Trending: Food, Glorious Food

(The following is an article written by Alison Kelly, science librarian and culinary specialist in the Library’s Science, Technology and Business Division, for the November/December 2015 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine, LCM. You can read the issue in its entirety here.)

Today’s popular food blogs are an outgrowth of recipe-sharing in America that began with community cookbooks.

It seems as if everyone is focused on food. We tune in to cooking shows on television and radio, read magazines and books devoted to food, even plan vacations to include food tourism. Millions share recipes and cooking tips on social media. There are myriad food blogs—on every topic from feeding your toddler to government food policy—and countless boards on Pinterest are devoted to food. We share photos of our latest meal on Instagram.

But 150 years ago, long before this virtual community of recipe-posting existed, people shared their recipes through a different medium— the community cookbook. Like blogs and Pinterest boards, community cookbooks offer an assembled collection of recipes and household hints.

The Library’s rich collection of community cookbooks documents the lives of individuals and their cooking and eating habits as American food systems were transformed by industrialization and urbanization, immigration and westward expansion. They reveal regional tastes, from recipes for peanut soup and chess pie in the south to finnan haddie and cranberry pie in New England. They trace the impact of immigration through ethnic food recipes. They demonstrate the blending of cultures through new dishes, making the description of America as a “melting pot” both figurative and literal.

Largely an American invention, community cookbooks were—and still are—often published to raise funds for causes. They were first sold during the Civil War at the great sanitary fairs held in cities across the northern states to raise money for wounded soldiers and their families. The first known example of the genre—“The Poetical Cook-Book” by Maria J. Moss—was sold at the Great Central Fair in Philadelphia in June 1864.

Community cookbooks continued to be published in ever-increasing numbers at the turn of the 20th century by church groups, improvement associations and women’s clubs. As women began attending colleges and joining clubs, community cookbooks were a tool to support their involvement not only in local projects, but in larger social causes such as the temperance and suffrage movements. By the close of World War I, more than 5,000 charitable cookbooks had been published in support of various causes.

The 20th century brought thousands of additional titles. In 1927, the bipartisan Congressional Club issued its first cookbook, containing family recipes of Members of Congress, Supreme Court Justices and other government officials. Thirteen editions followed, with recipes ranging from Bess Truman’s “Ozark Pudding” to Mrs. Thurgood Marshall’s “Deluxe Mango Bread.” Recipes, photographs and tips on Washington protocol reveal the social and political values of each period. Many editions contain a “Men Only” chapter where recipes contributed by men (rather than their spouses) appear. There, one can find Richard Nixon’s “Meat Loaf ” and Justice William O. Douglas’ “Trout” (to be cooked outdoors).

The Library of Congress Cooking Club issued cookbooks in 1975 and 1987, featuring recipes from Library staff members. From “Javanese Banana Pancakes” to “Vegetarian Chopped Liver,” the recipes are quite eclectic. A recipe for “Dandelion Wine” warns, “Do not fit on a tight, unvented cap or you will create a bomb!”

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, family treasures were lost, including cherished recipes. One local newspaper responded by becoming a clearinghouse for recipe swapping. The result was “Cooking Up a Storm: Recipes Lost and Found from The Times-Picayune of New Orleans” (2008), which not only includes the recipes but the history behind them. The compilation tells the story of a community struggling to rebuild everything—including its culinary history.

The Library’s collection of community cookbooks includes “California Recipe Book,” 1872; “Cloud City Cook-Book,” 1889; “Youngstown Cook Book,” 1905, and “The Congressional Club  Cook Book,” 1965. General Collections.

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