Wide-Eyed Gourmet: Reading Recipes 

The historical meanings of community cookbooks

Community cookbooks. Most of our mothers had at least one of these rickety assemblages of “tried-and-true recipes,” collected by committee, plainly published, and sold by the stack to raise funds for some unspecified charitable project. My mom has one dating from 1956, whose cover is charred in a spiral pattern that bears a suspicious resemblance to an electric burner. But in spite of this fascinating mark, I never wondered about this book, or even what my mom was cooking while she was burning the cover off. Now I’m rethinking my obliviousness, thanks to some scholars who are mulling over such seemingly mundane material.

Recipes for Reading: Community Cookbooks, Stories, Histories (University of Massachusetts Press), takes a good hard look at the questions a curious reader may find in community cookbooks. Why do some contributors to these cookbooks use their husbands’ names, and others use their own names? Why do some cookbooks not mention names at all? Why is one dish included five times? Why are instructions usually so terse? Why are there non-kosher recipes in a Jewish women’s auxiliary cookbook? Underneath these seemingly trivial questions are real issues: What does a collection of recipes reflect about its community’s group dynamics and aspirations? What is the effect of ethnicity or economic status on the language and content of the cookbook? How does the process of creating these cookbooks dovetail with the creation of women’s community?

In answer, the scholars set out a veritable feast of possibilities in the field of women’s culture. One Reading Recipes essay examines the syntax and semantics of pie recipes to provide a linguistic background for the communities that created and used them. Another deconstructs Like Water for Chocolate as a complex blend of community and self in the kitchens of Mexico. In her own contribution, editor Anne Bower identifies narrative elements of community cookbooks that combine to tell stories of history, moral triumph, or integration and assimilation of a smaller community into larger society.

The assimilation plotline was common in community cookbooks before World War II, according to Bower. Until then, books produced by women from various ethnic backgrounds called upon Mom, God, the flag, and eight recipes for apple pie. It was a natural phase of the immigrant experience, says Bower: “These women were asserting themselves as middle-class Americans. They wanted to show that they ate whatever was current, and that they lived the good life.” Later, as international politics sped up the globalization of American tastes and tolerances, immigrant communities felt more comfortable, and their cookbooks began to include native recipes, languages, and a palpable sense of ethnic, cultural, or religious pride.

Meanwhile, women’s roles in the home changed, which necessarily affected the tone of their community cookbooks. Early books emphasized the power of women to control the physical and moral health of their families through the meals that were served. “They used a lot of terms like ‘domestic scientist’ or ‘minister of the family state,’” says Bower, perhaps as a way of compensating or distracting women from the constricted sphere in which they lived. In time, women edged out into the world of business, and the standards for domestic mastery expanded to include speed and convenience as well as healthfulness and taste. Most cookbooks, however, still enforced the notion of woman as the cook, regardless of her social or professional standing (witness the defensive title of the National Women’s Press Club cookbook: Who Says We Can’t Cook?).

Today, many community cookbooks have occasional male contributors and a much-heightened awareness of health and ecological issues. But in fact, says Bower, the cookbooks still display old attitudes about women and cooking. “It’s still mostly women writing the books, and they’re still in charge of our health. We still believe that we can make the world a better place by what we feed our families.”

This is certainly true of my mother, though she was never very skilled as a cook. I recently went back to her burnt cookbook to see what other culinary stories she had picked up as a young woman. The cookbook came out of Utah in the mid-’50s, so women were the kitchen authorities, gentle tyrants of the stovetop, feeding hungry men and eager children (as depicted in the crudely drawn cartoons at the front of each chapter).

There were the scientific-looking tables of measurements, the chapter full of thrifty household hints, and the obligatory poem on how to keep your husband happy, important reading for my mother, who had arrived in the Granite Ward Relief Society (the ladies’ auxiliary, basically) as a single student at BYU. With the pressure surrounding unmarried women of that time and place, she surely would be studying the pages of these and other cookbooks for not only guidelines, but fantasies of the wedded life to come. My mother, being a newcomer, contributed no recipes of her own, but like many a dedicated student of other literary genres, wrote copious marginalia, noting prices of various cuts of meat and cutting recipes by two-thirds, her singlehood showing itself.

Perhaps on my second reading I can get to a discursive analysis of the salad dressings. Someday I might even get her to confess to the circumstances behind the burnt book. But I’ve read enough to recognize this fading set of recipes for what it is: a rich primary text for the story of my mother’s life.

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