Writing a review about Anne L. Bower’s RECIPES FOR READING was surely the most daunting project I had encountered to date. This University of Massachusetts Press book is not a cookbook, but a comprehensive book about cookbooks and recipes—like the words to the song , “Where do I begin?”
As noted by the publishers, “The volume is divided into three sections. Part one provides a historical overview of community cookbooks, a discussion of their narrative strategies and insights into the linguistic peculiarities of recipes.
Part Two contains essays about particular cookbooks and their relationship to specific cultural groups. Examined here are Methodist, Mormon, and Canadian recipe collections and a recent cookbook from the National council of Negro Women. Part Three considers a range of community cookbooks in terms of their culinary, historical, ethnic, and literary contexts. Included is a reading of the novel LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE, an analysis of an early Jewish cookbook and a look at how Mexican history and culinary changes are paralleled in cookbooks of the nineteenth century…”
“From the very beginning,” writes Anne Bower, “this book ‘about’ community cookbooks has felt like a community project. The essay writers themselves have been inspirational—by phone, email and snail mail, from California, Israel, Venezuela, Ontario, and elsewhere from office, home and vacation spots, their suggestions and reactions kept me enthusiastic….”
“Almost everyone owns or has seen community cookbooks,” explains Ms. Bower, “…also known as regional, charitable and fund-raising cookbooks. These ubiquitous works seem to vary little, although older editions are normally hardbound and have names like OUR SISTERS’ RECIPES, FROM DANISH KITCHENS, and WASHINGTON WOMEN’S COOKBOOK; more recent books have soft covers, spiral bindings and catchier names; PRESCRIPTION FOR COOKING DESSERTS from the Montgomery Alabama Baptist Hospital Auxiliary…”
Ms. Bower found herself challenged one day, when reading an old community cookbook published in 1909, to look beyond a simple collection of recipes. The book itself presented her with a number of questions.
She provides an in-depth analysis of old community cookbooks, dating back to their inception—she appears to agree with Margaret Cook’s AMERICA’S CHARITABLE COOKS: A BIBLIOGRAPHY OF FUND-RAISING COOKBOOKS IN THE UNITED STATES< (1861-1915) in which Cook considers the first cookbook published and sold in the United States to benefit a charitable cause to be “A POETICAL COOK-BOOK” issued on behalf of the Sanitary Fair held in Philadelphia, in 1864. (I’m guessing that the fabulous trio, The Browns, came to this same conclusion. The Browns never mentioned the title of the first community cookbook but they did say it was to benefit a sanitary fair during the period of the Civil War. (For my blog posts about the Browns, please refer to THOSE INCOMPARABLE BROWNS, CORA, ROSE, AND BOB BROWN, COOKBOOK AUTHORS, posted 2-13-11 and an update which I posted on 5-21-12).
“An analysis of Cook’s work,” writes Bower, “gives us a picture of American women and their charitable work between the Civil War and the First World War. Clearly, most cookbook compilers were Protestants, although of many diverse sects…”
Bower also notes, “The popularity and rapid spread of the community cookbook phenomenon might be considered a prime example of female bonding and collective civic virtue. At a time when American women were without full political rights and representation, they found the community cookbooks one very effective way to participate in the public life of the nation…”
Later, Bower writes, “While few women had a public voice in running the major institutions of the 19th century society (they were often excluded, for example, from handling church money), their voices were heard, at least to some extent, when they participated in community cookbooks. In later years, women were able to give voice to their values and ideas publicly, (yet) still found community cookbooks sympathetic venues for expressing certain life values…”
Elsewhere, she asserts, “A second theme in charitable cookbooks concerns the importance of woman’s domestic role and her powder within the home as angel, minister, nutritionist, manager…”
In one of the several fine essays provided by other women writers, Elizabeth J. McDougall, author of the essay “Voices, Stories and Recipes in Selected Canadian Community Cookbooks”, in the context of telling a lovely story about homemade pickles, notes that “just as the cook’s presence is apparent in the food, the presence of the recipe writer is in the text along with recipe writers of the past. A recipe is never totally new; it is based on recipes and procedures of the past, reflecting the communal sense of cooking and the long tradition behind it. Creating a “new” recipe involves combining, changing and adding to old recipes. The ‘new’ recipe will probably be further revised by its readers, continuing the process….” [Aha! I have long maintained that there are no new recipes!]
Well, hopefull6y this will give you a bit of an idea of what RECIPES FOR READING is all about – truly, there is a great deal more.
The University of Massachusetts Press is to be commended for a great publication, a most valuable tool for cookbook collectors as well as researchers.
This book was originally reviewed in the cookbook collectors Exchange, in 1999. It is available on both Amazon.com and Alibris.com for about $3.98 new or $3.19 pre-owned. This is another instance of hardbound copies being extremely high priced, something that continues to baffle me.
Review by Sandra Lee Smith