You can walk into any bookstore and be overwhelmed by the sheer number of cookbooks available, catering to every specific nutritional, diet or lifestyle need. But the cookbook my family used most when I was growing up was what’s known as a community cookbook.
Community cookbooks are also known as fundraising cookbooks, charity cookbooks, or simply as “spirals” because they are usually spiral-bound with soft covers. These types of cookbooks have been around since the late 1800s, created by community organizations such as churches, temples, schools, clubs, fraternal organizations and non-profits for the purpose of fundraising, using recipes donated by members of the organization. More recently they have been compiled for family reunions, serving to preserve family recipes and traditions while raising money. Because recipes are donated, the members have a feeling of involvement. Another benefit of community cookbooks is that anyone with a recipe included in the book, usually with their name listed as the recipe author, will buy at least one copy of the completed cookbook.
The recipes themselves are an historical record of food preferences, popular ingredients, cooking techniques and the cultures of various ethnic groups and regions. For example, if you want a hotdish recipe, Minnesota-speak for casserole, check any cookbook from the Midwest. Community cookbooks are a snapshot in time.
But these cookbooks are not solely about the recipes. Many of the organizations include historical information, photos, and sometimes even local advertisements, which were an additional source of funds. They may also include household hints, with everything from cleaning tips to instructions on how to hang framed items on your walls.
My mother, Linda Hanson, has a collection of community cookbooks. She likes that the money she spends on cookbooks helps community organizations, but she also likes to learn about those communities, cultures and regions of the U.S. She reads cookbooks like I read novels, and she has enough experience in both cooking and traveling that she can pick out regional differences in similar recipes. If she has a personal connection with the organization or town compiling the book, she likes to look for family names she may recognize.
She finds and buys her cookbooks at local restaurants while traveling (a personal favorite being the one from Happy, Montana), from people she knows that are involved in various organizations, and from thrift stores. The photos I’ve included this week are all cookbooks in my mother’s collection. She has many more that I haven’t singled out, from Norwegian and Lutheran organizations, towns across the country, a Boeing employees’ cookbook from when my brother-in-law worked at Boeing, and a family collection from the paternal side of her family, purchased at a family reunion, which includes stories and photos of my grandfather and his siblings.
Although my parents grew up in rural areas about ten miles apart, they both attended school in Frazee, Minnesota. When my dad was sent to Vietnam for a year, we moved to Frazee to be closer to family. Although we’re not Catholic, Mom somehow acquired Favorite Recipes of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Frazee. As you can see from the photos I’ve included, this cookbook saw lots of use. Besides the food spatters and stains that come from having four kids, there are written notations on many of the pages, noting whether we liked the recipe, or listing alterations she tried. These are the marks of a well-loved cookbook.
If you would like to build your own collection of community cookbooks, many of the older ones can be found on ebay. Or take a road trip and visit local restaurants rather than the national chains.
If you already know the joys of these cookbooks, please feel free to share the name and/or photo of your personal favorite.