When I began collecting cookbooks in 1965, I wasn’t particular about what I collected. I would buy almost any kind of cookbook and wrote a letter to that effect to Women’s Circle magazine (a magazine that was made up of letters written by women all over the USA and many other countries in which they requested penpals – or help with their collections). In my letter to the magazine, I said I wanted to start a cookbook collection and would buy or trade for any cookbooks. When my letter was published, I received over 200 letters from women all over the USA. One of them is still a penpal of mine today. And that was how I began collecting cookbooks. Early on, I was introduced to club-and-church cookbooks or community cookbooks; actually, the first one I ever owned was a little Methodist cookbook published by a church in Cincinnati; a coworker of my father was selling them for a dollar each so Dad bought one for me, one for my mother and one for my sister. It was the first cookbook of its kind that I had ever seen and I was enchanted. I wondered if there were more cookbooks like these “out there”. Little did I know!
Thousands (perhaps millions) of cookbooks of this genre are published every year and have been ever since their inception during the American Civil War in the 1800s
when women wanted to do something to raise funds for the sanitation department.
A new kind of cookbook was born and this type of cookbook has been hugely successful in raising money for their various enterprises. Not surprisingly, a community cookbook, one published by your local church or club, is a cookbook that gets a lot of use. I can speak from experience – the first club cookbook I participated in publishing was a PTA cookbook in 1971; it’s one of the first cookbooks I turn to for certain favorite recipes. My sister Becky and I both participated in working on, and contributing recipes for, community cookbooks for local churches and clubs for many years. We finally published a family cookbook in 2004. Years ago, I began seriously collecting community cookbooks published in Cincinnati, Ohio, my home town.
And, if you collect cookbooks for any length of time, you will discover that the crème de la crème of club cookbooks are those published by Junior Leagues throughout the country and perhaps at a later date I can devote an entire Blog post to those –
What I want to write about today are battered, tattered, stained cookbooks (and there are many in my collection); sometimes the covers are missing or at best, are equally stained. Sometimes recipes have been handwritten into the cookbook, where ever a space could be found. One of my favorites, a cookbook titled “Culinary Capers” was published by the Woman’s Club of Burbank (California) in 1941 and is packed to overflowing with clippings and notes scribbled on the pages, and a list on the inside cover, of favorite recipes and their respective pages. It’s almost as good (not quite) as finding an old recipe box filed with someone else’s favorite recipes, written on cards, or clipped from magazines and newspapers and pasted onto index cards. Sometimes the clippings are simply “as is”, not pasted neatly on cards, just folded over and kept, along with recipes cut from bags and boxes of food. The same is true of what can often be found inside someone’s old treasured cookbook. Sometimes what I find has absolutely nothing to do with food or cooking – such as an itemized receipt from Montgomery Oldsmobile in Houston Texas, dated January 10, 1978, for what appears to have been car repairs, found folded neatly inside the Burbank “Culinary Capers”. Also found inside Culinary Capers were three small blank envelopes taken from Helena Motor Hotel in Houston. All of which begs the question in my mind-Did the former owner of Culinary Capers once live in Houston? Or did he/she have work done on her car while in Houston on his/her way back to California? And even though many of the clippings are from the mid 1970s, with some from the 1960s, this particular cookbook was published in 1941. It is replete with ads of businesses no longer active in Burbank. One notable exception is a large ad from Ralph’s grocery store – Ralph’s is now a large supermarket chain throughout Southern California, owned by Kroger’s.
What is tantalizing curious about handwritten recipes inside a church or club cookbook –aside from those written on available space inside the book (and sometimes a few pages were left blank for just that purpose) – is finding recipes written on whatever appears to have been handy—not just plain paper or envelopes (or the backs of used envelopes) but small calendars—and oddly – the paper backing from a roll of contact paper and a recipe written on part of the paper packaging from a pair of ladies’ stockings. It appears that recipes were written on anything usable if not completely suitable. I can remember my mother saving every scrap of paper to re-use however possible; this frugality dates back to the Great Depression, I believe.
I have gathered together a small stack of some of my favorite old club and church cookbooks – if they have any value, it would be negligible, I think, because of the poor condition of the books. They are all truly battered, tattered, and stained. Some have missing covers; some are almost impossible to date – such as Keystone Cookbook compiled by the Keystone Class of Methodist Church in Fairview Oklahoma. The front cover is missing; pages are shredded and torn. The back cover, taped repeatedly to the rest of the book, invites readers to see “The New Beauty”. Chevrolet’s Greatest Accomplishment – a six cylinder car in the price range of a four, and says Phone 61 for Voohees Chevrolet in Fairview. Inside is an ad for Smith Drug store, Phone 85, and an ad for a Maytag wringer washer predates anything I have ever seen (My mother in law had a wringer washer in 1958 when I married her son—the one in this ad is a much older model).
Another old cookbook with both front and back covers missing (but a favorite for all the rhymed recipes and poems found inside) is Rio Bravo Farm Home Department Cookbook; ads pinpoint the source of this cookbook to be somewhere around Bakersfield, California, a city about 2 hours’ north of Los Angeles (depending on traffic).
All of the bread/cake/sandwich/cookies and pies sections are heavily spattered. And another curiosity, one of the compilers of this cookbook was named Elnora – a name I have only heard once before, that of my best friend’s mother who lived for many years in San Bernardino. What I love most about this old cookbook are the poems. Some years ago when I was writing for a cookbook collectors’ newsletter (CCE—Cookbook Collectors Exchange) I wrote an article about rhymed recipes and became fascinated with this type of recipe. Or, poems about food or cooking or the kitchen – it’s one of my favorite mediums and I would like to write an article for a future post in my Blog about rhymed recipes. For now, here’s a short verse under the heading of Pies:
“A glance in the kitchen window as I am passing by,
Reveals a pretty picture—fair Crissy making pie,
Sleeves to her dimpled elbows, flour on her arms and hands;
Beside the oaken table in graceful pose she stands.”
What does that evoke? A dim memory of a time when all pie crust was made from scratch and pie making was such a coveted art form – any young woman worth her salt could create homemade pies.
Also much used, stained and battered and tattered – with many of its pages flaking off into tiny bits – is one titled “Badger Cookbook” compiled by the “Married Ladies; Sodality of St. Patrick’s Church” in Green Bay, Wisconsin in 1909. While the book has both front and back covers, they are detached. This book has definitely seen better days and spent a lot of time in the kitchen.
Another with both front and back covers missing can be pinpointed to Los Angeles and appears to be, judging from the ads, early 1900s- but I can’t even tell you what the title was; There is a club woman’s prayer on the first intact page. The ads are possibly the most interesting feature of the book – who else would want it, except me? And where did I find it? Now, that’s a mystery too. In 1965 I began buying whatever I could find, where ever I could find them. Such as “Cook Book Arranged by Woman’s Auxiliary of St Paul’s Episcopal Church in Lubbock Texas,” published in 1922. (This one is actually in fair condition—it has both front and back covers although some of the front cover has worn away.) Far less intact – the front cover is missing – is The Oxford New Century Cookbook which was published by the Ladies Aid Society of the First Baptist Church in Oxford NY in 1912—on the back cover is a detailed ad for a Hoosier Cabinet You can find these in antique stores in Ohio. Back in the day, kitchens were not so amply furnished as they are today; one’s kitchen cabinet held everything the lady of the house needed to make her bread, cakes, pies, and cookies. I had a kitchen cabinet when I first married in 1958 but it got left behind when we moved to California. (Some years ago when my sister and I were house-and-child sitting for our brother, while he and his wife were in Holland, we spent a day exploring the antique shops in Waynesville, Ohio. I was shocked at the prices of those Hoosier cabinets nowadays!)
One of the very oldest church cookbooks in my possession—with covers intact–albeit taped, actually has hard covers (most of the old ones had covers made with a light cardboard or something very much like construction paper) – this one was published by the Ladies of the First Presbyterian Church in Dayton, Ohio in 1886—and somehow survived over a hundred years of wear and tear in the kitchen. For, in the final analysis,
that was the purpose of cookbooks – to be used in the kitchen, where they might become battered, tattered, and stained…a clear indication of the cookbook’s worth to some aspiring housewife learning how to cook and bake. And who could have guessed that someday thousands of collectors would come along, hoping to find pristine copies of those very cookbooks? The whole purpose of a cookbook was to be used—to teach how to cook certain things, how to bake bread, pies, cakes and other pastries that require exact measurements. This also begs the question – if you find something very, very old and its in pristine condition – does this mean the recipes weren’t very good? Might we not assume that a battered, tattered, stained church or club cookbook must be full of wonderful recipes?