Church Lady Cookbooks
(The podcast version of this story can be found here)
Need a new steeple? Want to build a well in Malawi? Turn to the culinary geniuses at your church and ask them to produce a cookbook.
Publishing is easy enough – canvas the congregation for their best recipes, and either enter them yourself into the publisher’s template or send the hard copy and an online publisher will do it for you.
If you’re worried about sales, don’t be – anyone who’s contributed will want a copy. And if your church has a reputation for food, the neighbours will buy too. Carreen Adams, who was involved in publishing the 2012 centennial cookbook of St. Thomas Anglican in Vancouver says, "Our church is known for home baking. People around here say that St. Thomas’ will feed you. Coffee hour on Sundays, dinners throughout the year."
It’s when people start saying they wish they had a recipe for this or that, "that it’s time to publish a cookbook," says Bill Rice, who publishes church cookbooks (www.CookbookFundraiser.com). He’s found this especially in regions known for particular foods, such as fried seafood and chicken in the deep south, or BBQ in Texas.
The biggest challenge, he says, is getting people with secret recipes to share them.
Most cookbooks are done as fundraisers and for good reason. Anna Massey, whose father Eugene Derksen started their publishing company (www.DerksenPrinters.com) over 50 years ago, says you can raise as much as $5,000. "For a 200-recipe book, a print run of 500 costs $3.25 each. At $15–20 apiece that’s a nice profit."
St. Olave’s Anglican in Toronto’s west end published their cookbook several years ago to raise money for Hunger Patrol, the weekly mobile soup kitchen operating out of the church on Saturday nights. The book, aptly enough, is a collection of soup recipes titled Soup’s On!
The Ladies Aid group at St. Paul’s Lutheran in Bridgewater, N.S., published a cookbook in 2015 to raise money for various projects – repairs to the church, hospitality for the sick, contributing to the church’s building insurance. Nancy Sarty, who was involved in the most recent publishing endeavour and collects cookbooks says, "Any cookbook you find from a church is a keeper because it has all the best recipes."
Many include comments, Scripture verses, notes about the church history – especially if it’s an anniversary cookbook – and usually the contributor’s name. St. Paul’s Lutheran in Steinbach Man., even included a selection of family graces. Titles range from the obvious – The Centennial Cookbook – to creative such as the Book of Alternative Servings.
Some cookbooks become wildly successful – The Complete Book of Greek Cooking, for example, was published in 1958 by the recipe club of St. Paul’s Greek Orthodox Cathedral in New York. It’s considered the culinary bible of Greek cooking, has been on The New York Times bestseller list, and enjoyed several reprints. Two Mennonite cookbooks published around the same time – The Mennonite Community Cookbook (1950) and the The Mennonite Treasury of Recipes (1961) – enjoyed equal success, selling hundreds of thousands of copies and raising huge sums for missions. However, the initial intent was not to raise money, but to preserve traditional ways of cooking.
In the late 1940s home economist Mary Emma Showalter was concerned Mennonites would lose touch with traditional ways – recipes had come from Europe in the heads of Mennonite women like her mother. Hoping to preserve them before modern life lost them, Showalter organized dozens of American Mennonite women to gather recipes from local communities. From the more than 5,000 recipes they selected 1,150.
The Mennonite Treasury of Recipes arose out of the 1960 Mennonite conference held in Steinbach, Man., when 3,000 delegates converged on the small town relying on local Mennonite women to make traditional meals. Initially they thought to photocopy recipes for future conferences, but one of the organizers enlisted her brother, publisher Eugene Derkson, to print a whole cookbook. Since then the Treasury has sold about 350,000 copies.
The power of recipes
The decade after the Second World War was a time of "professionalizing the art of cooking," says Marlene Epp, professor of history at the University of Waterloo’s Conrad Grebel University College. "Mid-20th-century cooking became more complicated because more ingredients were available. It gave rise to more complex recipes … raised the stakes of what makes for a good homemaker or cook."
Publishing those cookbooks benefitted women, she adds, since it "brought the food-related labour of women into the public sphere of church, community. It was a literary window into the Mennonite woman’s world, [and] offered a chance to shape Mennonite self-understanding as well as how outsiders viewed women."
Cookbooks have even provided women with a political platform – in the 1980s More With Less: A World Community Cookbook included recipes focused on grains and legumes that use less of the world’s resources. Likewise Extending the Table focused on global education by sharing stories and recipes from ordinary people and places around the world.
A literature review of church cookbooks at the Toronto Reference Library’s special collections room on the 5th floor provides a sweeping view of cultural change. The Royal Victoria Cookbook, published in 1900, for example, includes tips like how to butcher a chicken. Church cookbooks from the 1970s and ’80s are dessert heavy, while more recent ones have gluten-free alternatives, vegan recipes and heart-healthy substitutes for sugar and carbs.
Anglo-Saxon names like Fletcher, Smith, Pinkney and Scott fill the pages of older church cookbooks while those in a recently published Waterloo, Ont., Mennonite cookbook hail from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Trinidad. You can also see the gradual inclusion of men into the cooking ranks – Jeff Burnham’s Busy-Day Mac and Cheese, Elgin Coutts’ Tuna Fish Casserole or Jim Fleming’s Steak Teriyaki.
Older church cookbooks become collectors’ items, says Rice, because the recipes are tried and true. In today’s internet age, where you can input a list of ingredients and pull off a bunch of recipes, you don’t know where they came from and whether the creator had similar taste to yours. These old cookbooks also have a nostalgic draw. Memories of soft covers dotted with flour and spatters of margarine are powerful reminders of childhood, says Brian Francis, who has a collection of about 200 cookbooks, many from churches. He has fond memories of casseroles made with potato chips and canned mushroom soup.
His website (www.CakerCooking.com) is an homage to the ’70s when he grew up. He very clearly remembers coffee hour at his mother’s church and can now revisit it through the lemon squares, chocolate walnut brownies and oatmeal-raisin cookies of these cookbooks.
A chronicle of cooking
Many recipes are repeated from church to church – standards like egg salad sandwiches, shepherd’s pie, tuna and broccoli casseroles. But others are unique – Special K Meatless Pot Roast, which Francis says tastes as bad as it sounds. Tomato Soup Cake, Velveeta Cheese Fudge, and Apple Pie made with Ritz crackers, but no apples. Tangy Potato Salad made with cream of celery soup, powdered milk, sweet pickle relish, potatoes and half a pound of frankfurters.
The Jello salads, however, are in a category all their own.
"I’m not sure why people thought it was okay to put veg into Jello," Francis says. "We’d visit relatives on Sunday and have roast beef and a side of lime Jello with grated carrots and whipped cream. I’m not complaining, I loved it, but when I tell people now about this, they think it was very strange."
It speaks to the trends of a specific time, Francis says. Vegetarian food was becoming popular – hence the meatless pot roast – but convenience foods more so. Canned cream of mushroom and cream of celery soups, jars of sliced mushrooms, tinned sweet potatoes and packaged foods like crackers, Cheese Whiz, mayo, powdered milk – these can all be seen in the ingredient lists of multiple recipes.
Unusual combinations aren’t just a feature of the ’60s and ’70s, says Rice, who sees a lot of recipes as a publisher. "Sometimes I think, ‘Why would anyone put that together?’ – which is why we started a comment section on the website for people to post personal notes and stories, saying where they got this, how they learned it. There’s also a section where others can rate recipes and add their comments. It builds a community around the cookbook that you don’t get with random online recipes."
The appeal of cookbook in hand is evident in how much people still buy cookbooks. In fact, it’s often a publisher’s most lucrative category. Epp thinks this is especially the case with Mennonite cookbooks because of the connection people make between good food and Mennonites – "the horse and buggy people who often have farms, live wholesomely, spend their time cooking, use natural ingredients and eat less-processed foods. The sense is the cookbook will impart some of that healthiness."
Alex Newman of Toronto is a senior writer at Faith Today. Share your best recipes in our group by searching Facebook for the "Faith Today Fabulous Church Recipe Swap."