My Rouses Everyday, September & October 2018
For those among us who are cookbook enthusiasts, there’s a certain kind of (often self-induced) pressure to always be on the bleeding edge of what’s hip in the world of culinary writing. Whether the trend de jour is cooking with offal or creating non-alcoholic cocktails, there’s a feeling that we must have read — or at least skimmed — the latest book on the topic in order to be a part of the conversation.
This is particularly true when it comes to chef-driven, fine dining cookbooks: those glossy-paged aspirational tomes that tell us we, too, can make complex, restaurant-quality dishes in the comfort of our own kitchens. And we can, in theory, except the ingredient lists are too complicated (who has that spice in their pantry?), the processes too convoluted, and the time commitment greater than what it takes to cook a whole hog. These books are inspirational, yes, but usually not the kind of resource you’d turn to for something quick and delicious on a random Wednesday
That’s where community cookbooks come in.
Community cookbooks are locally produced, deeply treasured recipe collections that read like time capsules of what was on dinner tables during the era in which they were written. Still in wide use today, they rose in popularity during the mid-1960s and continue to this day, and you’d be hard-pressed to enter any grandmother’s kitchen from Lake Charles to Mobile without finding one — or five — community cookbooks wedged between a stand mixer and toaster on the kitchen counter.
“Community cookbooks were started as a way to raise money for organizations in the community, like churches or the Junior League,” explains Philipe LaMancusa of Kitchen Witch, a beloved culinary bookstore in New Orleans. With over 10,000 works lining its shelves, Kitchen Witch is a foremost place to explore the diversity of community cookbooks from the region and beyond. “People — mostly women — would donate recipes, and then one person would type them up and have them bound. They’d sell them mostly at church or community functions.”
Often spiral bound or held together with plastic rings, these cookbooks offer a surefire way to begin understanding the personality of a town or region through its distinctive foodways. There’s the Pirate’s Pantry cookbook from the Junior League of Lake Charles, which includes an entire section on cooking with wild game — complete with illustrations of deer, alligator and a supporting cast of critters. The Plantation Cookbook
“The community cookbook is the way communities stay in touch with who they are,” says LaMancusa. “It’s also a wonderful way for newcomers to get themselves in touch with what they [the communites] do.”
They’ve also proven to be exceedingly popular over the years — and not just in their hometowns. Mobile, Alabama’s Recipe Jubilee! has sold over 164,000 copies since being published in 1964. Talk About Good!, compiled by the Junior League of Lafayette, is now in its 30th printing, with over 775,000 copies in global circulation. And the most popular of them all, River Road Recipes
“The joy of these cookbooks is that, in most cases, the women contributed recipes that were historical snapshots of what people were eating and where they were eating it,” LaMancusa explains. “We’ll get people in the store who say, ‘My grandmother contributed a recipe to that book!’ People come in looking for them.”
In true Southern fashion, contributing to a community cookbook can also be a way to not only share a family recipe with others, but gain some serious bragging rights within one’s social circle. It’s not hard to imagine a couple of legacy Junior Leaguers subtly trying to one-up each other about their family’s cookbook connection:
“Other people claim to have the best deviled oysters in Baton Rouge, but they used my grandmother’s method in the original edition of River Road Recipes
“Well, my aunt’s sand tart cookies are so good they appeared in River Road Recipes’ first edition and the fourth River Road
Unlike with other cookbooks, pride runs particularly deep for community works because they’re so unbelievably intimate. Community cookbooks aren’t the creations of some faceless culinary scribe, and they most certainly aren’t a collection of recipes from a famous chef tinkering away in a hoity-toity kitchen. No. Each recipe has the name of an individual attached to it: the same local people — neighbors, friends, fellow bowling league members — who you can, in theory, run into while buying groceries each week. (Perhaps they’re buying the ingredients for dishes in the book!) These recipes are for the people, by the people.
And when it comes to older editions of community cookbooks — those passed down between generations — it’s easy to begin building storylines around the recipe-makers themselves based on the dishes they’ve decided to share with the world. For the culinarily inclined, selecting a “signature recipe” for a community cookbook has the potential to reveal more about a person than any official personality test. Would you rather be forever associated — in print — with a dish like stuffed mirlitons, lemon chiffon pie or something called “crabmeat sycamore”? The recipes towards which people gravitate tend to reveal a great deal about their personalities, intentionally or not.
The way community cookbook contributors approach recipe writing — and the hodgepodge of styles therein — also helps to create a portrait of the person behind the recipe. When Charles H. Stewart of New Orleans notes in his write-up for “bowle a la kumpa” (a German wine punch) that it serves “four lusty drinkers, eight bon vivants, or 16 ‘party drinkers’” one can only assume he’d be disappointed in anyone who isn’t enjoying his punch lustily. And at the bottom of Lurnice Begnaud’s recipe for cheese puffs in Talk About Good!
Enthusiasm is often the foremost thing to seep through in community cookbook recipes, whether through the use of all caps (“DO NOT FREEZE”) or multiple exclamation points tacked onto the end of a recipe headnote (“This version of shrimp creole is very good!!!!
Maybe I’m a sucker for oddballs (or maybe I am an oddball), but the recipes, and recipe creators, that tend to capture my attention most in community cookbooks are the ones that seem a little wacky. A recipe out of Lafayette extols the deliciousness of a “carrot ring” that molds mashed carrots, eggs and butter into a sliceable vegetable cake. (The center of the ring is filled with creamed peas — for presentation, of course.) Not for the squeamish, Pirate’s Pantry has an entire page instructing readers on how to properly skin a deer before cooking it. And I’m a well-known champion of aspic in all its jiggly forms, but a recipe for “mystery salad” that combines raspberry gelatin, stewed tomatoes, onions, celery and hot sauce seems to be constructed on very wobbly culinary ground.
Then there are the dishes that have ingredient lists so head-scratching you can’t help but want to make them for novelty’s sake. One of the most curious creations I’ve encountered in any community cookbook is a crustacean-based dip called lobster au rhum. Found in the 1987 edition of Talk About Good!
Community cookbooks are also meant to be interactive and, if they’ve had been around long enough, filled with the kind of notes, doodles and adjustments known as “marginalia,” a term used by former United States Poet Laureate Billy Collins. Any cookbook passed down through generations (and likely fraying at the edges, held together by masking tape or covered with a few smears of grease) is sure to have as much of its white space as possible filled with comments, questions and instructions for how to make each recipe just a little bit better-suited to a family’s particular taste.
In a 2014 essay for the Southern Foodways Alliance about my own experience with a family copy of Talk About Good!, I called community cookbooks, “Culinary love letters passed down through generations, [with] cookbook marginalia that tell the tale of the perfect punch for sweltering June weddings, that Aunt Ruby loves extra raisins in her oatmeal cookies, and just how much bourbon a ham marinade really needs.”
In turn, contributing my own marginalia to community cookbooks feels like keeping a family tradition alive and well. If I discovered that the lobster au rhum dish is much improved with a large dash of cayenne, I could just tattoo it in next to the recipe itself — no need for a post-it or separate recipe card. I’d like to imagine the community cookbooks where I’ve scribbled turning up at a garage sale someday, and a curious kitchen newbie flipping through them while quietly judging my terrible, hasty handwriting.
The thought of recipe sharing — handwritten notes and all — as a kind of necessary public service and means of greater connection speaks to the heart of what community cookbooks embody, with each ingredient list and step-by-step set of instructions a way to allow one cook to share the joy of their personal kitchen table with those around them.
So, yes. I’ll likely continue to hoard those elegantly photographed, chef-written cookbooks, admiring their pristine spines all lined up in a row on my bookshelf. But the works I truly treasure won’t be sitting on some pedestal. No, the ones that have my heart — the community cookbooks — will be down in the kitchen trenches right by my side: flour-covered, sticky and just a little disheveled as we dive headlong into another recipe together.