Church and community cookbooks are as essential to Southern kitchens as a rolling pin. They aren’t about fancy dishes or farm-to-table, gluten free or organic foods. Rather, they represent the best dishes of those who contributed. In addition to being a source of pride, these books usually represent a common goal that extends far beyond the recipes contained within their pages. They are fundraisers, political pamphlets, and historical accounts of their communities. The names associated with each recipe are people we know- a Sunday School teacher, a friend, a neighbor. Even if we don’t know them personally, these pages represent someone like us and not a professional chef or formally trained cook.
While these cookbooks hold a strong grasp on women in the South, the first community cookbook in America was actually published in Philadelphia in 1864. Maria J. Moss published A Poetical Cookbook just after the Civil War in an effort to subsidize medical costs for Union soldiers. The book was 100 pages in length, and each recipe was accompanied by a line or two of poetry. In my research, I was not able to find any data on how much money was raised, but it’s clear that Maria Moss’ book was a success that spawned a movement. The success of this project led to the creation of more than 3,000 community fundraiser cookbooks like it in the next 50 years.
Historically, churches and junior leagues have been the main avenues for these community cookbooks. However, not all community cookbooks went this route. In 1886, a group of politically progressive women in Massachusetts compiled The Woman’s Suffrage Cookbook to sell at the Boston Festival and Bazaar. This proved extremely affective as they could spread their message innocuously to people who wouldn’t have engaged with their message otherwise. It gave the women an effective way to spread their political message in a time before they even had the right to vote.
From one cause to another, community cookbooks act like a time capsule giving us insight into life in that particular place and time that might not have been otherwise documented. Patterns in the recipes reflect what is going on in a particular culture. For example, a recipe such as cake that would have previously called for butter and eggs in the 1950s began to be replaced with shortening and water as a more cost effective measure. This inside look into the time in which these books are published in is often accompanied by notes provided by the recipe’s contributor that gives us stories, tips, and lessons learned. Sure, you will inevitably have your recipes that came straight off of the back of a box or can, but buried in between those are gold mines.
Today, community cookbooks remain powerful fundraisers. Some volumes and versions even stay in demand for decades. My personal go-to cookbook, Calling All Cooks, is actually a community cookbook and has been in print since 1982 (don’t worry, more to come on this gem later). There are many that have seen the success of Calling All Cooks, such as Charleston Receipts by The Junior League of Charleston or Tea-Time at the Masters by Georgia Junior League of Augusta. Despite the relative success of these books, they remain a staple in our kitchens. They became heirlooms, passed down through families with worn and spotted pages revealing favorite recipes. Stains and drips on their pages act as battle scars of meals prepared and consumed. Through time, these compilations become as much of a part of our family history as they did for the women to contributed to their creations all those years ago.
Ham and Swiss Chicken Roll-ups
4 Chicken Cutlets
8 pieces of thinly sliced swiss cheese
8 pieces of thinly sliced cooked ham
1 cup bread crumbs
1 tsp oregano
1 tsp parsley
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Take a mallet or rolling pin and gentle pound out cutlets to roughly 1 – 1 ½ inch thickness. Place two pieces of swiss cheese and two pieces of ham on each cutlet to roughly cover the top of the meat. Carefully roll each chicken up into a pinwheel, rolling up jelly roll style. Use toothpicks to secure if necessary. Place the chicken in a baking dish, seam side down.
Mix together the bread crumbs, oregano, and parsley. Sprinkle over the top of the chicken. Bake chicken for 25-30 minutes, until tops are golden brown and chicken is cooked through. Serve immediately.
I adapted today’s recipe from the Arab First United Methodist Church’s cookbook of Arab, Alabama.