Someone said Jell-O salad?
This is the time of year when families pull out their dirty recipes to make crowd-pleasing casseroles, cakes, and cookies. Some of these favorite recipes come from church cookbooks compiled by women over the decades since the 19th century.
These spiral-bound recipe collections are an integral part of church culture, documenting the tastes and traditions of their congregations over the years. But now that cookbook lovers are getting older, the provision books are disappearing.
Tallowood Baptist Church in Houston used to print cookbooks with recipes for sheet cakes and soups, and members would prepare the dishes in a potluck to share. But it’s been eight or nine years since their last edition.
“The people who were committed to the project are no longer with us, and no one has thought about doing another cookbook,” said Joy Cryer, a church librarian in Tallowood.
It only takes one enthusiastic person in a church to compile recipes from members, but the Internet has changed the way people cook and collect recipes. And Americans of all socioeconomic statuses are generally cooking less than they used to.
Although the church cookbook tradition has declined, it may be too early to declare it over. CT surveyed 22 church librarians and more than a third said they knew of churches that still print cookbooks.
In Oshkosh, Wisconsin, 84-year-old Mona Schultz attends Plymouth Church, a nondenominational church with about 250 residents. She wasn’t sure if anyone else cooked much or if there would be interest in writing a church cookbook. She asked a young women’s Bible student at her church what she thought of the idea.
“I’m 84, I’ve lost touch,” said Schultz, who has been going to church since 1948 and singing in the choir for 60 years. “They were very interested! They wanted recipes from us old-timers that had stood the test of time.”
Now, for her church’s 175th anniversary next year, she’s producing a cookbook called ” A 100-year-old recipe treasure trove of the Demisemisept. A woman at her church always made an appetizer at Christmas, but she recently passed away and so her recipe for an appetizer is included here. There are also more modern dishes like pulled pork BBQ. Schultz includes photos of the recipe authors for each recipe and the stories throughout.
“Enjoy good food, not just from your kitchen, but daily spiritual foods selected from His Word,” Schultz wrote in her draft introduction.
Church cookbooks began during the Civil War primarily as a fundraiser for women to raise money for the families of fallen Union soldiers. They were particularly popular among white churches in smaller towns, said historian Megan Elias MinnPost.
According to Kendall Vanderslice, a baker and scholar who has written books on food and theology, church cookbooks began declining as early as the 1970s as women spent more time outside the home. Before that, cookbooks might be “the only place.” [women] “I would never see her name in print,” she said, and so a recipe was a legacy for many church women. Vanderslice also attributes the decline to the growth of megachurches, which are less likely to produce cookbooks.
Carlisle Printing in Sugarcreek, Ohio, has printed cookbooks for churches in the past and said it still prints thousands a year for churches across the country.
“I would say it has increased if anything over the last decade,” said Rachel Wengerd of the printing company. Most of her customers are now Amish or Mennonite, customers who cook every day and may not have basic or basic internet access. But Carlisle also prints cookbooks for other denominations. The books are now in color and with photos rather than black and white, she added.
Vanderslice, 33, started a project on Instagram this fall in which she cooks through more than 100 church cookbooks from every state to document regional and denominational similarities and differences.
The project came about because Vanderslice’s grandfather spent most of his career as an interim pastor at various churches. As he traveled from state to state, his wife amassed a large collection of church cookbooks, which she eventually gave to Vanderslice.
Vanderslice began the project by using her grandmother’s cinnamon roll recipe from the 1991 Richardson Heights Baptist Church cookbook entitled ” Legitimate temptations. Her grandmother served the cinnamon rolls at Thanksgiving and Christmas. The recipe was delicious, she said, and brought back Christmas memories.
So far, Vanderslice’s other favorites include a crab casserole from a church in South Carolina and an apple pie from a church in West Virginia. She dreads making tomato aspic, a vegetable dish made from gelatin, but feels compelled because it appears in so many church cookbooks.
Although people think of church cookbooks as personal recipes, many church cookbooks after World War II contain recipes that came from food companies like Campbell’s or Jell-O or Betty Crocker’s radio show, Vanderslice said. Casseroles and “salad” recipes tend to be the same in all cookbooks, she said, which is usually an indication that Campbell’s or Jell-O developed the recipes.
But contributors still put their own spin on a recipe, as evidenced by one church printing multiple versions of the same recipe with only minor variations. A cookbook Vanderslice found contained two recipes for Watergate salad – a dish of whipped cream and pistachio pudding with pineapple and marshmallows. The recipes were identical except that one called for crushed pineapple with juice and the other called for crushed pineapple and said in all caps, “Drain the juice.”
“It’s fun to see the church lady drama play out in the book itself,” Vanderslice said.
The cookbooks also say something about the “assumed rhythms of church life,” Vanderslice said, by including recipes like bridal shower punch. Since most cookbooks were fundraisers, the book usually states what the money is being raised for, such as a church tower or a mission trip.
Schultz in Oshkosh used the cookbook room to tell stories and church history. Plymouth Church began as a Welsh-speaking church, so Schultz plans to include its Welsh history and a Welsh tea cake recipe. And on one page she gives a “useful hint” for making canned ham, recounting her mother’s experience when she put a canned ham in the oven when visitors came by and the ham exploded.
“The oven door never closed properly after that,” Schultz writes about her mother in the cookbook and recommends taking the ham out of the can before baking. “She wasn’t known as a great cook, but her singing ‘His Eye is on the Sparrow’ remains vivid in many people’s memories.”
Plymouth Church hopes to host a potluck dinner next year to celebrate the 175th anniversary, with people contributing dishes from their various recipes from the book.
Norton Baptist Church cookbook from 1997 entitled Seasoned with lovehas a recipe for peanut butter balls that measures the ingredients in pounds and makes 130 pounds. Church recipes “are expected to feed a crowd,” Vanderslice said.
Some cookbooks have recipes written in verse (Norton Baptist’s donuts: “Watch carefully the time to turn / Fry them brown, just short of burning.”) or a version of “scripture cake” where the ingredients are written as Bible verses are listed (“four Jeremiah 17:11” means four eggs).
Most of the cookbooks came from a local church, with the exception of the Mennonites More with less cookbook, first published in 1976, became a bestseller. The cookbook included Mennonite frugality – such as how to make your own soap – as well as commentary on how eating habits affected the rest of the world.
Several church librarians told CT that church cookbooks are archived in their church libraries. Even before the decline in cookbooks, churches sporadically produced cookbooks, they said. Churches could now find other ways to share personal recipes, such as a chili cook-off.
Vanderslice is curious whether the pandemic has sparked renewed interest in church cookbooks. Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Venice, Florida, created a cookbook during the pandemic as they couldn’t meet and were cooking more at home.
The Modesto Covenant Church in California hasn’t published a cookbook in several years, but still has copies of its most recent cookbook that it sells and distributes to newly engaged couples. A shortbread recipe is famous in the church and church members bake it every year for their annual Christmas breakfast.
“It’s my favorite cookbook!” said Beth Gundlach, associate pastor of the church. “Often at a potluck you’ll talk to someone and say, ‘This is so good!’ And they’ll say, ‘It’s in the church cookbook!’ So it’s still a thing.”