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Long Before Social Networking, Community Cookbooks Ruled The Stove

Jul 20, 2012
Originally published on July 20, 2012 12:47 pm

Millions of users share recipes, DIY projects, and household tips on the social networking site Pinterest and myriad blogs and other sites.

But over a century before pinboards were virtual and bookmarking had nothing to do with actual books, people shared their domestic prowess through community cookbooks.

And these cookbooks (some historic covers are featured above in our slide show) were so much more than just a catalog of recipes — they were fundraisers, political pamphlets, and historical accounts of the communities they served.

Most began as a way to raise funds for a common goal. In America, the first of these charity cookbooks was A Poetical Cookbook by Maria J. Moss, which was published and sold in 1864 to subsidize medical costs for Union soldiers injured in the Civil War. "She compiled the recipes on her own, then she thought, 'Let's see if we can use it to make some money to help the wounded soldiers,'" Andrew Smith, professor of Food Studies at The New School in New York City, tells The Salt.

Many community organizations learned from Moss's success, and began creating fundraising cookbooks of their own. In fact, the concept became so popular that more than 3,000 charity cookbooks were published between 1864 and 1922, according to Feeding America, an historic cookbook project of Michigan State University.

At first, most of these cookbooks were created by religious groups. "If the church needed to have a steeple constructed or it needed a new building, they would ask the women of the congregation," says Smith.

These cookbooks were compiled by religious congregations across the country from the First Presbyterian Church in Dayton, Ohio to the Council of Jewish Women in Portland, Oregon. Cookbooks are still compiled by churches today, though modern adaptations include web recipe collection forms and special categories for vegan and gluten-free meals.

However, church ladies weren't the only ones to communicate through cookbooks. In 1886, a group of politically progressive women in Massachusetts compiled The Woman Suffrage Cookbook, to be sold at the Boston Festival and Bazaar. It was created to raise funds for their municipal suffrage campaign, but also as a means to spread the group's agenda.

"It was an innocuous way to spread their message. It was just a cookbook at a festival ... it made it OK for people who wouldn't have engaged with their cause otherwise," says Emily Contois, public health nutritionist and food blogger.

Contois points out that provocative recipe titles like Mrs. Mary F. Curtiss' Rebel Soup and Miss M.A. Hill's Mother's Election Cake announced the politics of the women represented in the cookbook, many of whom were doctors, lawyers, teachers, and authors.

And more than just the recipe names were progressive, says Contois. Some of the women submitted recipes recorded in the modern approach — ingredients listed on top and instructions listed below — 10 years before recipe standardization pioneer Fannie Farmer published the first version of her influential cookbook.

Contois and Smith both say that these old cookbooks have inspired a new genre of culinary literature: Personal stories intertwined with recipes. This template is now seen everywhere from June Hersh's Recipes Remembered, which shares the stories of Jewish Holocaust survivors and their pre-war recipes to The Homesick Texan Cookbook, which records the memories and recipes of popular blogger Lisa Fain, who transplanted to New York City from the Lone Star State.

With community cookbooks, Smith says, "you get an insight into history that isn't there from any other source, it's not in newspapers, it just hasn't survived." And that historical value, might be more important to modern cookbook buyers than any recipe inside. So what began as practical household how-to guides, are now more likely to be a coffee table conversation starter than a reference in the kitchen.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.