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The enduring appeal of the Minnesota church cookbook

It’s the time of year when the food-stained, spiral-bound volumes come down off the shelf.

All illustrations by Maria Rose Adams

Food culture today has moved well beyond the humble church cookbook.

There aren’t any references to sea salt in church cookbooks’ spiral-bound pages. You won’t need your InstantPot. Nothing is going to be Instagrammable.

But this holiday season, many Minnesotans will reach for a tried-and-true recipe for a favorite cookie, fudge, Mom’s banana bread, or “pumpkin dessert” in an old church cookbook, pages stained from years of use.

It’s not just the recipes themselves that keep these often motley collections of recipes contributed by people — almost always women — from different faith or civic communities, from “Favorite Recipes” by the John’s Lutheran Church congregation in Redwood Falls to “Oy Vay! What’s Cooking Today?” from the Jewish Community Center of Greater Minneapolis, on the shelves in many Minnesota households.

“When they bring out the book, they’re not just bringing out a pile of paper. They’re bringing out people,” said Megan Elias, a historian and gastronomist at Boston University, and the author of “Food on the Page: Cookbooks and American Culture.” “They’re in these pages, and when we take out the recipe, they kind of come back to us.”

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From the Civil War to Jell-O

The origin of church cookbooks can be traced back to recipe collections assembled and sold by Civil War era ladies aid societies to raise money for Union army war relief efforts, according to “The Compiled Cookbook as Foodways Autobiography,” an article by food historian and columnist Lynne Ireland.

Cookbooks as fundraisers caught on, and women started compiling cookbooks to raise money for churches, civic groups or for charitable causes. Initially, most were created by white, middle class, Protestant women. Later, they became popular fundraising tools for Catholic and Jewish communities, Elias said. They were less common among Black faith communities, though some examples do exist.

They were particularly, though not exclusively, popular in smaller towns, and less common in big cities. They are more common in the Northeast and Midwest, and to some extent the West, than they are in the South, Elias said.

The Minnesota Historical Society has hundreds of church and community cookbooks in its archives that span more than 140 years and many civic and cultural groups and denominations in Minnesota.

The oldest church cookbook in the Minnesota Historical Society’s collection was published in 1881 by the Ladies’ Society of the First Baptist Church in St. Paul. A written preface praises the “fine art” of housekeeping, and the book contains recipes for main dishes, salads and cakes made from ingredients that might have been readily available to congregants at the time. In a section of food for the sick, it includes a recipe for “toast water” (“toast carefully thin slices of bread and pour over it boiling water”).

“Some of these cookbooks, especially the older ones, have things that we would not touch now,” said Lori Williamson, outreach coordinator at Minnesota Historical Society.

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Cookbooks of this era are broadly reflective of a middle-class diet of the time. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, community cookbooks “shared a palate, or a set of flavors, and a methodology that allows us to see what a large number of white, middle-class people considered their proper cuisine,” Elias wrote in “Food on the Page: Cookbooks and American Culture.”

The dawn of the 20th century brought about technological and social changes reflected in community cookbooks. Kitchens tools advanced, and food manufacturing and distribution technology made canned goods available to the masses. At the same time, the early 20th century saw a big decline in the number of what would have been considered middle-class families that had live-in maids, leaving the women of the house to do more of the cleaning and cooking, while the World Wars encouraged rationing and economical use of food.

With these developments came the heyday of dishes like the American casserole. A woman trying to efficiently feed a large family could prepare a simple dish of meat, vegetables and a starchy binder in a ceramic baking dish. While Minnesotans typically refer to this type of cuisine as a hotdish, and consider it one of the state’s iconic cuisines, they were actually common throughout the U.S.

“I don’t want to discourage Minnesotans from thinking they have a special place in culinary history, but in fact, I think an awful lot of the preponderance of those kinds of dishes can be placed at the altar of Campbell’s condensed soup,” Ireland said. Manufactured foods like Campbell’s soup and Jell-O were marketed in women’s magazines and cookbooks as timesaving, convenient and new.

And then there was Jell-O, which spawned many a molded dish, often loosely termed a “salad.” “In the 21st century, we are no longer, mostly, impressed with Jell-O, so it’s really hard to realize how thrilling it was for people to be able to make these things that had a completely different texture — they glistened, they jiggled. All of that was amusing and entertaining,” Elias said.

A reflection of people

Unlike “the Joy of Cooking,” and “Betty Crocker’s Cookbook,” community cookbooks were not printed in huge volumes and sold throughout the country. They were made by the women in the community and sold, for the most part, to the women in the community.

At a time when many middle class women couldn’t start businesses, and many stayed at home, these cookbooks were both a way to exchange recipes and a sort of social performance, according to Elias. In that way, their function wasn’t entirely dissimilar from the way people today exchange recipes and post them for likes on Instagram.

In decades past, though, a community cookbook might be the only place women were able to publicly express themselves.

“That might be the only time their name is ever, ever in print,” Elias said. In that sense, it’s a lens into not only what people liked to cook, but how they wanted to be seen by their neighbors.

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“You’re not going to submit a recipe that you don’t think people will like,” Elias said. But at the same time, “It’s an interesting balancing act, because you want it to be something that shows that you have skill and smarts, but it can’t be something that’s too difficult for people to actually make.”

Compiled cookbooks also tell stories about communities.

Minnesota’s rich immigrant history is often on display in church cookbooks, which record many of the foods people brought to Minnesota with them when they came here, whether it’s Scandinavian lefse or German schnitzel.

“We’ve had so many different immigrant groups over time. Immigrants often aren’t able to bring a lot … but what they can bring are their folkways and their recipes and their stories and their memories,” Williamson, of the Minnesota Historical Society, said.

The Magrath Library at the University of Minnesota has an extensive collection of synagogue cookbooks, featuring classic dishes like latkes, blintzes and matzo ball soup. There are also cookbooks in the library devoted to recipes of the Iron Range, reflecting a mix of the region’s Italian, Eastern European and Irish immigrant cooking traditions — and sometimes a mix of them, such as “Irish spaghetti” (it’s not clear from the ingredient list what makes the dish “Irish”).

The ethnic history is one of the things Debbie Miller finds most fascinating about community cookbooks. Miller is a cookbook collector, historian and a co-author of “Potluck Paradise: Favorite Fare from Church and Community Cookbooks.”

While Miller has noticed that recipes’ countries of origin are often noted in community cookbooks, there’s one specific instance where they’re usually not: in German cookbooks from the World War I era, when the United States was at war with Germany and Germans in the U.S. were trying to downplay their heritage. “So the recipes are there, but you have to know they’re German recipes. They often don’t say so,” Miller said.

Historians say there are fewer church cookbooks from Black communities. That could be due, in part, to structural inequality that made it harder to raise money in some Black communities and also different fundraising traditions, Elias said.

Miller says there are few Black church cookbooks in the Minnesota Historical Society archive. One, published in 1959 by the Pilgrim Baptist Church in St. Paul, includes many of the same recipes you might find in any local church cookbook, but also things like gumbo that might not have been found in predominantly white Minnesota congregations at the time.

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In some ways, the recipes you might find passed down in families and in community cookbooks are time capsules that have helped preserve Minnesotans’ immigrant history, said Patrice Johnson, the author of cookbooks including “Land of 10,000 Plates: Stories and Recipes from Minnesota.” Johnson is a collector of church cookbooks and even adapted her blue ribbon Minnesota State Fair cookie from a recipe she found in a Minneapolis Swedish church cookbook.

Having grown up on Swedish meatballs at Christmas eve, she was shocked when, a couple decades ago, a modern Scandinavian restaurant opened in Minnesota featuring none of the food that were classics to her.

“I was raised in Minnesota thinking what we ate on Christmas Eve was the end all, be all of Swedish cuisine. I didn’t understand that it actually evolved [and] what we’re eating is, like, 120 years old.”

The Minnesota Historical Society’s archive also includes cookbooks compiled by Minnesota’s Indigenous communities, and some of its more recent compiled cookbooks are compilations of recipes by Hmong, Latino and Somali Minnesotans.

‘Down-to-earth cooking’

This is the part of the story where I confess my own mini-obsession with church cookbooks. My whole life, I’ve seen them on Minnesota cooks’ shelves and heard reference to them in talk about food. I got really interested in them — what they are and what they say about us — after a conversation with Pat Lenz, the aunt of one of my best friends.

I first got to talking about church cookbooks with Pat at my friend’s wedding a couple summers ago, after she mentioned “Bloomer Droppers,” a cocktail recipe in a church cookbook.

The Bloomer Droppers recipe calls for emptying a can of frozen lemonade into a blender, refilling the can with gin or vodka before pouring that in, adding frozen fruit, ice and powdered sugar and blending it all up. It comes from the church cookbook of the St. Eloi Catholic Church in Ghent, Minnesota, the Belgian-American enclave where Pat grew up.

She sent the recipe to me, and my mom and I made them to cool off on an especially hot summer day, sipping Bloomer Droppers with our feet in a kiddie pool.

“Mom made it a couple times for her card group. I wonder how those ladies ever made it home?” Pat told me last week when I called to pick her brain about church cookbooks.

She said she’d sometimes rather read a cookbook than a novel, because the cookbooks highlight interesting differences between communities, or remind her of the people who submitted the recipes. For example, she doesn’t think you’d find Bloomer Droppers — or any cocktails, for that matter — in any of the Mennonite church cookbooks, or even Presbyterian or Lutheran ones, in her collection. But she also loves reading them for recipe ideas.

“It’s not fancy cooking, it’s just down-to-earth cooking,” she said.

In some ways, it’s harder to amass a collection of church cookbooks like Pat’s these days. You can find older ones on eBay, at estate sales and in thrift stores, but they just aren’t being published as much as they used to be anymore.

Community cookbooks remained popular through the 1980s and into the 1990s, though more streamlined publishing processes made them more alike. During those decades, though, several societal forces marked the beginning of community cookbooks’ decline.

More women were working, and there was a backlash against the idea that women should be spending so much time in the kitchen, Elias said. Restaurants were democratized, making eating out more attainable for middle-class families.

Some of the ties that traditionally bound communities together started weakening, including a decline in church attendance. Also, the internet made it much easier to find and share recipes.

Elias said there’s some evidence of a resurgence in community cookbooks during the COVID-19 pandemic: groups of people couldn’t cook and eat together, but they could at least share recipes.

The Lake City Rotary Club in Southeast Minnesota, for example, has raised a significant chunk of change from its popular “The Great 2020 Pepin Pandemic Cookbook, which was featured in a Wall Street Journal article about the pandemic’s cookbook resurgence.

Whether that trend is short-lived or not, there will always be the holidays.

For some families, it wouldn’t be a proper Thanksgiving or Christmas without whatever iconic family recipe has been handed down through the ages.

“There’s still something about having something on paper with that old binder that, at least for a lot of folks, evokes some sense of the real,” Ireland said. “I think there’s there’s an autobiographical component, and I think there’s also an emotional component.”

And whether you get that from Great Aunt Myna’s green Jell-O salad, Bubbe’s potato latkes or Mom’s hotdish, making these recipes is a way to remember.

“We’re giving posthumous credit to these women,” Elias said. “We’re letting them back into our kitchens and letting them have their moments again.”