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Cooking for Connection

This article first appeared in the January/February 2023 edition of Home & Harvest magazine.

By Hayley Noble, Executive Director

‘Tis the time of year when we at LCHS discuss historical sources and the many ways historians use those sources. We’ve written about letters, the census, oral histories, journals, and many more – now it’s time to examine cookbooks and recipes as historical documents.

Food has long been a central part of heritage and cultural practices, and it remains that way for many people. Mealtime gatherings are staples in our holidays and traditions: 4th of July barbecues, Thanksgiving dinner, and Christmas feasts to name a few. If we are lucky, many of those times include family and friends, and feature our favorite recipes. For some, those recipes could be passed down or serve as a reminder of relatives and where we come from. I’m sure I’m not the only one with fond memories of baking cookies with my grandmother, using her favorite recipe that I still reach for today. It helps me feel closer to her since she’s passed and reminds me of a different time. My family still brings out a 1950s jell-o, cream cheese, marshmallow “salad” that was a treasured piece of my dad’s holidays growing up. While these cookie and “salad” recipes are not indicative of my cultural past, for many, passed down recipes are a way to honor their roots and remember relatives.

An example of a “salad” from the Home Town Recipes by Women of the Moose.

Now I feel I should also differentiate between cookbooks, community compilations, and family recipes. Cookbooks are those that are widely published and not necessarily regionally specific. Their contents can reflect historical events and national trends, but do not generally represent individual communities. Most of this article is in reference to family recipes and community compilations. All have their uses, but the latter two are the primary focus. My use of the word “cookbook” can mean both community compilations and widely published volumes.

Beloved recipes when compiled into cookbooks become valuable primary source historical documents. They can inform about national trends, materials available, and current technologies. Speaking of jell-o once again – it rose to prominence in the 1930s as the country was gripped by the Great Depression. Cheap and needing few ingredients, jell-o made meals easier and provided a way to stretch food to help families struggling to make ends meet. Those children growing up in the Depression are the ones creating these jell-o salads so typical of the 1950s. The 1940s saw the rise of Spam with a nation focused on wartime production and rationing. Meat was difficult to ship and store. Spam provided an alternative that was mass-produced and canned, did not need refrigeration, and was cheap to buy. Both the military and housewives saw the potential that Spam could be. Cookbooks from World War II included Spam, but also other ways to substitute meat and accounted for rationed ingredients like sugar and butter. More information on rationing can be found in the March/April 2021 edition of Home & Harvest Magazine and in this blog post.

Two pages of jello recipes from the Emmanuel Luther League 1964.

Currently, American food trends are flooded with dietary restrictions. Some folks are vegetarian or vegan for animal welfare causes or green reasons, while many practice restrictive diets due to food allergies, such as lactose intolerance or celiac disease, among others. We cannot predict what future researchers will conclude about our era of food history, but what cannot be ignored are the ingenuity and science behind food. In the past, if you felt sick after eating something, you just did not eat it again. Now lactose intolerance is an inconvenience, but just about everyone can still enjoy a latte with a milk substitute, or ice cream with short-lived medication. Gluten-free menu items are gaining popularity and meat substitutes abound to accommodate these health and social issues. Who knows – maybe one day your grandchild will treasure your favorite dairy-free recipe for their holiday baking. Not surprisingly, the current rise of diet culture has meant a plethora of cookbooks touting weight-loss and other “healthy benefits.” This example illustrates American fatphobia and the toxic ideas surrounding weight, self-worth, and beauty standards. Diet culture has also been responsible for the increase in disordered eating and negative societal conditioning, especially when it comes to women. These diet cookbooks display the confluence of capitalism, privilege, and the unattainable beauty standards that most people strive for.

Culturally speaking, meals and cooking are one of the most popular ways to experience other cultures. Globalization has made regionally unique ingredients widely available for use in various dishes. Historically, spices have been coveted items reserved for the wealthy. While still expensive, spices provide the unique flavor combinations that different cultures are famous for: masala in South Asia, Adobo in Latin America, and Shichimi in Japan. After immigrating, many families adapt their original recipes to fit their new lives elsewhere. The evolution of those changes speaks to the melding and mixing of families and cultures as globalization increases and travel becomes more affordable. Those regionally specific ingredients serve as a reminder of where one comes from and connects them to those roots. Those limitations in ingredients can also serve as educational tools. I remember learning about the Oregon Trail and baking molasses cookies for my class. The idea was to show that things like eggs were not readily available. All you had were the shelf-stable goods acquired along the way, like flour and molasses - a cheaper alternative to sugar.

Members of the Bovill Ladies Club at the Maccabee Convention in 1923. LCHS Photo: 02-11-002

Colloquially, most are already familiar with recipes that prohibit certain ingredients in terms of religion. It is common knowledge that Hinduism prohibits beef and encourages vegetarianism, Islam promotes sober lifestyles and has special laws dictating wh