Back in 1965, when I came up with the idea of collecting cookbooks, I was a babe in the woods, with virtually NO idea how to even START collecting cookbooks. (It was all a matter of knowing where to look.)
This little acorn of an idea actually started with my father, who worked at Formica for many years; a coworker brought in some church cookbooks compiled by the Women’s Guild Matthew’s United Church of Christ (Cincinnati, Ohio)
For their 50th Anniversary in 1961.
Dad bought several of the cookbooks for a dollar each. It had everything -ads from local businesses, lots of recipes – and – a fair amount of dishes indigenous to Cincinnati, Ohio—including mock turtle soup (that’s not one you see in a lot of cookbooks). One of the copies was given to me. (Thanks, Dad! You created a monster!)
That was my very first church cookbook, and I think I made most of the recipes at one time or another and every time I looked through it, I wondered “are there more cookbooks like this one, somewhere out there?
A few years passed by; by 1965 we (husband, two sons) were living in a cute little house in North Hollywood.You know how one thing can lead to another? That’s just what happened. A girlfriend (whose husband was Hungarian) mentioned seeing a collection of Hungarian recipes in booklet form (possibly Culinary Arts Press) and said she would like to find a copy of that cookbooklet.
“I know how to find it,” I told her. “There is a magazine called Women’s Circle, by Tower Press–—women write in to the magazine when they want to find something and they offer to buy or trade for it—I’ll write a letter to them” – and so I did.
My letter appeared in an issue of the magazine a few months later. In addition to expressing a desire to find the Hungarian cookbooklet, I also wrote that I was interested in finding cookbooks to buy or trade for—particular church or club cookbooks.
What followed was an onslaught of mail from women all over the USA—over 200 letters, in fact. I bought a couple copies of the Hungarian booklet—one for my friend, Peggy, and one for myself. I also bought or traded for every cookbook any one had to offer. And that’s how I started collecting cookbooks.
One of the first letters I received was from a young woman like myself, with children, and we immediately became penpals. Betsy lives in Michigan and we are still penpals –more than fifty years later. I also discovered that used book stores had a wealth of church and club cookbooks. I thought of these cookbooks as “regional” cookbooks, although I would learn that “regional” can cover a lot of territory.
So many years later, I have thousands of cookbooks; one that I consider outstanding as a regional cookbook is titled CINCINNATI RECIPE TREASURY, THE QUEEN CITY’S CULINARY HERITAGE, by Mary Anna DuSablon.
This one didn’t turn up in a used book store—I was with my brother, Jim, in between flights taking us to Seattle—(whenever he had business on the west coast. I’d take a few vacation days from my job and travel along with him) when I found Mary Anna DuSablon’s cookbook (if I am not mistaken) in a bookstore inside the airport where we were waiting for a flight from Oakland to Seattle. I bought all the copies they had, to put aside for Christmas presents for my siblings. I gave one of the copies to my brother—he read the entire book by the time we reached Seattle. CINCINNATI RECIPE TREASURY remains one of my all-time favorite “regional” cookbooks. The recipes and their history reached out to us, born and raised in Cincinnati.
Whether considered “regional” cookbooks or referred to as “church and club” cookbooks this genre of cookery has a long and lasting history. According to Clifton Fadiman in the Foreword to the Browns’ CULINARY AMERICANA, it is believed that the earliest of the regional cookbooks were brought out to provide funds for he Sanitary Commissions during the Civil War.
I had to smile at Fadiman’s description of CULINARY AMERICANA “…though it seems basically a mere bibiliography, *Italics mine—sls) if carefully read and thoughtfully interpreted, can throw a significant and diverting light on us as a people. It makes clear, for example, in the most unpretentious way, how stubborn, how resistant to change, are those outgrowths of pioneer institutions, the Ladies Aid Society, the church group, the womens’ clubs, the charming little cookbooks they issued (and continue to issue) are an index of the sturdiness of village culture. It has not all gone neon-light”.
(I should mention, however, that Fadiman’s Foreword to Culinary Americana was written in 1961 (also the publishing date of Culinary Americana) and the regional cookbook, in particular the cookbooks published by the Junior
Leagues of the USA, have blossomed into a great deal more than “charming little cookbooks” as described by Fadiman).
Additionally, Culinary Americana is focused on cookbooks published in the cities and towns of the United States of America from 1860 through 1960; to the best of my knowledge, no one has compiled a collection of church and club cookbooks from 1960 to the present time 2017—but I think there are an enormous number of church and club cookbooks published every year and it may have reach the point where it is impossible to keep tabs on how many are published every year.
In my personal collection of regional cookbooks, divided into two large bookcases (East of the Mississippi and West of the Mississippi (for lack of a better solution and lack of space) and separated from those cookbooks is a third bookcase – anything with “American or Americana in the titles.
Possibly a better solution would be to get everything catalogued on my computer. The prospect overwhelms me. And, in the past few years, I began giving away some of the church-and-club cookbooks to nieces just to create bookshelf space for other cookbooks.
In 2010, my housemate, Bob, created a library out of half of the garage; he built some of the book shelves and used existing bookcases to create other “walls” for my books. After Bob passed away, I also began donating fiction – Bob’s authors and some of my own – to the Lancaster (California) Friends of the Library…
In the center of the garage library are categories such as American Presidents, First Ladies, biographies and auto- biographies.
Other categories of cookbooks are in bookcases that makes up “the wall” dividing the garage library from the garage itself, where I park my car.
Bob passed away from cancer of the esophagus in September, 2011. He managed to create a garage library, rebuild the secret garden and even got my clothesline put up again. (I am frequently reminded of the words to a song “You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone….they paved paradise and put in a parking lot….”)
Since his passing in 2011, I have donated most of his favorite authors to the Lancaster Library – but also gave some of his authors to people like my friend Mary Jaynne’s husband Steve, who appreciates some of the same authors as Bob did.
As quickly as the shelves went up in the garage library, I unpacked boxes of books that had been stacked in an extra steel shed, bemoaning the discovery that some of my First Ladies’ biographies had gotten wet and were ruined from mildew. Inside the house, I cleared enough shelf space for collections such as my White House books (most written by former employees of the White House) while four smaller bookcases have been filled with my prized collection of food reference and recipes throughout history. The latter are as close to my computer as I can get them.
ALL of my regional cookbooks as well as all of my favorite food authors and all the books with “AMERICAN OR AMERICANA” in the titles are in bookcases that fill all three bedrooms as well as half of the living room. Most of the food authors are books that I collected in the 1990s while writing about those food historians for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange.
I have lost touch with Sue Erwin, the woman who created the CCE and knocked herself out finding books that I would be searching for – generally for an entire year – before sitting down and starting to write about – people like Myra Waldo, Jean Anderson, Meta Given, Nika Hazelton, the Browns (Cora, Rose and Bob Brown) as well as others.
In addition, I collected the series of the Best of the Best cookbooks, dedicated to collecting recipes from regional cookbooks in each of the states in the USA—there are more than fifty cookbooks in the series because the creators of The Best of the Best sometimes discovered a lot more cookbooks in certain states, such as Texas, Louisiana, and Virginia—which warranted a sequel book 2,
(I should also mention that two books represented the Best of the Best from the Mid-Atlantic (representing Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey and Washington, D.C—while the Great Plains are features in the Best of the Best from favorite cookbooks in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas.
I should also mention that the Best of the Best series was the inspiration of Gwen McKee and Barbara Moseley—who VISITED each of the States in search of club and church cookbooks from each. They are the creators of Quail Ridge Press. Each of the Best of the Best series contains a list of all the contributing cookbooks…and back when this famous duo was first publishing the Best of the Best series, my girlfriend, Mandy, and I wrote to some of the contributing cookbooks and were able to order a few that especially appealed to us. I can’t say enough about them—if you are really interested in regional cookbooks, this is a great place to start.
Another series of cookbooks that I am particularly fond of are The Gooseberry Patch cookbooks. I have more than fifty of these cookbooks—titles range from Christmas favorites, to best-loved Church Casseroles. These are also spiral-bound books—and the catch to the Gooseberry Patch is that recipes are culled from the many submitted to them—and, if they choose one of your recipes, you receive a free copy of the cookbook when it is published (a value of $16.95). I think I have about half a dozen, possibly more, that were selected from recipes I sent to Gooseberry Patch. I keep the letter they sent to me, announcing the publication of a particular recipe, with the book. They like it when you are able to provide a little history with your recipe—I submitted a chicken dish that had been my Aunt Annie’s—and it was chosen for Gooseberry Patch’s DINNER$ ON A DIME published in 2009.
Years ago, when I was new to cookbook collecting, a few penpals and I embarked on a quest to find a cookbook from each of the States (this was long before the Best of the Best came along) – I remember being unable to find anything for Utah so I wrote to a newspaper in Utah asking why it was so hard to find any church or club cookbooks published in Utah. Someone—maybe the food editor—wrote back to me, saying that it was possible that local people bought up all the copies of fund-raising cookbooks, leaving no reason to search for buyers beyond their borders. Somehow I did find something from Utah. My curiosity was piqued and I began searching for books about Utah pioneers as well. This is just how one thing leads to another.
Over the last few days, I unearthed a copy of the Santa Barbara Junior League Cookbook, published in 1939. (I need to search through my Junior League books to see which has the earliest publishing date).
This one could have fallen into the category of battered, tattered cookbooks and I might have overlooked it if not for the 1939 publishing date—and the many charming recipes featuring local (Southern California) recipes. It belongs with my collection of California cookbooks. My curiosity is piqued again with a recipe for Nabisco Cream Cake—that requires “rolled Nabisco wafers”. Does anyone know what these were? Obviously a cookie from Nabisco—but when did the cookie disappear from grocery shelves? This is a dessert recipe that is refrigerated for at least 12 hours after it has been put together. (I wonder—if I write to Nabisco, do you think they will answer me?)
Back in the 1970s, both my sister Becky and I found ourselves contributing recipes to PTA cookbooks being published by our sons’ schools—the Beachy School PTA Cookbook remains one of my favorites—while Becky’s participation in the Cheviot School PTA (Cincinnati, Ohio) cookbook makes that one a favorite in our household—that’s another way to get yourself involved with the publication of a regional cookbook.
TO CONTACT GOOSEBERRY PATCH, write to Gooseberry Patch, 600 London Road, PO Box 190, Delaware, Oh 43015, or call them at 1-800-854-6673.
To contact the editors of Best of the Best, Quail Ridge Press, PO Box 123, Brandon, Ms OR email them at email@example.com.
To be continued…..coming next, cookbooks with America or Americana in their titles.
Sandra Lee Smith