In Praise of Church Ladies

Cooking and baking represent different communities and cultures, and the recipes of a community are a kind of sociocultural record. Recipes reflect cultural values, give us insights into technology and science, and even illuminate the expanse of the global economy. Recipes from a pre-industrial time include a lot less sugar and demonstrate a reliance on natural process like fermentation, salt-curing, and smoking to enhance flavor and prolong usefulness. Sugar and spices became available as the global economy expanded. Elaborate French patisserie evolved because of the influence of Versailles, Napoleon, and European royalty (after all, the peasants hungered for bread, not King Louis’ cake). Recipes from South America utilize different ingredients than those from Scandinavia due to climate and availability, but even in the age of a globalized economy, people’s cultural flavor preferences endure over time. If you think of yourself as a foodie, you may be invested in exploring flavors from all over the world. But most people like what their parents, grandparents, and relatives liked. We like the food we were raised with, and our food memories are entrenched with social experiences of home, family, and love.

Enter the beloved charity cookbook. These were often created by church congregations, school parent-teacher associations, or local public services to raise money for charitable causes. Did you always want to know Aunt Trudy’s secret recipe for macaroni salad? Buy the First Baptist Community Cookbook, and you can find out! Now of course, we just google “macaroni salad,” and choose the option we like best, so the charity cookbook has lost some of its fundraising power. But there are thousands of these cookbooks in the world, and every one of them has recipes to delight and inspire. I genuinely love these cookbooks.

Scouring yard sales, antique sales, swap meets, and Ebay, I am always on the hunt for a good community cookbook. The recipes are usually simple, utilize familiar ingredients for American audiences, and can be baked in either a 9″x13″ casserole pan, a crock-pot, or a cookie sheet. Many were created at a time when canned foods, preservatives, and fad ingredients were taking center stage. Gelatin, marshmallow fluff, instant yeast, boxed cake and bread mix, lunchmeat, cheesefood, margarine, and things that could be sprayed from a can or squirted from a bottle take center stage. The results might not seem the most appetizing option to a modern palate, but they give us a clear, immersive, sensory experience into another time. I guarantee that if you take one bite, you’ll be able to glimpse what our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents lived like. And you might even like it.

Now, I’m off to make some “Watergate Cake,” courtesy of Pinky Allen Fredericks, from One Cup History: From the Descendants of Dr. R. Ross Ewing and Emma Mary Thornburg Ewing, a family cookbook I received from a cousin. But first, the grocery store for white cake mix, pistachio pudding mix, club soda, and Dream Whip, whatever that is…