman’s collection concludes that over 30% of the collection is not included in Cook’s bibliography. This is quite indicative of community cookbooks, their presence remains elusive and it is quite possible that many community cookbooks have never been “found”, leaving the possibilities endless for further study.
“Though the majority of American women may no longer slaughter pigs, preserve peaches, or make their own tortillas, the effort of cooking continues to largely be women’s work, a major force in the rhythm of our lives, keeping us alive, and bringing us together around the table with those we like, those we love and those we need.” (6)
(1) Bower, Anne L., ed. 1997. Recipes for Reading: Community Cookbooks, Stories and Histories. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. pg. 20.
(2) Although this is commonly cited as the first community cookbook, it is worth noting that culinary scholar, Janice Longone, believes that it is entirely possible that at some point in time an earlier cookbook could be discovered. Personal email April 11, 2006
(3) Massachusetts The Hillcrest Cook Book. Hillcrest Church School. Melrose, Mass. 1922.
(5) Cook, Margaret. 1971. America's charitable cooks: a bibliography of fund-raising cook books published in the United States (1861-1915). Kent, Ohio,: The Author.
(6) Schenone, Laura. 2003. A thousand years over a hot stove: A history of American women told through food, recipes and remembrances. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. pg. xiii