How COVID-19 and comfort food have brought us back to community cookbooks
The recipes feel 'very nostalgic and comforting and homey,' says writer Amy McCarthy
With Thanksgiving just days away, many Canadians will flip through the well-worn pages of their favourite family cookbooks in search of the perfect pumpkin pie recipe.
In some households, that recipe will come from a collection made up of dishes from friends, family, neighbours, co-workers and acquaintances.
The trend of so-called community cookbooks — self-published recipe collections, historically put together by women's, church and school groups — goes back more than a century. They were a way of connecting community members with one another, sharing a love of food and, importantly, fundraising.
"I think that they're more real," said Melissa McAfee, special collections librarian at the University of Guelph.
"When you compare it to the commercial cookbooks of the day … I think that it's often more doable, and I think it just relates to more people than a commercial cookbook would."
McAfee curates the university's Canadian Cookbook Collection which has over 20,000 cookbooks of all kinds — and community cookbooks make up the largest portion of the collection, with more than 500 from Ontario alone.
The earliest known community cookbook in Canada dates back to 1877, she explained.
"That was called The Home Cookbook, and that was so popular that it was published in 52 separate editions ... from 1877 to about 1929," McAfee said. Published by the Ladies of Toronto, it was put together as a fundraiser for the then-new Toronto Sick Kids Hospital.
Part of these cookbooks' allure is that they often contain recipes handed down through generations that aren't published elsewhere. In one, McAfee discovered a recipe for carrot pudding, made up primarily of potatoes, carrots and suet.
"What really struck me is that you had to cook it for three hours, and I think that during the pandemic where a lot of people are staying at home, they have more time for things like this," she said.
Some of Amy McCarthy's favourite recipes come from a community cookbook. Pots, Pans, and Pioneers, put together by the Telephone Pioneers of America, Louisiana Chapter No. 24, was a staple in her family kitchen, and many others in the southern state, growing up.
"A lot of the recipes for Cajun and Creole dishes like jambalaya and gumbo and things like that just feel very nostalgic and comforting and homey to me," McCarthy, a writer for Eater, told Day 6.
Last Christmas, McCarthy was gifted a copy of the cookbook from 1976.
"My mom's copy is literally in pieces. Like the seam has fallen apart," she explained. "So she scoured eBay, I think, and bought a copy of it for me for Christmas this past year."
Undoubtedly, some of the recipes may seem outdated to a home cook in the year 2020. Cream of chicken soup, for example, may no longer be a common incredient in today's dishes.
McCarthy says that as pandemic-related anxiety continues, people are turning to these recipes for comfort — while also adapting them to more modern standards.
"I think that a lot of people who want to dig into these nostalgic recipes, they're getting creative and, you know, maybe they have a dietary restriction or they've gone vegan. They're figuring out ways to adapt it to the new way that they're eating," she said.
'People band together'
McAfee says it's crucial to collect community cookbooks to protect people's heritage and traditions.
"A community cookbook is a window into a specific time and place, because what it can show you is the economic landscape, what ingredients were available or not," she explained.
"You might get insights into different types of people that might have moved into an area. And I think it's also preserving Canada's food history."
But for McAfee, community cookbooks offer more than just a glimpse into culinary heritage. They are also a symbol of human compassion.
"People band together not just over food, but people band together to help others. That's, at their heart wha,t they're about — is fundraising for a cause," she said.
"That sort of spirit of caring and helping is one thing that really does come out of these cookbooks."
Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Laurie Allan.