Friday, October 27, 2017

Schenectady's Community Cookbooks

This post was written by library volunteer Diane Leone.

In recent years, historians have taken an interest in community cookbooks as valuable primary sources for understanding not only foods and cuisine over time, but also the larger life of the communities from which these texts originated.  Community cookbooks, also called charities, have a history stretching back to the Civil War, when Maria J. Moss assembled recipes for what became A Poetical Cook-Book (1864), which was sold to raise funds for wounded soldiers.  Her brainchild became so popular that, according to Feeding America, from 1864 to 1922 a variety of community groups produced over 3,000 charity cookbooks (Stoller-Conrad). Charitable causes included helping wounded veterans, widows and orphans.  Still others were motivated by social and political issues such as temperance, poverty, and suffrage.  Almost exclusively run by women, many, though not all, of these groups were religious in nature. The development of cheap printing techniques in the first half of the twentieth century led to greater popularity of the community cookbook, defined as follows in the McIntosh Cookery Collection at the University of Massachusetts Amherst: “The typical community cookbook was a profoundly local affair, produced by church or community groups, fraternal organizations, or charities using recipes submitted by members, and edited and published locally, aimed almost exclusively at a local audience” (“Community Cookbooks”).

The five texts under consideration (see insert above) are community cookbooks produced by local groups—four church-affiliated—in the city of Schenectady.  Of the group, the Tabernacle Housewives’Guide is the only title not in the Grems-Doolittle Library collection, although available online, as is the 1903 text.

These texts reveal considerable information about food, recipes, and cooking techniques over a period of eighty-nine years, from 1890 to 1979.  One of the most obvious features of the recipes is the manner in which they are presented.  In the earliest books, each recipe is laid out in paragraph form.  An example is a recipe in the Schenectady Cook Book (1903): “Muffins. — One pint sweet milk, two eggs, one tablespoonful of melted butter, three cups flour, pinch of salt, three teaspoonfuls baking powder. — 0. B.” Both the 1890 and 1903 texts (see photo above) follow this paragraph format, which sometimes omits instructions, and at other times includes them. The 1913 text, however, is transitional; while it features some recipes in paragraphs, it also includes those which list ingredients first, followed by preparation instructions.  This is the format used today. This change was influenced by the rise of cooking schools, and particularly by Fanny Farmer – author of the Boston Cooking-School Cook Book (1896) – whose scientific approach to teaching cooking had a major impact on its future direction.

A review of the books also reveals a change in the foods consumed over the years.  One of a number of notable differences is in the popularity of oysters in the early cookbooks.  Recipes for this popular shellfish abound in the 1890 and 1903 cookbooks.  Other recipes from 1890 include tripe (stomach lining, often of a cow) and sweetbreads (thymus and pancreas, usually of a calf or lamb), which are not popular today.   An assortment of puddings is found in the earlier texts.  The 1903 cookbook contains 69 puddings, many with ingredients such as suet and bread crumbs, which contemporary Americans do not associate with their conception of pudding as a sweet and creamy milk-based dessert  

Another major feature of the three early cookbooks is the prevalence of recipes for catsups (the term “ketchup” is more often used today) ; pickles; and jellies and preserves.  While most households around the turn of the twentieth century had access to a wide variety of store-bought comestibles, food preservation was still popular among housewives of means.  The recipes are varied, including plum catsup, cucumber catsup, mustard dressing, and other items not currently thought of as catsup.  The variety of pickles is also quite varied.  Although Americans are familiar primarily with pickled cucumbers, earlier cookbooks include recipes for items such as pickled string beans, oyster pickles, and mustard pickles.

The more recent cookbooks, from 1948 and 1979, reflect culinary changes resulting from new food technology.  One example is a 1979 chicken and rice recipe, which calls for “1 can celery soup, 1 envelope dry onion soup, 1.5 cups minute rice, 1 can mushroom soup.”  It was not until 1897 that Campbell introduced condensed soups, which were widely distributed by 1911. Kraft began marketing Minute Rice only in 1946.  A recipe for Spinach Torte required 3 packages of frozen spinach, available only in 1930, when Clarence Birdseye introduced frozen food to consumers.

Later cookbooks also include recipes that reflect changes in society.  World War II exposed American GIs to exotic foods overseas, which influenced post-war cuisine.  Furthermore, decades of immigration led to greater familiarity with ethnic foods. The GE cookbook offers recipes for Pizza Sauce, Chop Suey, and Italian Spaghetti.  Filling the “International Fare” chapter in the 1979 text are recipes such as Chicken Kiev, Tamale Pie, Flank Steak Teriyaki, and Chicken Orientale.  The chapter on “Meatless Main Dishes” reflects the rise of vegetarianism in the 1960s and 70s, given impetus by Frances Moore Lappe’s 1971 groundbreaking book, Diet for a Small Planet.  Another post-war change was the growing popularity of the cocktail party, made fashionable by renowned American chef James Beard, author of Hors D'Oeuvre and Canapes: With a Key to the Cocktail Party (1940). The 1979 book includes appropriate chapters titled “Appetizers” and “Cooking for Crowds.”

The introduction of the gas stove around the turn of the 20th century changed the way food was cooked.  The early cookbooks, probably written with coal-burning ovens in mind, do not include oven temperatures, which would have been very difficult to determine. Instead, instructions include statements such as the following, in The First Reformed Church Cook Book (1903): “Have a hot oven at first, then decrease the heat,”  “Bake 35 minutes or until rhubarb is done,” “Bake in slow oven,” and “Place in an oven of moderate heat.”  Some recipes omit oven instructions entirely.  The 1948 and 1979 cookbooks include cooking temperatures for gas and electric appliances.

Measurements changed over the years as well. Prior to the twentieth century, people often used everyday utensils to measure food quantities.  Thus, occasionally sprinkled among the recipes in the early books are quantities such as “one gill of melted butter,” “one teacup of molasses,” “one coffee cup of sour milk,” and “butter size of an egg.” With the publication of Fanny Farmer’s cookbook in 1896, exact measurements became the norm. The three early cookbooks reflect the growing importance of these new standards in their “Weights and Measures” sections, which convert commonly used utensils into the newly accepted measures.  Thus, we learn the following: 4 salt spoons equals 1 teaspoon, four gills equal 1 pint, and 12 tablespoons equal 1 teacupful.  The above photo shows both a gill and a ½ gill measure (Joshknauer at English Wikipedia).

Examples of the types of ads in our community cookbooks. From the 1890 Schenectady Cook Book.
Full-page advertisements pepper the three early texts.  The growth of packaged foods, combined with the expansion of the railroads toward the latter part of the nineteenth century, led to the widespread distribution of new products around the country.  Sales were bolstered by ads, which are often seen in community cookbooks, sometimes helping offset the books’ production costs. Royal Baking Powder was one of the largest advertisers.  The Schenectady Cookbook (1890) features a full page ad for this popular leavening agent.  Another favorite product was Knox Gelatine, created by Charles Knox, who revolutionized the time-consuming gelatin-making process.  This new packaged item made it easy for any cook to create molds and aspics.  The top of almost every page of the Tabernacle Housewives’ Guide features a catchy phrase, such as the following, acclaiming the value of this product: “For dainty delicious desserts use Knox Gelatine.”

Advertising also crept into the recipes.  The 1903 recipe for clear bouillon includes “Durkey's or Bell's mixed seasoning,” and the 1913 publication cites Quaker Oatmeal as an ingredient for oatmeal bread and Coleman’s Mustard for salad dressing.  The later books, which do not include advertising space, feature even more brand names in their recipes: Uncle Ben’s Wild Rice, Wesson Oil, Crisco, Miracle Whip Salad Dressing, Campbell’s Soup, La Choy Soy Sauce, and Velveeta Cheese.

While community cookbooks offer glimpses into culinary habits, they also provide insight into society. The three early texts are directed toward women of means, as many of the ads suggest.  Among those offering goods and services are jewelers, piano teachers, picture framers, hotels, photographers, homebuilders, and other providers of what would be considered luxuries for the average working class family at the time.  That many of these women employed hired help is indicated by two 1903 ads which feature cooks, one an African-American woman stereotyped in the most racist way. 

Unlike cookbooks today, their earlier counterparts include sections which contain “recipes” for a wide variety of domestic chores.  The 1890 Schenectady Cook Book offers in its “Miscellaneous” section instructions on how to blanch almonds, remove ink stains, make laundry detergent, and whiten one’s hands. 
Interestingly, these early books also advise the woman of the house—generally the caretaker—on coping with a variety of ailments.  This information would have been useful at a time when infant and childhood mortality rates were much higher than today, and people convalesced at home.  Included in the 1890 and 1903 books are recipes for the following: cough syrups; preventing cholera; curing felon (infection of the fingertip); and treating dizziness, scrofula (a tuberculosis infection of the neck’s lymph nodes), and erysipelas (a streptococcal skin infection).  The Tabernacle Housewives’ Guide features a section titled “Invalid Cookery,” with recipes for bran tea, beef tea, cornmeal gruel, and barley water.  The other two earlier books offer “Eggs for Invalids,” which the 1903 cookbook points out, “…will not distress even sensitive stomachs.”

Earlier cookbooks are often strewn with literary quotations.  As Janet Theofano writes of the cookbook authors in Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives through the Cookbooks They Wrote, “Primarily conscientious and busy housekeepers attending to the needs of their families, they displayed their education and their knowledge of elite culture even in cookery books” (142).  The 1890 and 1914 texts preface many chapters with quotations, often Classical or Shakespearian, generally related to the genre of food being introduced.  For example, the soup chapter in 1914 is begun with an excerpt from Cicero: “Hunger is the best seasoning,” and a Longfellow couplet adorns the chapter on pies.  The salad chapter in 1890 begins with a passage from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra: “My salad days when I was green in judgment.”

Religion played an important role in women’s lives in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They were expected to be models of correct behavior for their husbands and children.  Although the early cookbooks in this survey do not contain many overt references to religion, the 1890 and 1903 texts feature a recipe for Scripture Cake, a common item at the time, mixing ingredients with specific biblical passages, so that the lady of the house can study scripture while cooking.   The recipe, as presented in 1903, begins as follows: “One cup butter, Is. 7:15; three cups sugar, Jer. 6:20; three and one-half cups flour, I. Kings, 4:22.” Although written much later in the century, The Episcopal Church Women’s Cook Book of 1979 was also compiled by a church-affiliated group, and states at the outset that “Hospitality is one form of worship.” It lovingly incorporates religion into the text, with a section on a history of foods from Bible lands (see photo above), including recipes, and a story of wheat and grapes, commemorating the Eucharist.

Women of a century ago were expected to behave as good wives and mothers. Typical of period cookbooks are life recipes, which advise women on upholding one’s role as the moral center of the household.  The 1914 text includes the recipe, “How to Grow Meek and Patient: Take two small, irrepressible boys to your heart, and home. After ten years, if you are not meek as Moses and as patient as Job, it will be because you have not improved your opportunities.” One of the more common “recipes” often featured in early community cookbooks is titled “How to Preserve a Husband.”  Interestingly, this appears only in the 1948 text, placed before the table of contents, perhaps as a quaint reminder of earlier times. It reads:

"Be careful in your selection.  Do not choose too young and take only such varieties as have been reared in a good moral atmosphere.  When once decided upon and selected, let that part remain forever settled and give your entire thought to preparation for domestic use.  Poor varieties may be made sweet and tender by garnishing them with patience well sweetened with smiles and flavored with kisses to taste; then wrap them well in a mantle of charity, keep warm with a steady fire of devotion and serve with peaches and cream.  When thus prepared they will keep for years."

These women were also expected to manage a household efficiently.  Many ads promoted this belief.  The Van De Carr Spice Company’s 1890 ad tells potential customers that “Economy is wealth.”  According to a 1903 ad for The Schenectady Trust Company, “Modern women of intelligence and standing find a bank account absolutely necessary for their personal and household affairs.” A knowledge of cooking was essential for any lady of the house.  Gracing the inside cover of the same cookbook is a bookstore ad, featuring a poem, “She Could not Cook.”  The bride in the poem “…went to a book-store and bought a cook-book as every wife ought.”  Another company, Barhyte & Devenpeck, purveyors of baking flour, will “Guarantee light bread/And pastry, and light-/hearted women.” Another important aspect of running a home is the subject of an ad in the 1914 cookbook by Guarantee Polishing & Plating: “Look over your silver. – Would you feel ashamed of it if you were entertaining?”

Community cookbooks also reveal information on local society.  In the five texts under consideration, the names of the recipe contributors and in some cases, the cookbook committee members, are indicated; this can be an aid in examining the activities of Schenectady citizens.  In the earlier books, the numerous ads provide insight into the variety and locations of businesses operating in Schenectady and other localities over a specific time period.  The most interesting source for local history is the Episcopal Church Women’s Cook Book of 1979, which offers a brief overview of inns, taverns, breweries and bakeries operated by parishioners throughout the history of the church.  It also traces the role of the St George’s Ladies Industrious Society in raising funds, since 1833, for a variety of projects, including a church, Sunday School, a new church tower, a parish house, and church restoration. 

Community cookbooks are a wonderful resource for tracing the evolution of food trends, as well as the life of society at both national and regional levels.  Today, online kits have made self-publishing easier than ever.  Perhaps future readers will comb them for historical gems, as we do today.

Works Cited

"Community Cookbooks." Special Collections and University Archives UMass Amherst
Libraries, 2017,

Stoller-Conrad, Jessica. "Long Before Social Networking, Community Cookbooks Ruled The   
Stove." Northeast Public Radio, 20 July 2012, 

Theofano, Janet. Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives Through the Cookbooks They
Wrote. Palgrave, 2002.

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