‘Twas our bicentennial intent: A treasure trove of community cookbooks

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This post about community cookbooks is in part inspired by the UT Food Lab’s Women & Food Symposium on Saturday at Gearing Hall at UT. It’s a free event from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., which will conclude with a Peace Through Pie social. I’m planning on bringing a lemon meringue pie that Laura Shapiro, the culinary historian and author is is one of the featured speakers at the event, dug up in her research for this article on Slate, a piece that will give you an idea of the kind of conversation we’ll be having this weekend. You can chime in via #womenfood hashtag or the event’s Facebook page.

IMG_3171One of the highlights of our trip back to Missouri over Thanksgiving was stumbling upon a collection of cookbooks, most of the community variety, in the small house we stayed in.

With my parents/grandmothers’ home increasingly crowded (those boys take up more space every time we return), we often stay at a mother-in-law house at a friend of my grandmother’s. It’s a quaint little house that my grandmother and her late husband (on the other side of the family) stayed for a few years before he passed and she moved to Austin.

The house might have seemed empty, but it was full of surprises.

About a dozen cookbooks stored in the laundry room are among the only remnants of domestic activity, and a closer inspection reveals touching details that help tell the story of life in the generation or two before mine.

Ian and I spent more than an hour late one night looking through these volumes, some whose cloth spines cracking with age and others whose flimsy plastic spirals could have been made yesterday.

IMG_3174We came upon this recipe from Scarborough, Ontario, where Ian spent several of his childhood years.

My family calls a version of this dish “goulash,” but Ian still makes a non-creamy pasta, meat and tomato dish that he knows as “hot dish,” which probably evolved from a recipe somehow connected to Mrs. Carl Efraimson.

Perhaps she spiffed up the everyday hot dish with mushrooms and canned soup when guests were expected at the dinner table.

The coolest find was this book, “Good Eating at Dayco,” a project under the direction of a woman named Freda Koch, who was somehow connected to a company that was once a large employer in the area. The book is a fairy standard community cookbook, filled with recipes that either sound wonderful and homey or absolutely repulsive and out of date. (I loved how they inserted recipe corrections via physical slip of paper.)

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But it was contributor Shirley Turner who wrote an introductory poem that tells a story behind the book that you’d never learn from its recipes. It’s a prime example of the treasures to be found in community cookbooks if you just take the time to look.

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Five Years Have Passed

The year was nineteen-seventy-six,
And with patriotic bent,
We thought a cookbook would be nice –
‘Twas our bicentennial intent.
Recipes were gathered all through the planet,
A cover was drawn, a poem written;
The pages were typed and ready to go –
Then with problems we were smitten

We all know well the troubles we shared,
This cannot be denied;
There was no chance to do the work,
And the cookbook got left behind.
The year was coming to a close,
The theme became obsolete;
The pages had not been put together,
And the project lay incomplete.

The year is nineteen-eighty-one,
And the urge is on to begin
To pick up the pieces where we left off,
And work on the cookbook again.
The covers we’d printed we had to use,
The cost had been far too much –
And they really didn’t say seventy-six,
Or bicentennial, as such.

So we used the cover and scrapped the poem,
and wrote this one for explanation,
Of why the cookbook didn’t come out,
As was our anticipation.
The recipes are here and the purpose the same,
As when we started this book;
So, know each time you open it,
You’ve brightened someone’s outlook.

- Shirley Turner

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One response to “‘Twas our bicentennial intent: A treasure trove of community cookbooks

  1. Thank you for this topic! I actually collect these cookbooks when I’m out thrifting. I love them. From a feminist standpoint, I like to look at the number of women titling themselves “Mrs. Bob Smith” versus “Jane Smith” or “Mrs. Jane Smith” and what kind of dishes might distinguish “Mrs. Bob” from “Jane.”

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