I’ve been a collector of old cookbooks for a long time. These volumes used to appear by the boxes full at local yard sales, for a dime or a quarter a piece or a dollar a box. Now they seem to be few and far between. Old/vintage New England cookbooks are my favorite.
Initially, I shunned the Community Cookbooks, the ones from the Smallville Women’s Auxiliary or the Fellowship Church of Somewhereorother, usually spiral bound and often hand printed…. I did not give them the credit they deserved. On initial perusal, they seemed full of similar sounding recipes for boring sounding dishes written in a non-professional style.Eventually, though, and very fortunately, I have come to treasure them. Upon further and more complete review, they contain gems of local folklore and wisdom. Often the recipes are accompanied by little stories and sketches. Many of the volumes I now value, contain local advertisements of the day. These books are such a slice of history and culture, a metaphorical snapshot of the time and place they were produced. They represent the efforts of an entire community, working for a cause. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate the notes handwritten by the previous owners in the margins, ” Wonderful, made for Jim’s birthday”, “Too sweet, cut sugar in half”, “Make a double batch, they go fast!”…, and the recipes they clipped from newspapers and used as bookmarks.
Although each book is unique, some common threads run through them.
Many of the recipes state they are the result of having an abundance of a particular item that the cook cannot bear to waste. Desserts made from Zucchini, breads made from sour milk, pies made from Rhubarb, twelve egg dream cake …
A lot of the vintage recipes date from the First and Second World Wars when ingredients we now think of as common, were very hard to come by or too expensive to be acquired. For instance, a mock apple pie made with crackers and no fruit, whipped topping made from dry milk powder and gelatin…
Bessie’s Best Sunday Cake or Rosie’s Favorite Baked Beans or Cora’s Blue Ribbon Biscuits say it all. This might be the only shot at posterity many of these recipe contributors had and they made the most of it! Cooking was a job that housewives took very seriously and were often acclaimed for. When community dinners were planned, some even complained that they were always asked to bring the same dish they were famous for!
These folks used what they had. There was no running to the store to create these wonders. Cooks in the past did not hold fast to recipe ingredients. They were very flexible when it came to creating a dish. They used what was available on the farm or in the pantry cupboard, or went without until an ingredient was available. It was not uncommon to see a recipe that says: 1 cup of sour milk, or sweet milk or sour cream or canned milk plus one teaspoon of vinegar or lemon juice…
Great Aunt Sue’s Lemon Berry Pie, Winslow Family Roast Lamb and Trimmings, Sunny Acres Favorite Bread Recipe …these are recipes that have been treasured and handed down through the generations. Family treasures shared with a lucky community.
Community Cookbooks are chockful of wonderful and often vintage recipes. They are also loaded with fodder for nostalgia and imagination. Some of these have dozens or even hundreds of contributors. A few small groups put out cookbooks where only a handful of cooks donated most of the recipes. By the time I reach the end of one of those cookbooks, reading many recipes by one author, I feel like I know some of those cooks pretty well. Do yourself a favor and look for them at the next yard sale or flea market you attend!
July 16, 2011 Update
I was out running errands this morning, and having written the above post last week, Istill had community cookbooks on the brain. I passed a church sale in town and decided to stop. I hit the jackpot as the photo to the right demonstrates. Each of these gems was only fifty cents, and each one represents a different area of New England. What fun. I’ll be busy reading these for awhile!