Society and church cookbooks have been around for years. We all have them. You know the ones…the little paperback cookbook sitting on your bookshelf. Local women’s societies or women’s church group would donate recipes that would be put into a book. The cookbooks were often fundraisers for a local charity.
Besides great recipes, did you know there is a wealth of genealogical information found in these cookbooks?
1. Time and Place of An Ancestor
Each woman who contributed a recipe had her name placed alongside the recipe. Occasionally the signature of the contributor was included alongside the recipe. Finding a recipe attributed to your ancestor places her in a time and a place. For example, the Ladies’ Society of the The First Presbyterian Church of Dayton, Ohio published a cookbook in 1873. Mrs. James Stockstill contributed a recipe for Boiled Chicken Pot Pie. While Mrs. Stockstill’s given name is not mentioned, further research into her husband James Stockstill may reveal her name. We now know that Mrs. Stockstill was living in Dayton, Ohio and had an association with the First Presbyterian Church in 1873. A drawing of the church appears in the introduction of the book and gives the exact location of the church. Now we know where their Stockstill ancestors worshiped. It is unlikely the Stockstill family would have gone a long distance to attend church, a general location in Dayton of the family is established. Another example is comes from The Westford Cook Book: Tested Recipes by the Ladies of the Congregational Church of Westford, Vermont published in 1909. Mabel Bailey submitted a recipe for Succotash Soup. This places Mabel in the Westford, Vermont community in 1909. As a member of the Congrational Church, we know more about Mabel’s beliefs. If few records for Mabel exist, this would be a significant find for Bailey researchers.
2. An Ancestor’s FAN Club
The local church or society cook book also provides a roster of the organization. While not everyone may have participated, most women did. [What woman wants to be left out of her society’s cookbook? She could have been deemed an unworthy cook!] From this “roster” an ancestor’s FAN club [Family, Associates, Neighbors] can be established leading to many more research avenues.
3. These cookbooks add color to our ancestors’ lives.
From the charities the sale of the cookbooks supported, we learn what causes were important to our ancestors. Now look at the type of recipes in the cookbook. What are the food trends of that area? City vs rural? Do the recipes represent traditional southern cooking? Or do the recipes represent an African American culture, a Scandinavian heritage or a Polish heritage. The recipes give clues to the ethnic makeup of the community/group.
Where Do You Find These Cookbook Gems?
Finding local cookbooks surprisingly simple. Check with your family first. If a grandmother or great-grandmother was part of a cookbook, a copy of the cookbook is often kept in the family.If you know the church or society you ancestor attended and it still exists, check with them first. Church or society historians will know what exists for their organizations. Google Books is an other great place to find older historical cookbooks. Those books published prior to 1923 are free of copyright and can be found in their entirety on Google Books for free. The Presbyterian Cookbook and The Westford Cook Book: Tested Recipes mentioned above was found on Google Books. Universities with local history collections may also have local and historical cookbooks in their collections. Tracking down cookbooks from your ancestors’ time period and location can take time. You must think outside of the box. Think about your ancestors’ lives at the daily level. What did she do? What types of activities outside the home or organizations did she participate in? In early times, these opportunities would have been limited, thus, narrowing your search. In communities that suffered heavy record losses and certainly in the case of the women who generated few records, the local cookbook may be one of the few places where you ancestor appears. .