Cookbooks, Community

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COOKBOOKS, COMMUNITY. Community cookbooks (also known as compiled, regional, charitable, and fund-raising cookbooks) are a unique genre of culinary literature. These volumes are produced collaboratively by volunteer women from charitable organizations, churches, synagogues, heritage associations, clubs, schools, and museums, among others. They represent the group's members and cuisine. The practice of producing these volumes to raise money began shortly after the end of the Civil War (18601865) when they were compiled by Northern Protestant churchwomen to raise money for the Union Army wounded and their families.

Research Tool for Culinary Historians

Community cookbooks are a rich source for the culinary historian and foodways researcher. They can be read like texts, accurate and reasonably complete reflections of the food habits of the communities that produce them. Unfortunately, community cookbooks have only recently been taken seriously, and the greatest challenge for the researcher may be in locating the books (see the bibliography below). In defining "community," these books include certain people and traditions, and exclude others. For example, a cookbook prepared by a religious group that shuns alcohol will not include a drinks section or use liquor in its recipes. These volumes provide records of regional culinary cultures, and the historical, philosophical, and religious background of their compilers.

Community cookbooks focus on home cooking, often documenting regional, ethnic, family, and societal traditions, as well as local history. Some of the earlier ones served to preserve the cooking of the homeland, those countries in Europe and Russia that produced the great wave of immigration between the 1880s and the outbreak of World War I. The cookbooks often distinguish between common, everyday foods and special occasion foods; for example, two Midwestern cookbooks, What Albion Congregationalists Eat and Our Favorite Recipes mention that meat loaf or baked beans are served only to family, whereas festive dishes were reserved for holidays. Although not submitted to the rigors of professional recipe testing, the formulas have the weight of years of experience in the home kitchen. Indeed, many of the cookbooks advertise their recipes as "tried and true," providing access to the collective culinary skills and expertise of many women.

The volumes provide insight into food preferences as well as those dishes that are disliked or taboo and simply not included. For instance, the Swedish American Cook Book, published in 1941 by the West Hartford [Connecticut] Ladies Aid Society, includes a wealth of recipes using canned crushed pineapple, such as Pineapple Meringue Pie, Pudding, Frosting, Icebox Dessert, Pineapple Loaf, and Skillet Sponge. This book, as well as others that focus on a particular ethnicity, offers clues to the degree of assimilation of the community. Clearly, the extensive use of canned pineapple reflects the embracing of American processed foods rather than Swedish heritage and tradition. Similarly, The Johnstown Area Heritage Association Cookbook, published in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in 1989, includes Mexican recipes based on the migration of laborers into the area looking for work in the mines and mills. It documents the celebration of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico, every December by this community, a tradition that was abandoned toward the end of the twentieth century.

A Few Best-Sellers

Community cookbooks have proved an extremely effective means of quickly raising funds. Some, in fact, have earned millions of dollars, and transcend popularity in their original communities to take on a life of their own. One of the best known, although it was actually prepared by only two women, is The Settlement Cook Book, subtitled The Way to a Man's Heart, first published by the Milwaukee Jewish Mission and The Settlement in 1901 to benefit newly arrived Jewish immigrants. It has gone through more than forty editions, and a hundred years after its first publication it had sold over 1,500,000 copies. It was one of the first ethnic cookbooks published in English, and one of the earliest to include German-Jewish recipes. Another big seller has been Forum Feasts: Favorite Recipes of the Forum School, first published in 1968 to raise funds for a school for emotionally disturbed children in northern New Jersey. The fact that Forum Feasts went through twenty printings and sold more than 300,000 copies before it went out of print shows that it was bought by great numbers of people who had no interest or involvement in the Forum School. Part of the widespread appeal of community cookbooks may well be the strong stand they make for home cooking.

Today, some community cookbooks are expensively and professionally produced. The High Museum of Art Recipe Collection, published by an art museum in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1981, contains four-color plates of museum paintings and features chapter headings such as "Dinner at Eight: Recipes for Seated Dinners at Home," which reveal a cosmopolitan community where gracious living and entertaining is the norm. Another chapter is entitled "Before the Game and After the Show: Prized Recipes for Brunches and Late-Night Suppers"; the "Picnic" chapter includes "elegant picnics."

Community Cookbooks as Women's History and Literature

Community cookbooks are uniquely women's literature, created by and for women, one of the earliest ways in which women could relate their stories and history. Like quilts and needlework that have also been perceived as trivial, domestic crafts, community cookbooks have often provided the prime, perhaps only, vehicle for women to express themselves. Since they fall under the rubric of "good works," the cookbooks evolved as permissible and appropriate activities for women for whom professional careers might not be acceptable in their own eyes or those of their communities. Some of the books go well beyond these goals to provide a platform for a political or social agenda. Our Sisters' Recipes (Pittsburgh, 1909), a Jewish community cookbook, uses a frontispiece of an African-American woman with a head scarf, apron and spoon to symbolize that the sponsors had achieved American middle-class status and could afford to employ cooks. the National Council of Negro Women's The Black Family Dinner Quilt Cookbook (1993) pays tribute to a civil rights leader and discusses food traditions.

By soliciting and contributing recipes for the cookbooks, women participate in a women's network, similar to quilting. As Anne Bower points out in Recipes for Reading, these are women "bound together by recipes" (p. 14). Community cookbooks institutionalize the informal practice of recipe exchange among women. This dynamic process has involved and defined a vast community of middle-class women, telling stories that are both personal/autobiographical and relational. By writing their cultures into the cookbooks, these women establish their identities and reveal their history, a major aspect of female cultural heritage.

See also Cookbooks; Recipe .


Bower, Anne L. "Our Sisters' Recipes: Exploring 'Community' in a Community Cookbook." Journal of Popular Culture 31 (Winter 1997): 137151.

Bower, Anne L., ed. Recipes for Reading: Community Cookbooks, Stories, Histories. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.

Cook, Margaret. America's Charitable Cooks: A Bibliography of Fund-raising Cook Books Published in the United States (1861-1915). Kent, Ohio: Privately printed, 1971. Single best source for investigating beginnings of fund-raising cookbooks from Civil War to First World War. Lists more than 3,000 community cookbooks published before 1916.

Ireland, Lynne. "The Compiled Cookbook as Foodways Autobiography." Western Folklore 40 (1981): 108109.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. "Jewish Charity Cookbooks in the United States and Canada: A Bibliography of 201 Recent Publications." Jewish Folklore and Ethnology 9 (1987): 1318. Begins about 1970.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. "Kitchen Judaism." In Getting Comfortable In New York: The American Jewish Home, 18801950. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. "Recipes for Creating Community: The Jewish Charity Cookbook in America." Jewish Folklore and Ethnology 9 (1987): 811.

Leonardi, Susan J. "Recipes for Reading: Pasta Salad, Lobster à la Riseholme, and Key Lime Pie." PMLA 104 (1989): 340347.

Longone, Janice B. and Daniel T. American Cookbooks and Wine Books, 17971950. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Clements Library and the Wine and Food Library, 1984.

Linda Murray Berzok