Image from Kansas State University’s Rare Book What’s Cookin? Exhibit: Charity Cookbooks
One of the best places in the entire city of Knoxville, Tennessee is McKay’s Used Book Store, and one of the best parts of McKay’s is the “club cookbook” section, an endlessly-entertaining collection of plastic comb bindings.
Most are from Knoxville churches and garden clubs, but several have travelled long and intriguing journeys from far-off places, like Elvira.
Many of them are quite old. A few are even mimeographed. Some have food stains on them. Many are annotated — “bake longer;” “too much salt, use half;” “goes good with pork.“
Men cook, too, of course, but these cookbooks are overwhelmingly about women.
Women created or preserved the recipes; women solicited and collected them; and women sold and bought the cookbooks, some packing up and moving with them all the way from Elvira.
Or else mailing them from Elvira to their cousins in Knoxville who don’t cook, but kept them on their shelves for several years any way in case of nosy visitors from Elvira. Who thankfully died, finally, so the damned cookbooks could be shuffled off to McKay’s.
It’s interesting to see how recipes have changed over the years. Who makes potato chip sandwiches these days? Or casseroles, pretty much in general?
Or maybe women have changed? I’m trying to figure too many things out, here. I read these cook books looking for clues about the women who wrote them, but I’m also looking for clues about myself.
I’m not working very much. Should I be cooking a lot, instead?
And do I channel Martha Stewart and use fresh-shaved parmesan and parchment paper, or should I return to a thriftier era and make tuna casseroles topped with potato chips, instead?
Listen: this next thing really is related.
A friend showed me some hand-made Christmas ornaments the other day, which she’d bought from an older woman who laboriously cuts and contructs the tiny, multi-dimensional things from old Christmas cards. Dips all the tiny little edges in glitter for a slightly tacky additional touch.
My first reaction: how pitiful, and also a little strange. A little embarrassing, even.
I would not spend that much time cutting up and re-assembling old Christmas cards. I’d buy Certified Craft Materials instead, or just buy some cool ornament that had been hand-crafted by an impoverished woman in Peru, even if it were made out of old Christmas cards.
I wonder if being an American, particularly an American woman, is these days basically an impossible proposition.
What do you think?