Get involved in one of those pizza arguments some time. You know what I mean: it is perfectly rational to argue about whether broccoli belongs on a pizza, or whether pepperoni beats Italian sausage. Those arguments about whether the crust should be whole wheat, gluten-free, or cauliflower makes SOME sense. But when they start snarling “New York style” and “Chicago pizza”, I try to slip out into another room. Sometimes they’ll start growling about “New Haven style” or “authentic Neapolitan style”. It’s enough to drive me to peanut butter.
The fact of the matter is that we are losing a lot of our regional distinctions. I’ve heard it blamed on cookbooks: as long as Grandma was in the kitchen, making the same fruitcake her mother and grandmother made, using her memory to know how many handfuls of chopped prunes to toss into the batter, we had true regional cooking. The second she started to look at cookbooks, with the references to modern ingredients like baking soda or powdered sugar, we were lost.
One of my volunteers sticks up for cookbooks, but only the cookbooks which collected recipes from the cooks. We started to become homogenized, she says, the minute food companies got involved in sponsoring Home Economics courses around the beginning of the twentieth century. “We’ll give you this money,” they said, “But you have to come up with new recipes using our canned soup and processed cheese.” And THEN, she says, we were lost.
I think that’s harsh, but I grew up in the Spam and Velveeta generation, myself/. I had to wonder, though, when I opened up this cookbook that came into the Book Fair last week.
You’ve seen these cookbooks; perhaps you’ve cooked from one, or even helped make one. A small group wants to raise money for a good cause, and says “Hey! Let’s make a cookbook!” The members of the group contribute a few of their favorites, and go out into the community to find more people who’d like to do so, in return for having their names listed under their recipes. Sometimes it’s a bunch of celebrities or wives thereof (the Chicago Cubs’ wives cookbook, the Illinois Republican Cookbook) but more often it’s the St. Soansoforth Congregation Cookbook or the McNee Elementary School Cookbook. There are some libraries which are assembling collections of these, through the years, feeling this is a glimpse into what Americans were really eating in St. Soansoforth Parish in the 1950s.
I don’t know what to say about that, having picked up this 1960s cookbook put together by a women’s group in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I opened it to see what these ladies were putting in their jambalaya or what advances they were making in the use of okra. The first recipe I opened to was “Vermont Morning Maple Cake”.
Well, you’ll always find people who want to show off that they’ve traveled. I flipped through the book for real Louisiana cooking. I found Jell-0 Delight and Tomato Cheese Log, recipes I’m sure could be found in cookbooks produced by similar groups in Billings, Montana or Marengo, Iowa. My heart lifted a little when I ran into Pickled Peach Salad, but only a little (it’s Pickled Peach Salad, for crying out loud.)
I think I proved our Cookbook Lady’s point, that we can learn a lot about our history from cookbooks; I’m just not all that sure what I learned. Maybe the best home cooks keep their REAL recipes hidden (we had a lady call and beg us to tell her she’d accidentally donated a little notebook her grandmother had kept. They HAD her recipe file, but the cunning old lady had left one ingredient out of each recipe, putting it in a separate notebook, which could not be found.) Maybe our pessimistic volunteer is right, and Tomato Cheese Logs come from those Home Ec classes. But my brain is filled with questions. What was the first cookbook NOT produced by Jell-0 that included Jell-O recipes? Who was the first brave woman to donate to a community cookbooks a recipe which began “Open a can of….”?
And how does Vermont Morning Maple Cake taste with, say, a side of Andouille sausage?