Community Cookbooks as a Socio-Historic and Cultural Documents...


Janice Bluestein Longone

…but, for many years they were not so considered. Sometimes called community cookbooks and sometimes called charity cookbooks, these books were most often cooperative projects with recipe contributions coming from different individuals. Groups generally produced the books as fundraising ventures, with profits from their sale going to selected charities or to support the organizations that had produced them. Now they are primary sources for food historians. Each book has a unique history: they are not only culinary instructional manuals and repositories for traditional dishes, they also reflect food habits of a population, act as historical markers of major events, and record technological advances in a society.

Community cookbooks from the Depression era present an informative picture of what Americans were eating as well as the groups that produced them. By 1930, all forty-eight states, the territories of Alaska and Hawaii, and the District of Columbia had published community cookbooks in large cities and in small towns. The times were changing rapidly: women had the vote and were able to participate in the body politic, Prohibition was still in force, and the Depression that started in 1929 was altering everyone’s lives. New kitchen equipment (especially the electric refrigerator), new foods, new immigrants, large national food and equipment companies, and national advertising all combined to change life in the States.

Interestingly, almost all of the causes for which fundraising cookbooks were published in the nineteenth century are still with us today. And many of the early themes in American cookery are as well: vegetarianism, diet, nutrition, health, temperance, regionalism, baking, sweets and desserts, economy and frugality, management and organization, and international recipes. Many 1930s community cookbooks offered foreign recipes: Arabian, Argentinian, Armenian, Australian, Austrian, Bohemian, Bolivian, Brazilian, Bulgarian, Canadian, Chinese, Croatian, Cuban, “Czeckoslovak”, Danish, Dutch, East Indian, Egyptian, English, Filipino, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Guatemalan, Hungarian, Icelandic, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Jewish, Lithuanian, Malaysian, Mexican, Middle Eastern, Norwegian, Oriental, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Roumanian, Russian, Scottish, Spanish, Swedish, Swiss, Syrian, and Turkish, among others.

Under Prohibition, there were some books on temperance but many books still used alcohol in their recipes. After Prohibition’s repeal in 1933, there is much more about alcohol, especially wine and cocktails. Many books offered menus and household hints, and they discussed etiquette and manners, quantity cooking, and cooking for the sick and for children.

As more women became educated they joined sororities, participated in Parent-Teacher Associations, sponsored scholarships, and offered student loans, and many devoted their time and energy to helping other women to further their education. During the Depression, more and more women became involved with helping the poor. Some authorities suggest that women deserve much of the credit for many of the major social movements in America, with perhaps the most striking example being the degree to which the New Deal and the development of the modern welfare state were the result of the agenda of women’s reform movements. Charity cookbooks were part of these efforts.

As the decade progressed and war in Europe loomed, some women turned their philanthropic energy to helping suffering Europeans. Groups raised funds with books like Old and New British Recipes…to Aid British War Relief; Favorite Recipes from the Ladies of the United States Navy Yard, Portsmouth, New Hampshire; Victory Cookbook (“Norristown Garden Club offers this timely collection of tested sugarless and sugar-saving recipes to meet a need felt by all.”); El Cocinero Español (“Sold for the Benefit of Milk Fund for Spanish Babies, Published by Medical Bureau to Aid Spanish Democracy.”) As knowledge of the Holocaust spread in the United States, Jewish organizations issued or re-issued charity cookbooks to preserve their heritage and to help those in peril.

Protestant church groups had long produced cookbooks, but by the 1930s many more Catholic and Jewish books were appearing, too. Indeed, all sorts of groups produced community cookbooks in this decade. Some were published by home demonstration clubs, hospitals, unions, museums, orchestras, women’s clubs and federations, garden and farm groups, harvest festivals, missionary groups, PTAs, and groups such as the Daughters of the America Revolution, Junior Leagues, Dorcas, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and American Legion Auxiliaries. There is somewhat less advertising in the books of this decade than in earlier ones. The books of this decade are diverse: large and small, beautiful and ugly, most with recipes attributed to individual contributors. Many of the books are enhanced by Art Deco illustrations.

Among my favorites of this decade is The Congressional Cook Book: Favorite National and International Recipes…Special Articles by Eminent Government Authorities, revised edition, 1933-4. The Congressional Club was an elite Washington, D.C., women’s club incorporated in 1908, whose active membership was limited to the wives and daughters of senators, representatives, cabinet members, Supreme Court justices, delegates, and commissioners in Congress. Club members published their first cookbook in 1927 in order to raise funds to refurnish the club house. Six years later, they published a new edition to commemorate the club’s twenty-fifth anniversary and to raise money for the building fund. It is striking to see how each edition of the book reflected changing social and political values. For instance, the 1927 first edition noted that one particular dish was “[s]o easy to prepare you won’t need to rely on a maid.” It also had instructions for “Substitutes for Intoxicating Liquors in Food Products” and provided a “recipe” called “How to Preserve a Husband,” a poem found in hundreds of community cookbooks for many years. And there was so much more: the book also included recipes of Thomas Jefferson; Camp, Mess, and Outdoor Cookery; Invalid-Convalescent-Children Cookery; and recipes from a plethora of foreign ambassadors, ministers, consuls, military attaches, governors – from Argentina to Yugoslavia, covering 40 different cultures. The 1933-4 edition was a handsome book of 834 pages, bound in Eleanor Blue cloth with silver embossing on the spine and front cover, with more than 40 pages of advertisements, including one in color.

Eleanor Roosevelt herself wrote the foreword for the 1933-4 edition of the Congressional Cookbook, arguing, “Cooking should be considered as an art, and the arts should certainly be of assistance to the government; therefore it seems particularly appropriate that the wives of our lawmakers should get out a cook book, for good cooking means good health and good health is the basis of all good work.” A famously poor cook herself, Roosevelt also contributed recipes for Italian Rice, Pecan Pie, and Kedgeree, a curried rice dish made with flaked fish and hard-boiled eggs.

Since the first community cookbook was published in the mid-nineteenth century, American women have found them to be effective ways both to raise money and to participate in local and national public life. Through voluntary organizations – charitable, educational, cultural, civic, professional, and religious – they created networks of mutual support, training grounds for organizing and networking, and acceptable platforms from which to influence American life.

Janice (Jan) Longone is Adjunct Curator of Culinary History at Special Collections at the University of Michigan.

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