At the age of 16, longing for more American-style foods, Hermilda Kobzina and her older sister asked their mother if they could use her kitchen to learn how to cook. After the first recipe, a graham cracker cake, was a family success, their mother reluctantly agreed that Hermilda could bake on Sundays. Over the years, Hermilda’s interest in cooking intensified. She evolved into a discerning and avid collector of recipes and cookbooks. She collected old cookbooks, European cookbooks, manuscripts, community cookbooks, commercially published cookbooks, pamphlets, newspaper clippings, magazines and recipes from friends and relatives.
Mrs. Listeman is an educated businesswoman, and with her husband Charlie, worked in real estate as well as ran a collection department for local doctors and hospitals. She lived on a local island with her husband for twenty-five years, inviting friends and family to enjoy the outdoors with them. Mrs. Listeman originally did much of the cooking, only relinquishing the birds her husband hunted when he complained that she did not put enough sage in the dressing.
In 2000, she generously decided to donate her entire collection to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The collection includes over 2300 books and several boxes of ephemera and magazines. As I hunted through each of the 110 boxes, I noticed an overwhelming amount of community cookbooks. There are 643 in total, spanning from the mid- 1870’s to the 1990’s, representing almost every state in the union. The women who published these books belonged to church groups, ladies’ aid societies, garden clubs, libraries, YWCA’s, junior leagues and political groups. Overwhelmingly, most of these community cookbooks raised money for local churches, but there are books dedicated to funding libraries, hospitals and homes for the poor and “friendless”. The early books have paper covers and are bound by staples or glue. The new editions are printed on more resilient papers with plastic comb bindings. They are stuffed with ephemera; clippings from magazines, recipes jotted on torn pieces of paper, personal cards, business cards, invitations, advertisements and even rent receipts. They are stained with a long ago cooked meal, colored in crayon by a child’s hand. Sometimes they have the name of an owner on the inside cover; they sometimes include a date – could it be an acquisition date? Frequently there are notes to the receiver, indicating the book was a gift. They are littered with marginalia, indicating whether or not this recipe is “good”, a note for a pineapple salad “This turns pink” and most frequently, alterations to the ingredients list. When published, many of the books included blank pages for women to include their own recipes, and often they did just that. In elegant longhand, they wrote the recipes of their neighbors and friends, forever extending the meaning of the book to a true communal enterprise. The books provide insight to cultural, social, political and economic factors through the eyes of women within the context of a specific time period and region.
More than half of the community cookbooks came from a famous Book Row dealer, the Corner Book Shop run by Eleanor Lowenstein (1940-1980). “She was not a kitchen person but a book person, who served her lunch guests soup from a can along with brilliant conversation about books.” Frequently touted as a cookbook and cooking history expert, Ms. Lowenstein developed a personal relationship with Mrs. Listeman. For years, the lists would come through the mail, Mrs. Listeman would choose her fancy and return the list, and along would come the box full of her choices, plus a few more. When asked if she ever returned any of the books, Mrs. Listeman admits that she never did, instead digging into them with relish as her evening reading. At one point in time, Lowenstein paid a visit to Mrs. Listeman on the island where they were living, indicating that their relationship had grown over the years, beyond the realm of cookbooks. She reinforces Ms. Lowenstein's humble demeanor in an anecdote about the refusal of a saucer with her teacup for afternoon tea. In the company of such culinary collectors as James Beard, Mrs. Listeman may very well have been Ms. Lowenstein's most prominent community cookbook collector.
Today, Hermilda still collects books and recipes. When I visited her in March 2006, at the age of 92, she showed me her manuscripts filled with handwritten recipes. She collects them mostly from publications, newspapers and magazines. She marks the ones she intends to try with a metal clip at the top of the page and annotates her favorites. Spry and intelligent, Hermilda may not consider herself a good cook, but I sure would love to try her graham cracker cake.
Merinda Kaye Hensley