Promoting passion in book collecting

The Evolution of the Community Cookbook

Community cookbooks occupy a unique place in American culinary history. Sometimes called charity cookbooks or fundraising cookbooks, these usually simple volumes emerged during the Civil War and soon became a societal staple. These volumes offer insight on the roles of women, the priorities of communities, and the evolution of our diet and nutrition.

Roots in Wartime Fundraising

The Civil War made it painfully obvious that sanitation and adequate medical care were more than luxuries; they were vital to survival. Doctors of the era were making strides toward understanding germ theory, and the importance of cleanliness–even in field hospitals–was becoming increasingly obvious. The Union struggled to raise money for proper sanitation and medical supplies. Communities began holding “Sanitation Fairs” for the cause, where visitors could purchase clothing, furniture, toys, and, of course, food. In 1864, Maria J Moss decided to collect recipes for a cookbook, which she then offered for sale at the Philadelphia Sanitation Fair. Her effort, A Poetical Cook-Book, was a resounding success, and soon women were replicating the model for church groups, hospitals, charities, and other organizations.

Philadelphia Sanitary Fair, 1864

Philadelphia Sanitary Fair, 1864 (Photo: NYPL)

Over the next several decades, hundreds of community cookbooks were published, but few survive today; often published on cheap materials or made by hand, these cookbooks weren’t necessarily designed to withstand the wear of ages. That said, they were often treated as family heirlooms; in many cases, community cookbooks were the only places where a woman’s name would publicly appear in print during her lifetime.

Furthering a Political Agenda

The Woman Suffrage Cook Book

The Woman Suffrage Cook Book (886) (Photo: MSU Libraries)

The community cookbook was exclusively the domain of women, which is part of what made it such an appealing method for fundraising; women could do them on their own, without any help from men. Thus it should come as no surprise that the suffragettes produced community cookbooks. In 1886, a group of women in Massachusetts (many of whom were authors, doctors, teachers, and lawyers) compiled The Woman Suffrage Cookbook. The book was sold at the Boston Festival and Bazaar to raise money for the municipal suffrage campaign.

The cookbook proved an ingenious tool; women could buy a cookbook without anyone’s scrutinizing their politics, and it was an excellent means for sharing the group’s political agenda with greater subtlety. The recipes were given provocative recipe titles, such as “Mrs. Mary F Curtiss’ Rebel Soup,” which were viewed as both clever and humorous. Some of the recipe authors were also progressive in another regard. They listed ingredients at the top, with directions underneath, rather than in the conventional prose format. This style wouldn’t come into common practice until a decade later, when Fannie Farmer pioneered recipe standardization in her first cookbook.

All-Purpose Cookbook a Smashing Success

Perhaps the most successful community cookbook was published by Lizzie Kander in 1901. Kander was the founder and cooking teacher at the Settlement, a Milwaukee community center for immigrant girls. Mostly Jewish and Italian, the girls came from a variety of backgrounds. At the Settlement, they learned English, along with useful skills like cooking and sewing. Kander undertook the cookbook project to subsidize the program, but the organization’s Board of Directors was so skeptical, they made Kander pay the $18 to publish the book herself!

The Settlement Cook Book

1903 edition of ‘The Settlement Cook Book’ (Photo: NYPL)

Kander took a new approach, writing her recipes so that they were accessible to both beginners and more experienced cooks. And though it includes some classic Jewish recipes, it’s certainly not a Jewish cookbook; on the contrary, the book contains a variety of recipes suitable for general use. The Settlement Cook Book has gone through 30 different editions and sold over two million copies. Only one known first edition exists today, in the Milwaukee Public Library. The 1915 edition includes a “Liberty Supplement” that provided methods for cooks to deal with the expected shortages during World War I: recipes include “meat extenders” and “wheatless pastry.”

Collecting Community Cookbooks

Both rare book collectors and culinary historians enjoy community cookbooks because, like manuscript cookbooks, these documents are windows into women’s lives. They often incorporate stories and details about the women who contributed the recipes, making them an invaluable (though sometimes overlooked) resource for genealogists. Early community cookbooks also frequently contained advertisements, so we can learn more about the roles people played in the community and even make inferences about the wealth and commerce of a given community. On a more personal level, these cookbooks were truly labors of love. They contain recipes made by real women in real kitchens. They remind us of the days when recipes were handed down from mother to daughter, granting a new appreciation for the context of our cooking.

Among collectors, vintage community cookbooks from the South are often popular, especially those by Southern Junior Leagues. Fundraising cookbooks produced by Native American and African American communities are also sought after because they’re much more rare. Though community cookbooks are indeed much less common today, modern editions are often quite interesting additions to a culinary collection.

Crystal Lake Cookbook (1902)

Crystal Lake Cook Book-1902The Women’s Literary Club of Barton, Vermont published the Crystal Lake Cookbook in 1902 to raise money for the local library and reading room. The frontispiece features a black-and-white photograph of the Hotel Barton, and the last 26 pages of the book are full of advertisements for local businesses. They paint a picture of a thriving turn-of-the-century town. By 1920, Barton’s population had peaked at 3,506 people. Every recipe is accompanied by the name of the contributor, illustrating the enthusiastic participation of ladies in the Barton community.

Aid & Comfort: The Artists Portfolio (1987)

Hayes-Street-Grill-Mussels-EVOOOn June 8, 1987, a benefit dinner-performance was held in San Francisco to raise money for people fighting AIDS. Fine artists selected current works, restaurants contributed recipes, and authors contributed recipes and essays. Then 23 printers gave these recipes and essays shape as a series of broadsides, assembled as Aid & Comfort: The Artists Portfolio. Contributing restaurants were some of the best known in the city: The Mandarin, Campton Place, Chez Panisse, and Hayes Street Grill were among them. Artists included Elmer Bischoff, Squeak Carnwath, Deborah Oropallo, and Wayne Thiebaud, and writers Marion Cunningham, James Beard, and MFK Fisher were among the contributors.

Out of Our Kitchen Closets (1987)

Out of Our Kitchen ClosetsPublished by Congregation Sha’ar Zahev in San Francisco, Out of Our Kitchen Closetsis a delightful collection of traditional Jewish cooking. Recipes were submitted by members, families, and friends of the congregation, and the book includes suggested menus for special occasional such as Shabbot Eve dinner, Succot, Purim, and Yom Kipper. At this time a number of groups and organizations were stepping forward to show their support for the gay community of San Francisco, so this book serves both a political and financial purpose.

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This entry was posted on August 7, 2013 by in Food and Literature, History and tagged , , , .
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