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Michael Amsler

Reading Recipes

The historical significance of community cookbooks

By Marina Wolf

COMMUNITY cookbooks. Most of our mothers had at least one of these rickety assemblages of "tried-and-true recipes," collected by a committee, plainly published, and sold by the stack to raise funds for some unspecified charitable project. My mom has one mimeographed volume 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 that book, or even about 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, 1997) 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, for example, are there nonkosher recipes in a Jewish women's auxiliary cookbook?

Underneath these seemingly trivial questions, however, 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 communities?

In answer, the scholars set out a veritable feast of possibilities in the field of women's culture. One Recipes for Reading 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 the integration and assimilation of a smaller community into the larger society.

THE ASSIMILATION plot line 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 wars and international politics sped up the globalization of American tastes and tolerances, immigrant communities felt more comfortable, and their cookbooks began to include native recipes, native 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 affect the physical and moral health of their families through the meals that were served. Bower writes, "They used a lot of terms like 'domestic scientist' or 'minister of the family state,' " perhaps as a way of compensating for 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 the woman as the cook, regardless of her social or professional standing (witness the defensive title of the 1955 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 WAS certainly true of my mother, though she was never very skilled as a cook. I recently went back to her charred cookbook to see what 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 was a single student at Brigham Young University at the time. With the pressure surrounding unmarried women of that time and place, she surely would be studying the pages of these and other cookbooks not only for guidelines, but also for fantasies of the wedded life to come.

MY MOTHER, being a newcomer to this congregation, contributed no recipes of her own, but, like many a dedicated student of other literary genres, she wrote copious marginalia, noting prices of various cuts of meat and cutting recipes by two-thirds, her singlehood revealing itself.

The community she joined consisted of sturdy, practical women whom she would come to know well (relatives of her friend and soon-to-be sister-in-law were major content providers). Most of the recipes were modest and made large quantities; their directions assumed competence and Mormon utilitarianism, with the possible exception of the desserts, which took more pages than any other category.

Perhaps the contributors wanted their friends to think they made desserts often, or maybe this was just a manifestation of a dream, an image of the sweeter life that everyone wanted in those postwar years.

Maybe on my second reading I can get to a discursive analysis of the salad dressings. Someday I might even get Mom to confess to the circumstances of 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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From the June 29-July 5, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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