Humble though they may be, community cookbooksthose homey recipe collections sold as fund-raisers by church groups and Girl Scout troops across Americahave always been a passion of mine. My own favorite is Charleston Receipts. First published in 1950 by the Junior League of Charleston, it reflects the nostalgia for the old South that prevailed among low-country aristocrats during the postwar (postCivil War) era. Since slaves developed many of the local recipes and upper-class kitchens were staffed by their descendants, the text is sprinkled with Gullah, a dialect still spoken near Charleston. With Charleston Receipts and other community cookbooks beside me, I've turned out comfort dishes that have never failed, like bourbon balls and frozen fruit salad.
What I like best about these amateur productions is that, aside from that caught-in-amber quality, they were a labor of love. And the recipes tend to justify the authors' pride: "Most of the ones I tried worked very well," says Marcia Kiesel, F&W's test-kitchen director, who adapted recipes from seven cookbooks for this story. "They came from a time when women had to cook, when recipes were handed down like treasures." The Key lime pie recipe in the Florida Keys Cooking pamphlet, published in 1946 by Patricia's Notebook newsletter, seems almost too simple, with just three ingredients in the filling (the F&W version adds lime zest for extra flavor)but it works beautifully. And the French dressing from A Cook's Tour of the Eastern Shore of Maryland, published in 1949 by the Junior Auxiliary of the Memorial Hospital of Easton, Maryland, is a silky puree of celery, onion, mustard, vinegar and oil that bears no resemblance to the orange bottled dressings of today.
Evocative and intimate, vintage community cookbooks are infused with a sense of time, place and character that commercial cookbooks seldom offer. "Laid end to end, they would form a history of America on a community level," says Barbara Haber, curator of books at the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and author of From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals.
That's one of the reasons why community cookbooks are being enshrined in libraries and targeted by collectors. "The best ones tell you so much about these women and the world they lived in," says Ginnie Bosso, a caterer in California's Carmel Valley who owns 7,000 vintage cookbooks. In her collection, which focuses on books published before 1920, "the ladies' names are always formal'Mrs. Harold Blevins,' never 'Connie,'" she says. "Recipes are in paragraph form, very concise, because they assume you learned to cook at your mother's side and know how to put it all together. And measurements are vague'butter the size of an egg' or 'a thimble of vanilla extract.'" Aside from culinary guidance, Bosso says, older books are larded with clues about the communities themselves: "Recipes are attributed to families, and they often include stories or other details. And since the early books contained a lot of advertising, there's a record of who the local grocer or blacksmith was. I've sold duplicates in my collection to people who were researching their family history."
The first community cookbook was published during the Civil War. Yankee women determined to raise money for field hospitals organized themselves into what they called "Sanitation Commissions" and devised a way to make their domestic skills marketable: At a fair held in Philadelphia in 1864, they offered their own recipes under the title A Poetical Cook-Book. A small, plain volume, it featured the standard food of that periodjohnnycakes, hasty pudding and the like. The idea worked, says Haber, because "a cookbook was something women could create themselves. And the formula reflected the American ethic. Something needed to be done, and everybody pitched in."
After the war, women's clubs organized cookbook projects to benefit widows, veterans and orphans. By 1915, as many as 6,000 community cookbooks had been published in the United States, and women were raising money to fund kindergartens and promote temperance and other political causes. Though the volumes usually weren't much to look at (fancy covers were expensive), they had plenty of character: Some were handmade, bound in sheets of oilcloth held together with ribbon; others were published in pamphlet form. Along with poems and housekeeping hints, many included photographs illustrating the group's good worksthe town's new hospital, say, or the historic house that had been saved from the wrecking ball.
In an era when females had few roles in public life, these cookbooks acknowledged their presence in the community. "For some women, this would be the only place they'd ever see their name in print," says Bonnie Slotnick, who sells vintage cookbooks at her Manhattan store, Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks. "And if a cookbook had your mother's name in it, it became an heirloom."
Community cookbooks also reflected global events: Charleston Receipts offers a recipe for "Eggless, Milkless, Butterless Cake," an exercise in thrift that replaced these staples with hot water and shortening. By the 1950s, Italian and Chinese ingredientslike La Choy chow mein noodlesstarted sneaking into both American cuisine and community cookbooks, displacing local recipes.
All of this history comes at a modest price. Although copies of A Poetical Cook-Book top out at about $2,000 and preWorld War II volumes in good condition can fetch up to $40, community cookbooks from the 1940s and '50s typically cost $20 or less, because they are in plentiful supply. Of course, certain genres are more collectible than others: Hot items include vintage books published by the Junior League or in the South, as well as vintage fund-raisers from African American or Native American groups (both are rare). Volumes from the '70s or later are less sought-after: Since many were produced by cookbook mills (companies that standardize contributors' recipes in a boilerplate format), they tend to read much the same.
In the end, though, what makes a cookbook valuable is incredibly subjective. Every volume is more than the sum of its partsthe setting in which it was created, its look, its feel, the chorus of voices within. Go on the Internet to scan recent titles and you'll find copies of Burned to Perfection, produced by the Green Pond, South Carolina, Volunteer Fire Department, and a selection of cookbooks from the Cow Belles, a group of Colorado ranchers' wives raising money to promote beef consumption. Each community cookbook is a classic in its own way, just like the copy of Charleston Receipts that my mother gave to meand that I'll pass down to my daughter someday. Though we may not have contributed any of the recipes, the book is as much a part of our family's shared history as it was for the women who compiled it half a century ago.
Michelle Green has written about food for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.