Community Cookbooks

St. Pauls Church
St. Paul’s Church

The term “community cookbook” barely begins to describe a major genre of published works that extends back to the end of Civil War. What might be called the first in the lineage, Maria J. Moss’ A Poetical Cook-Book (Philadelphia: C. Sherman, Son, 1864), was sold at the Great Sanitary Fair in Philadelphia for the benefit of Union soldiers, but in subsequent years, many thousands have been published in almost every conceivable size, shape, and format, for any number of different organizations and causes.

Written almost exclusively by women, the earliest of these cookbooks typically benefited the poor and infirm, home missions and settlement houses, and causes ranging from women’s rights to temperance and military relief. In keeping with a woman’s proper role in American society, many were also intended to teach proper nutrition, health, and family values. Equally often, they reflect a cuisine endemic to its authors (seldom the audience), featuring local ingredients and cooking techniques. New England was a particular hotbed for publication of charitable cookbooks in the nineteenth century, but examples can be found throughout the country, east and west, north and south.

The spread of cheap printing technologies in the early- and mid-twentieth century created opportunities for many more groups to take part in fund raising through cookery, and it is at this time that we see a subtle shift from what we call charitable cookbooks to community cookbooks. The two terms are not distinct, and most community cookbooks are charitable (though not necessarily vice versa), but there can be an important difference. The typical community cookbook was a profoundly local affair, produced by church or community groups, fraternal organizations, or charities using recipes submitted by members, and edited and published locally, aimed almost exclusively at a local audience. They can be deeply personal, with each recipe not only attributed to its author, but actually autographed by them.

Baldwinville
Baldwinville, Mass.

Typically too, community cookbooks are anything but elaborate, with barely any text beyond the recipes, and no illustrations except perhaps for one on the cover. Only rarely are they printed professionally, and many may be little more than photocopied pages tied together with string or humbly stapled at the side. By the 1960s, several commercial publishers entered the scene to market the concept of the community cookbook to community groups, and sometimes even the recipes, but into the twenty-first century, the true community cookbook retains its personal edge.

As a genre, community cookbooks offer insight into the profound changes that have swept American culinary history over the past century and a half. The shift from local produce to processed foods and ultimately to a convenience cuisine mark the pages of community cookbooks, and because they are deeply rooted in the communities that produced them, the cookbooks are also a reflection of the changes affecting American culture more generally, from changes in domestic work to changes in gender relations, the waxing and waning of immigrant communities, the introduction of novel foodstuffs and adaptation of old, and changes in the concept of charity and its suitable ends.

Learn more about community cookbooks:

  • Bower, Anne L., ed., Recipes for reading : community cookbooks, stories, histories. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts, 1997.
  • Brown, Eleanor and Bob, Culinary Americana; cookbooks published in the cities and towns of the United States of America during the years from 1860 through 1960. New York: Roving Eye Press, 1961.
  • Cook, Margaret, America‚Äôs charitable cooks: a bibliography of fund-raising cook books published in the United States (1861-1915). Kent, Ohio, 1971.

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