One year in the early 1990s, I was traveling north with my brother Jim and we had a stop-over in Oakland, where he had a meeting and I connected with my friend Patrick to go exploring for bookstores and whatever else I might find interesting. At a bookstore, I found a copy of “Cincinnati Recipe Treasury” by Mary Anna Du Sablon. Jim read it from cover to cover on our flight from Oakland to Seattle. Shortly after – possibly when we were visiting bookstores in Seattle, – I bought copies of “Cincinnati Recipe Treasury” for my siblings.
Although I am a cookbook collector, there are probably not more than a few dozen cookbooks that I really do treasure. A few of them are cookbooks from my hometown of Cincinnati—one reason is that there are certain foods you’ll find in Cincinnati and nowhere else. Authentic Cincinnati Chili is just one of them. There are many others.
In the preface to “Cincinnati Recipe Treasury” author Mary Anna Du Sablon writes, “Great cooks abound in Cincinnati—people whose superlative talents flourish virtually unknown outside the circles of family and friends. Occasionally an entrepreneur will gain the courage to open a restaurant or catering service, but more often than not this wealth of culinary art and experience is acknowledged once in a church or club cookbook, or by a resounding cheer at a lodge dinner, and then taken for granted….”
Du Sablon says there was no human way for her contact each of the great cooks recommended to her, nor to reproduce every tasty and traditional recipe. She writes “A sincere effort was made nevertheless to represent our town through its cultural heritage, its family traditions, and its creative endeavors, and to reflect the intimacy of real home cooking—a treasury unto itself.”
Du Sablon reflects that “Cincinnatians, an unusually friendly breed, take their food seriously. They are not generally anxious to try new things, but will experiment with encouragement and render an honest opinion. What they like, they like, what they don’t like, they never will…” (I had to chuckle reading this—it is SO true even of Cincinnatians who have moved across the country).
Du Sablon also writes, “Although they are frugal cooks as a rule, Cincinnatians will make exceptions to create a perfect meal for a special occasion. For this reason many families have dealt with one butcher shop for a lifetime where they have come to expect a superior product….” (I am reminded of the many times I have flown to Cincinnati for a family reunion or a class reunion, and have gone with my nephew Russ down to Findlay Market to get dozens of different kinds of sausages for a sausage and sauer kraut BBQ).
“As in many cities,” Du Sablon notes, “cookbooks have become a Cincinnati preoccupation; almost every donor of a recipe I this compilation admitted to being a collector…” She says she handled hundreds of these cookbooks while preparing this manuscript, some new and innovative, some old and falling apart, still hand down through generations. “Naturally,” she writes, “the best cookbooks were the most dog-eared, barely readable under the flour and grease stains of past preparations…”
What Du Sablon writes next resonated strongly with me because as a collector, I have the same reaction. “Some of my favorite moments,” she says, “were when little clipped recipes, yellow with age, fell out from between the pages, or when a child’s scrawl appeared along with the cook’s notations handwritten on endsheets.” She noted that once a perfectly pressed four-leaf-clover was found lying against a recipe for blackberry cake and she wondered if both clover and berries were found that lucky summer’s day.
She noted also that until the last thirty years or so, most of our local repasts were influenced primarily by our own culture. She said that lately the world has come to Cincinnati by way of new residents and restaurants, bringing with them menus and recipes that may well be the history of tomorrow. (I hope not). I still go to Cincinnati for class reunions and family events—it wouldn’t be Cincinnati without frequent trips to Skyline Chili for coney islands or making a trip downtown to Findlay Market for sausages, the likes of which you won’t find anywhere else. Nowhere else will you find Cincinnati chili made the way it should be made—every so often I see a recipe for Cincinnati chili featured in a magazine and it’s a sacrilege. If you want the real thing you have to go to the Chili Parlor in Camp Washington. (Although just about every Cincinnatian, past and present, has his or her own “authentic” recipe for Cincinnati chili that they swear by.
Mary Anna Du Sablon’s “Cincinnati Recipe Treasury” is packed with recipes that anyone from Cincinnati (and hopefully, as well as everyone still living there) will recognize. There are a lot of cookbooks published by clubs and churches—and I love all of them; I buy as many as my budget will stand for, all the while aware that I have to get them back to California. One favorite is a 1961 Methodist Church* cookbook that my father bought from a coworker at Formica for a dollar each. He bought three – one for mom, one for Becky and one for me. In 1961 when I moved to California – and didn’t collect cookbooks – this was the only cookbook I had with a recipe for Cincinnati chili in it. Over the years I have added a lot more Cincinnati cookbooks to my collection…but I can tell you that Mary Anna Du Sablon’s holds a place of honor on my bookshelves.
Just recently, seeing her name on Google as a reference to something else, I wondered what else she might have had published lately. It was a distinct shock to discover she had passed away in 2005. I have a slight personal connection to Ms. Du Sablon—after I bought multiple copies of Cincinnati Recipe Treasury, I wrote a letter to her. I must have sent it to Ohio University Press, the publisher of her book.
Eventually, she wrote back to me and we exchanged a few letters about our respective childhoods in Cincinnati. She graduated from St Mary’s High School in 1956 while I went to Mother of Mercy and graduated in 1958. At some point, she referred me to her book, “America’s Collectible Cookbooks” published in 1994, also by Ohio University Press—and it has been a valuable reference book for me over the years.
I was saddened to learn that Mary Anna Du Sablon had passed away. I think she must have surely had a few more books clamoring to be written and published. I would have been happy to buy them. Maybe even half a dozen of them for my siblings.
*In 1965, curious to find out if there might be more cookbooks like that Methodist Church Cookbook “out there” I wrote to a penpal magazine offering to buy or swap for any church or club cookbooks anyone might have to sell. I received over 250 letters and answered all of them. The books I bought formed the nucleus of a collection of cookbooks that now numbers about 10,000.
Happy Cookbook Collecting!