Community Cookbooks

Too often we overlook the bibliographical and physical information of a book, but as we learned this semester, that information carries just as much of a story as the written contents of the book. Given the size of the Community Cookbook section, we could not comb through every single book page by page. We did however take a look at each book and collected data that would be indicative of the books as a whole unit. Here, we discuss the purpose, content, and provenance found within the books.  For more analysis on the publication data collected, please visit the subpage on how we organized and visualized said data.

The “Meat and Potatoes”:

To begin, we discussed what made community cookbooks different from more commercial cookbooks in terms of purpose and content; what does the physical content of the book tell us about the book? It should be noted than unlike more commercial books that are compiled by one person or a restaurant whose purpose is to promote their work, community cookbooks are much different. These books are collections of recipes gathered by a local organization-such as a church group or a local girl scout troop-and are designed to be shared back among the members of the same community. From the provenance, which will be talked about in greater detail later, some of these books could have made it outside the community as gifts. However, it is likely that the recipients have some connection to the area. Almost all of the cookbooks share common features: a short history of the area and the organization who collected the recipes; a blurb on the community and why the organization wanted to collect the recipes; pictures of local establishments; and space in the back of the book for notes to be taken on favorite recipes. These features suggest the true purpose of small community cookbooks; while they may promote the community to outside visitors, their more important function is to strengthen the bonds that food creates among community members.

It is not exactly a new revelation that the South connects through food, whether this is in the nuclear family sphere or the larger community. As talked about in Fred Sauceman’s essay on Appalachian foodways, the mountains were historically hard places to find and grow food.  This hardship created a need to work with what they had and yield a lot from a little. As modern technology and other changes made providing food easier, that need did not go away. Southern spreads are large and most often apologized for, even if the table could feed an entire army battalion. The struggle of turning a little into a lot and giving what you had became tradition, and that tradition stayed despite the fact that we have so much more now. Every family get together, every community event, every funeral, every wedding, every everything in the South is accompanied by mountains of food.

What has changed about this tradition is that we are no longer competing to simply put food on the table, we’re now competing about how good and how much food is put on the table. Public events, from birthdays to church gatherings (something described in the “Food and Religion” essay in Foodways), are excuses to show off and see whose pound cake is truly the best. One’s ability to cook is part of one’s reputation in the South—especially regarding women, though we found that the passing of recipes through families, mostly from mother to child, seemed to transcend the boundaries of gender in some cases—and that reputation is still extremely important in small communities. It is representative of your ability to provide for your family and others. The reason we bring this up is that the community cookbooks are an extension of this (mostly) unspoken competition. One of the important things to consider about the recipes in the cookbooks is whether they are everyday food or celebration food. Due to the competition in the South, these recipes are an interesting in-between as they are recipes chosen to represent individual people; they will be an individual’s signature recipe or best dish. Everyone who contributes wants their recipe to be one that is recorded in the space at the back of these books. The competition is part of the connection. Special occasions that bring the community together cannot just be celebrated with food, but with good food.

What’s different about these books is that while there isn’t a commercial aspect, there is a monetary aspect. About 95% of the community cookbooks were used as a way of fundraising money for the information. So, all of the wonderful information about the community and its people serves not only as self-pride, but as a marketing agent. People will buy the books as a way to support their local organizations and to have a product of their neighbors.

The “Side Dishes”:

In addition to looking at the content of a book, it is important for us to consider  the more physical aspects of a book including provenance, binding, and the publisher/publishing location.

During our class, a lot of the provenance we found allowed us to trace who the book belonged to, whether this was in the form of a personal inscription or a note from someone else. Many of the cookbooks had such inscriptions, but with cookbooks, there is a new world of possibilities that opens up. For instance, we can look at whether or not people used the note pages towards the back of the book. While we did find examples of such notes, the notes never made it to the designated spot. With cookbooks though, we can use other signs of use such as stains from liquid or grease. Such signs are very clear signifiers that the owner made use of the book, although note that the absence does not necessarily mean the books sat on the shelf. Some people keep very clean and orderly kitchens.

We also learned to pay attention to how the books were put together and their city of publication. Now, since these books are local community ones and printed during the 20th and 21st Centuries, we aren’t able to analyze them in terms of physical characteristics such as chain or cross lines; as our professors say, those things aren’t germane for books published after 1820 or so. However, the form of the book does still hold a lot of information. Only a handful of the cookbooks had formal bindings. Most of the books were spiral bound with the covers perhaps being a slightly heavier weight than the rest of the pages. These books were not meant for heavy use or commercial applications. They weren’t meant to catch someone’s eye at a large bookstore. The simple, down-to-earth look and format speaks to their role as community cookbooks.

One of the things that we found truly interesting about the publication information is the amount of repetition in the cookbook presses. Due to the very small-town nature of these books, we expected many of the presses to be in-town or for the organization themselves to have taken on the expense to print the books. In hindsight, given that the majority of these books were used to raise money, we should have expected low numbers for the organization taking on the printing costs. Self-printing cannot be very affordable, making the profit margin low. However, most of the presses were in relatively local areas around Tennessee and Georgia if they were not in-state. Just under half of the books can be attributed to five publishers who are relatively local:  Cookbook Publishers Inc., Circulation Service Inc., Morris Press Cookbooks, Fundcraft Publishing, and Walter’s Publishing. (As it turns out by the way, Circulation Service Inc, is no longer a company and was taken over by Morris Press Cookbooks).

Something else we found to be very exciting is that you can track the history of a few of these presses’ name changes and location changes based on the publication information in the books. For example, any books published during 1998-2002 under Morris Press Cookbooks that the collection has, are actually published under the name Morris Press. In 2002, this name changed from Morris Press to Morris Press Cookbooks. We are able to state this because the Beulah Baptist Church of Leicester, NC published its cookbook, Taste & See, has Morris Press listed as the publisher in 2002 while the Weaverville United Methodist Church’s cookbook, Recipes for Serving Others, lists Morris Press Cookbooks in the same year.

The “Dessert”:

At the end of the day, despite these books being very different from the ones we studied in class, we can perform the same type of research to try and learn about them. Everything from the actual recipes to the place of location creates a better understanding of why these cookbooks were published in the first place, and their intended purpose. The story these community cookbooks tell is one of connecting with loved ones through food and of supporting the local community and area by keeping the tradition of food alive.