I’ve been a fan of those spiral-bound “community” cookbooks since I first started cooking. My interest, which admittedly has very little to do with cooking, dates to Mollie’s Cookbook, a mid-1970s fund-raiser for the Voluntary Action Center, an organization in Scranton PA that matched volunteers with charitable groups and institutions in need of help.
The book’s author, Mollie Hanover, was inimitable. She and her husband Harold (her polar opposite, at least in terms of personality) had relocated from New York to the rural hills of Northeastern Pennsylvania to retire. Harold took up a second career as a court reporter; Mollie gardened and bought herself a six-foot long chest-style freezer. This was quite a transition for a city girl who’d sung in the Metropolitan Opera’s Minor Chorus. Before long, she was inviting friends old and new to dinner. She may never have found fame on the operatic stage, but the tables she laid were quickly the stuff of regional legend. The recipes she collected in Mollie’s Cookbook ranged from the ridiculously simple (top a grilled cheese sandwich with a can of stewed tomatoes, for example) to bouillabaisse. But the real treats in her cookbook were the vivid anecdotes, related with the sharp, wry sense of humor that always kept her guests on their toes. I last saw Mollie in the spring of 1974, when I told her that a baby was on the way. I was a bit surprised at her elated enthusiasm, because I’d always thought she wasn’t much interested in the family stuff. Just goes to show how wrong you can be. She looked me square in the eye and said simply, “But I thought singing was more important than children.”
Sadly, Mollie died in June of that year and never got to meet my daughter or the son that followed a few years later. Just as sadly, somewhere along the way I lost my copy of Mollie’s Cookbook. Or perhaps I gave it away… who knows, after so many years? Regardless, as you no doubt can tell, I’ve held both Mollie and the book in my heart all along.
Around that time I started acquiring more of these simply made practical cookbooks. I loved the Italian-American culinary culture I’d grown up with, and, since my father grew up in New England and I was Boston-born, I knew something about old-fashioned Yankee cooking. Still, I was curious about the nation’s other food cultures, the ones I’d not been exposed to—unless you counted the Penn State dining hall, of course. Plus, these cookbooks are almost always fund-raisers, so it was always easy to justify adding more to my already strained shelves.
After Mollie, among my earliest and most notable acquisitions was Mother’s in the Kitchen – The La Leche League Cookbook, by Roberta Johnson and Sue Blankenship, on behalf of the international organization that has done so much to promote breastfeeding and provide support for nursing mothers. I still use the “No Excuse Bread” recipe. More than the recipes, though, I appreciated the wisdom and understanding of these two women, who knew from plenty of personal experience the challenges endemic to new motherhood.
Throughout the decades there have been many additions to my ongoing collection. Some of my mother’s cousins produced a family cookbook that’s an interesting mix of Italian-American favorites and cake mix creations. I’ve mentioned The Roseto Cookbook in this blog before, in the posts On Meatloaf and Easter Bread Woes. Another favorite is a local Vermont cookbook whose recipes were hand-written by the contributors. I have several from Maine, gifts of my dear friend, the writer Marina Reznor; and two rather lavish, genteel hardbound volumes, Creme de Colorado and The Flavor of Waverly.
Along the way I’ve picked up quite a few church cookbooks, too, most from the churches I knew as a kid. What a wonderful way not just to raise money, but to add to a parish’s historical record. When I go through the church cookbook published after I left the nest, nearly every name recalls a face, a conversation, an encounter after Mass. I see my mother’s name there among the contributors, and another, highly personal layer of priceless memories piles on.
Published over decades, each community cookbook is a modest treasure offering a glimpse of the dishes and desserts that graced American tables at the time. I’ll pass on the can-of-this, can-of-that stuff, but I’m always happy to add another cookie recipe to the repertoire, thank you.