During her six years with the Kansas United Methodist Archives, Sara DeCaro noticed something lacking in the collection: Cookbooks.
“I was actually kind of surprised, because I guess I considered cookbooks to be a quintessential part of church life,” DeCaro said. “Because everybody puts out a cookbook.”
DeCaro said the archives, housed at Baker University in Baldwin City, include donations of photographs, bulletins and other representative aspects of church life, just not what could be considered the heart of the church.
“Maybe people don’t think to send me cookbooks because they don’t think I’m interested in them,” said DeCaro, a self-described foodie and cook, “but I definitely am.”
The cookbooks that are in the archives, she said, are kind of a time capsule.
“They’re a wonderful resource,” she said. “They can tell you a lot about the congregation and a lot about the church and the time period and all sorts of things. And I’d like to have more.”
One that caught her attention was from Winchester UMC in Jefferson County. Its 1927 cookbook specified a chicken recipe where the bird had to be “too old to fry.” She also noticed a surprising number of recipes involving prunes, and a recipe for suet pudding — using raw, hard beef fat.
DeCaro said that cookbooks from the Depression era and wartime included meat substitutions such as “nut loaf.”
A cookbook from the 1970s — which included a recipe for Watergate Salad — is in the archives from the former University UMC in Kansas City, Kansas. That church’s cookbook included several recipes including mince.
“They were really famous, it sounds like, for their mince recipes,” DeCaro said. “It tells you how important that is to them.”
Several recipes called for oleo — a nearly obsolete word these days for margarine.
Assistant archivist Melinda Rittgers that “on a lot of the older recipes, the measurements are rather vague, like a “scant cup” of something.
“It’s interesting how they’ve changed through the years,” she added.
Rittgers said that cookbooks had an importance through the years, as often they were the main source of fundraising for church projects — “but we don’t have the cookbook to go with it. It would be nice to have that pairing to show what they sold to raise the money.”
The Nebraska United Methodist Historic Center and Archives, housed at Nebraska Wesleyan University, has about 20 cookbooks in its collection, archives director Karrie Dvorak said.
“A lot of them appear to have some history of the congregation,” she said. “It’s one way to sort of memorialize and kind of keep that history alive.”
Dvorak said it’s also an outward sign of the determination of members of the United Methodist Women and various circles groups of the church.
“The women are such a big part and the heart of our Methodist churches, historically,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read in history sections where it’s clear that the women were the ones who were raising the pastor’s salary when times were tough or … raising money to renovate the building or get new paint.
“I think they’re a really good emblem of that commitment to the congregation and keeping things going and doing their best to do right by the congregation, whatever the needs were,” Dvorak added.
Dvorak said the cookbooks also represented the heritage of the members of the congregation, including recipes for kolaches from Louisville and other German and Swedish goodies in 1936.
Cookbooks from the Depression, she said, included recipes typical to the time, showing “that frugality, that willingness to substitute and just make do.”
“They’re a snapshot in terms of what was locally available for women to cook with,” Dvorak said. “Not only recipes that were important to them, but ways they modified them, especially during the Great Depression, where they might not be able to get this ingredient or that.”
Cookbooks from the 1970s, she noted, reflected the time period as well — including several for tuna noodle casserole and some meat loaf recipes that added Lipton onion soup mix.
“You can tell what was hot on the church dinner circuit for that time period,” Dvorak said.
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