At the recent Foodways Texas Symposium, I was fortunate enough to speak during a panel discussion about the business of cookbooks in Texas with Lisa Fain and Kate Payne. They are both successful published book authors. Lisa is The Homesick Texan. Kate is The Hip Girl, as in The Hip Girl’s Guide to Homemaking and The Hip Girl’s Guide to the Kitchen. I am just Kelly, a gal neck deep in cookbooks. And I like talking about them.
My emphasis at the discussion was community cookbooks, which are my favorites. And, in fact, both Lisa and Kate’s books are much in the spirit of the original community cookbooks in that they are quite like sharing recipes and tips and ideas and stories with friends. I’m not much on celebrity driven fare. I like a good story.
But, when you look at my collection it quickly becomes apparent that Junior League cookbooks take up the most shelf space. In fact, it appears that I’m something of a junkie in that regard. To be clear, I am not nor have I ever been in the Junior League. I simply love the books. And in preparing for my talk I did a little digging around and a lot of thinking about that genre. And since no 30 minute panel, divided roughly into thirds (I’m pretty sure I blabbed on a bit over my allotment…sorry Lisa and Kate) can begin to cover my thoughts on what I’ve learned, I decided to go into it a little bit here. Perhaps most valuable, to both of us I hope, at the end of this post I will list the Texas Junior League Cookbooks that I own or of which I am aware so that you can see what is out there…and what you need to start searching for. Here goes.
The first community cookbooks (charity cookbooks is another term used) were written in the 1800’s. Credit is oft given to The Poetical Cookbook by Maria J. Moss as the first. In 1864 she compiled her recipes to sell to subsidize medical care for wounded Union soldiers. And this really is the great aspect of these books. Women, who had little expectation of a public work life, and little venue to use their creativity, entrepreneurship, or business savvy outside of the home began to see the value in their skills and compiled recipes and ideas into books to raise money for causes they held dear.
It is estimated that there were over 3,000 and possibly up to 6,000 such books in print between 1864 and 1922. And, as you can imagine most of these were probably produced and distributed in their very limited region. Because women weren’t big news items during these times, there is simply not a great trove of information about their day to day lives as individuals and collectively as communities. But, we have these books. And they have come to be seen as an exceptional window into the life and times of women during these periods. They are snapshots, moments, words. And while they may not tell us much about the particular woman or women involved, you can learn an incredible amount about what they ate, how they ate it, what foods were available, and the ways in which they cooked. There is attitude and life and circumstances in the pages. And the causes for which they were trying to raise money are also telling.
Churches and schools and hospitals are beneficiaries, to be sure. But I particularly like the notion of The Woman Suffrage Cookbook (1886). So, if you aren’t able to get traction at a rally or some other big public event, what better way to spread the word to other women? Sell them a cookbook at a fair. Spread the word. Raise the funds. But, it is still an expected endeavor. There is something so sneaky and smart about that, to me.
Now, the books I mentioned are clearly collector’s items now. You should check with your grandmother to see if she has her grandmother’s copy because these can set you back thousands of dollars. But, I find modern era community cookbooks to be equally meaningful, if not more so. The Junior League cookbooks are alleged to have start in the 1950’s. The majority appeared several decades later. Several sources credit The Junior League of Augusta as having the first league cookbook. Minneapolis followed shortly in 1943. However, my quick bit of local research (thanks to the TWU online “Woman’s Collection” Cookbook Collection) pulled up a Junior League of Dallas Cookbook from the 1920’s. A quick call to my JLD sustainer friend, Lori Whitlow, yielded a call for information on Facebook and 15 minutes later I had a photograph from one Marcy Feldman of the entire run of DJL cookbooks and lo and behold, yes, she has an early copy that dates back to 1920-something, as well as one from 1935. So unless you tell me otherwise (please speak up!!) I’m willing to unofficially call Dallas the first Junior League to put out a fundraising cookbook, and almost two decades before the ones being brought up in articles I found.
Now, about TWU. They have had several donors give them loads of early cookbooks and they have smartly chosen to carefully archive them as an important piece of history. I need to look into tours. Perhaps we should all jump in a car and head to Denton for an afternoon. But, truly, many universities are on to this and a quick search will yield a number of institutions that have collections of note. I would particularly enjoy perusing the books of the David Walker Lupton African American Cookbook Collection at the University of Alabama. NYU has Cecily Brown’s collection. The University of Michigan has a collection. One could spend a life chasing down interesting titles. And, one can do what I do and frequent garage sales, and prowl about on eBay and Etsy. More on that later.
Junior League Books
Now, fast forward a bit. The Junior League cookbooks that I love most have plastic spines and grease stained pages. I like the ones from the 70’s and 80’s. I suspect that is because this was the height of my consumption as a well-served child. My mother is a terrific cook. And the books from the era of my childhood read like my childhood. They evoke thoughts of avocado green kitchen appliances and fondue pots. The recipes often include the short-cuts employed by women who were extremely busy, or beginning to have careers outside the home. Though I usually retro-develop these recipes to do away with cans of Cream of Whatever, I love these foods. I love casseroles. I love sheet cakes. I love it all. I love that in many of them there will be a recipe for caviar pie (calling for a whopping and precious 12 ounces of caviar) two recipes away from a recipe for bean dip. I love that the Cream of Whatever actually acknowledges that women have things to do, professional or otherwise, outside of the kitchen, and might appreciate a short-cut. I love that some of the best glossaries for the various chiles in Texas cuisine are in these books. And, I love that I still have to and can look at Austin’s Necessities and Temptations, a wedding gift from my husband’s grandmother, every time I set the table for company because I can never remember which dang side of the plate the forks live on. I’m not kidding.
But the progression of these books tell a story. Charleston Receipts (receipts is another word for recipes) came out in 1950. It is the longest print run for a Junior League cookbook and, to date, is rumored to have raised over one million dollars for local charities. We’ll get to cookbook math in a bit. It is an unqualified success story from a marketing standpoint, and I have read charming stories of how the women who created it really hit the pavement to ensure its success, sending it to food writers and taking it to shops to persuade them to sell it. In other words, they treated it like a big market book and wanted it to be more than regional. There was a big push. And, you can’t argue with how magnificent it is that the Leagues, then and now, create these books and funnel an unbelievable amount of money into charitable causes.
However, Charleston Receipts is difficult. And though it is not a Texas book, it is one of the best examples out there of books reflecting the era from which they come, and how cookbook history can be a little sticky. The recipes and commentary presume servants. There is a sentimentality and nostalgia about the past, and southern gentility and hospitality which is lovely, except it is impossible to un-peel that particular onion without a tear over the residual racial inequities at the time. Where did the recipes come from? Did the women ask their cooks how a favorite dish was prepared and then send it in to the League without a word of credit to the creator? I would love to know that these women personally cooked a hog’s head or removed the brain from a calf skull, as the book instructs the reader to do. But, I’m thinking not. I could be grossly underestimating them and in doing so trafficking in sexism and classist rhetoric in trying to address my suspicion of the failure to properly credit others. My suspicion, and at this point I have only anecdotal evidence to support this, admittedly, is that many of the recipes were created by hands and minds other than the hands that wrote them down for a cookbook. And, I wish I knew those stories. I want to know the woman or man who made the dish as much as I want to enjoy the jaunty and anachronistic tips and statements about grand dining. There are acknowledgements that this former slave, or this “body servant” during the war created a dish. But they are few. There are pages that do talk about the African origins of certain ingredients, which is great. And, there are recipes from many different cultural sources, European and otherwise, too. I do think there are people, especially outside of South Carolina, who would have never run across the name Gullah if not for being given a copy of Charleston Receipts. Some suggest that the way Gullah is integrated into this book, albeit somewhat ham handedly in my opinion is actually of significance, because it is mentioned at all. But there is a lot to consider by opening the pages of the book (or any cookbook). It is a moment in time, complete and interesting as is, in all that it says and doesn’t say.
When a friend, a long time South Carolina transplant, explained to me for the first time only fifteen years ago about the Gullah, former slaves who inhabited Sea Islands and cooked with the freshest ingredients from the rivers and ocean, and gardened and cooked with distinctly African ingredients, I was fascinated. Charleston cuisine has been a major beneficiary of the fusion of cultures and the African handprint is still significant. And, it is a great story born out of a really horrendous chapter of history. And I want to know about it and honor its great cuisine and cooks. It would be so much more interesting. And with that in my mind, it is so hard to read the phonetic recitations of Gullah servant cutenesses preceding each section of recipes, written from the hands of white women. But, time is a funny thing, and they didn’t know how much things would change (and not change) and that we might look backwards in judgment. Charleston Receipts now has an introduction (as of 1989 and the twenty-sixth printing) which explains the Gullah heritage and language of the area, but that note was also written by a white woman, though one of seemingly excellent credentials. She says the book helps “record and document a fascinating part of America’s heritage,” and that is true enough. But it is still mighty uncomfortable. In the words of Samuel Clemons, an author whose works are often similarly criticized for their point in time realness, I say, “I was gratified to be able to answer promptly, and I did. I said I didn’t know.” But it is interesting to consider it all.
All this noted, Charleston Receipts is still otherwise a very fun read and a classic. Cocktail punches are noted to serve hundreds of people, and I had to look up what the heck a cooter is. Turtle. I was worried for a minute. And if you have any question as to the current philanthropic goals of the Junior League of Charleston, I invite you to visit their website and peruse the numerous and incredibly worthy charitable endeavors in which they engage and wonder at the thousands of volunteer hours that they give their community. They are a force and they do good. Don’t allow my partial critique of one book to color your thinking on the good being done daily in the current time, and, in fact, then. But, can’t you see how these “snapshots” of a moment in time are at once compelling, interesting, informative and fraught? Charleston’s book gives rise to questions of race, but they all say fascinating things about gender and place.
Take the names, or lack of names, in Junior League cookbooks. The very best thing for me about a certain era of Junior League cookbooks are that they have the names of the women who contributed the recipes attached to the recipes. Mostly, this was done in their husband’s name. So, Mrs. William Williams. And, doesn’t that say something in and of itself about being socially known by your husband’s name? I would go into it further and invite you to dive into the complexities of this by visiting Emily Post. This is not solely a convention of the past. Lord help us. In the really great ones, however, the woman’s married name is followed in parenthesis by her given name (Willhemina Roberts) in an acknowledgement, I suppose and hope, that she actually existed before she married and by God, people might only know her as the woman she once was before she became someone’s wife. I yelled, YES! Because, if you go to my hometown of Wichita Falls and ask someone, “Do you know Mrs. Lunsford P. Yandell?” they will say “no” most likely. But if you say, “Do you know Kelly Dean?” they just might say, “Wow, her dad operated on my Grandpa and her mom was in my mom’s high school class and didn’t her brother play for the Coyotes in the late 80’s and didn’t she get all lit up at the Mayfest dance and eventually ran off to Dallas for college?” Yes, that’s Kelly, I would say. Now we are talking about community. That’s the good stuff. But not having names says something about the moment. And having names says something about the moment. And how you have names listed says something about the moment. And using Jell-O in the recipe says something about the moment. And using green chiles in every other recipe says something about the place and the cultural influences of the area. Are there recipes for Jambalaya or are there recipes for Cowboy Beans or enchiladas? And does the introduction use the term “Yeehaw!!” or does it speak of “elegant and healthful fare sure to impress your companions.” Enjoy these books. They say so much. Give me any Junior League cookbook and I think I could name the city that produced the book within 100 miles without looking at the cover. And, don’t skip the introductions. They often contain an homage to the blended local cultures at play.
And then there are the ones that have no name attached to a recipe at all. There is the idea that it was a community effort, the recipe, then testing, then editing and publishing, etc. I understand that. But I don’t like it. Merely as a cookbook lover, I want those names, too. They add so very much. And then there is the following issue, which I had confirmed for me by a good friend over the weekend. Sometimes there is no name because multiple people submit similar recipes and the testers take a little of this one and a little of that one and stir to combine. This is very fair in one sense. But in another sense, it is a complete travesty. Because, recipes are a prize. Once a person perfects a recipe, it is a part of her or him. There is pride and reputation involved. And if a committee monkeys with it and changes things dramatically, it is no longer hers. And something is lost. I have books that list three recipes for the same cake with slight differences, with a name attached to each. And I have some with one, presumably “group managed” recipe with no names attached at all. And I will look to the former book every time.
A side note, how many recipes have you run across in these books that you thought were your own family recipe? My grandfather’s tater tot and hamburger casserole comes to mind. I thought it was “his” and it turns out that people have been serving up that lovely stuff all over the place, forever.
I ran across a quote in the Amarillo Globe News from 2003 promoting the newest Junior League of Abilene Cookbook, Beyond the Rim, a book in my collection. It just broke my soul. The League woman quoted stated that the publishing company used for the book had told the group that no one put names in League cookbooks anymore, because of the multiple submission issue and because including them made the books seem “small town.” I’m crying a little here. Not really. But, this is entirely the point. The reason the old cookbooks are such gems, and the reason that they succeeded, and that they were distinguishable is precisely because they were small town. Even the big town books mostly used to be small town in that regard. Each book contained a peculiar essence of the town from which it came.
The Junior League Cookbook Arms Race
This leads me to what I will call the Junior League cookbook arms race. There are the old books and there are the decidedly new books which began to appear in the 1980’s for the most part. And the difference is huge. Stop and Smell the Rosemary by the Houston Junior League is my marker as the beginning of the arms race. It is simply gorgeous. It is glossy and refined and it has great recipes. It is large format, hard backed, has a ribbon page marker and can compete with any cookbook on any book store shelf. I have never lived in Houston, yet this is a book I have given as a wedding gift a number of times. And then boom, it seemed every book that followed it was glossy, and refined, hard backed, had a ribbon marker and looked as though it belonged in a book store. So much was lost. God they are pretty, but they lost their flavor to the tune of about 80%.
I spoke with a publisher of such books to chat about the League books and she and I quickly honed in on this point. It is an issue of economics, demographics and the cookbook scene, in general. She said, when commenting on Stop and Smell the Rosemary, “After that they (the League cookbooks in general) lost their identity…Everyone wanted to sell national and they lost their identity.” She also said that the food photography, and you all know I love food photography, “doesn’t represent who they are…it could be anywhere.” She noted that the cost of printing each book went up astronomically and that the more they spent, the less they made. And the more national they wanted to be, the tighter the margins became because when one deals with the Amazons and the Barnes and Nobles of the world, one starts selling at a very deep discount. She said that it is the simple ones that really keep selling.
And, they do. And some of the Leagues still reprint and sell their old standards day after day. Charleston Receipts has remained in print since the beginning. Baton Rouge’s River Road Recipes, a paper back, spiral bound gem has sold over 1.7 million copies since it was first published in the fifties and qualifies as a smash hit for a cookbook of any kind. A traditional publisher prays for a hit like that and it registers as one of the best-selling cookbooks of all time. And these two books are still sold by the Leagues and their profits are still being put right back into their communities. That is a beautiful thing. But, for some of the books, one must root around on the internet and buy them from a re-seller, a transaction in which not one shiny penny goes back to the community that produced the book, and that is a shame. And the modern counterparts with the glossy pages (with the notable exceptions of, say, Houston’s books) really don’t sell and very few of the ones about which I asked were ever reprinted, according to my publishing source. For these, there are boxes full of books in headquarters closets or paid storage.
The Junior League was not created to entertain the cooking set. It was not created to teach ladies how to entertain. It was started in the early 1900’s by a philanthropic and forward thinking young woman named Mary Harriman who chose to go from her comfortable life into the Settlement Houses of New York to help with literacy, nutrition and health issues. She rallied a group of friends from the debutante class and off they went. They became the Junior League of New York, and they have not stopped serving the community, raising money or volunteering ever since.
While the Leagues certainly went through a white gloves and pearls phase, the Leagues now are an increasingly diverse powerhouse of young professionals. Ninety-eight percent attended college and forty-six percent have post graduate degrees. Seventy-one percent work outside the home. And these are averages. In a lovely conversation with the president-elect of the Junior League of El Paso (Seasoned with Sun), Diane Flanagan, I learned that she, herself, is a mother and an engineer, and she runs the local Girl Scout council. In the Junior League of El Paso, a whopping ninety-five percent of the women work outside the home. The Junior League of El Paso has pumped over five million dollars into the City of El Paso through its community projects which include projects on literacy, nutrition, STEM training and the arts. And, this is to say nothing of the thousands of hours of volunteer service that have been given to varied projects on top of that. She said, “We are not in the business of cookbooks. We’re in the business of training our members and helping in the community.”
Indeed. The Junior Leagues are in the business of training women to be leaders and to give back to the community. They are only incidentally in the business of cookbooks. The women I have spoken to have also reiterated that they now make far more money in a one evening fundraising event than all but the biggest books have made over the course of being in print. The books only work if they work, so to speak. The Junior League of El Paso has plenty of books in inventory. Seasoned with Sun is one of my all time favorites. But they have only sold around 300 per year for the last six years. The books are kept largely as a calling card and one of several items that are useful for the purposes of providing retail training to members. Flanagan reported that the jellies and salts that her league offer do better than the cookbooks. To wit, if you want League cookbooks to not go the way of the dinosaur, buy them now, and buy them from the League directly. Give them as gifts, particularly when you travel so that others can have a little taste of your own community. We who hunt out vintage copies online are not helping the cause. I won’t stop, mind you. But when a compelling new one comes out I will buy it from the League, Amazon Prime be damned.
Houston is another story. Their books have been big successes all the way around. I was grateful to talk to Mimi Foerster, the President of the Junior League of Houston who went out of her way to share very helpful financial information about their books. And, why not? They have been big sellers over the years. The original Houston Junior League Cookbook has been reprinted nine times to the tune of 140,000 copies. Stop and Smell the Rosemary has been reprinted four times and reached 250,000 copies. And Peace Meals which came out in 2008 is up to over 75,000 copies. Again, no matter who you are, community or traditional publishing, these are terrific numbers. But, be warned, my beloved Stop and Smell the Rosemary is being retired. Get one while you can if you don’t want it to be on the previously loved book market. Even still, the number of books sold over decades, and whatever number the JLH netted from these sales utterly pale in comparison to the yearly number of volunteer hours committed to the community (75,000 hours in 2014-205) and the amount of funds given in grants and project support yearly by the League ($900,000 in 2014-2016) and the amounts raised yearly through other dues and fundraisers (2015 Charity Ball raised over $1,000,000). The JLH is a huge organization of over 5,000 members. The cookbooks are a good fundraiser, but even a quick outsider glance shows that they are not propping up the League in a meaningful way. Which leads to the question, how long can these groups of professional women who are dedicating this kind of money and time outside of their professional careers and ever busy home lives continue to pursue cookbook publishing? My personal assessment having talked to a number of people was a bit grim.
And I must close that grim statement by saying this. My admiration of the various Junior Leagues was enormously heightened by my research. They are doing a tremendous amount of unpaid work in our communities and they are raising an incredible amount of money for charity programs and get very little credit for doing so. It is not easy to research the Junior Leagues. They are separate entities. Some are enormous and some are small. Their very nature and purpose is to train women in various leadership roles, so the leadership positions change with dizzying frequency. The woman in charge of cookbooks one year is spearheading a child literacy program the next. It is hard to catch a person who has the overall picture, and I am enormously grateful for the time of the women with whom I was able to speak. Again, cookbooks are not the big picture of the Leagues. But, I’ll share the numbers (some of which are somewhat unreliable because I had to find them where I could and guess a bit) that I scratched up or was generously given. Even the Association of Junior Leagues, International, the overarching League organization doesn’t keep records, it appears, on any kind of cookbook numbers. As you look at my notes in the list, think like a statistician, though. Printed does not mean sold. And, net and gross are very different numbers. But it gives you a notion of how successful many of these books have been.
Now to my list. These are the Texas Junior League Cookbooks of which I am aware. The Best Little Cookbook in Texas and Seasoned with Sun are probably the two for which I most often reach. Please comment and tell us all about ones that I have missed. I will do my best to link to the Leagues which still sell current copies. For vintage books, try Half Price Books, rummage sales, Amazon, Etsy or Ebay.
The Texas Books
- Party Cookbook (1954) “cleared $2,281.63” which is $20,111 in current dollars
- The Best Little Cookbook in Texas (1981) grossed over $150,000
- Landmark Entertaining (1996)
- Amarillo Junior League Cookbook “Asparagus Cookbook” (1979) is in reprint
- Beyond The Rim (2003)
- The Collection: A Cookbook (1976) 25,000 copies
- Necessities and Temptations (1987) 100,000 copies
- Austin Entertains (2001)
- Lagniappe, A Little Something Extra (1982) in Third edition
- Dining Without Reservations (2003)
- Fiesta, Favorite Recipes of South Texas (1973) 55,000 copies as of 1985
- ¡Delicioso! Cooking South Texas Style (1982) 35,000 copies
- ¡Viva! Tradiciones (1996) 25,000 copies
- The Junior League of Dallas (Incorporated) Cook Book (1924? and subsequent editions)
- From Texas Tables (1961)
- South of The Fork: Fresh, Simple-to-Prepare Recipes from The Junior League of Dallas (1976) 1st printing 40,000
- The Dallas Junior League Cookbook (1976) 81,000 as of 2003, 6th printing
- Dallas Dish (2005) 14,246 first year and $315,065
- Seasoned with Sun (1974) 80,000 copies, plus 75th Anniversary Edition
- Seasoned with Fun (2000) 15,000 copies
- Menu Cookbook (1960s), at least 6 editions
- Rare Collection: Superb Recipes by Junior League of Galveston, Texas (1990)
- Culinary Classics From Beachside to Boardwalk
- Rio Riches (1997)
- Houston Junior League Cookbook (1968) 140,000 copies
- The Star of Texas Cookbook (1983)
- Stop and Smell the Rosemary (1996) 250,000 copies
- Peace Meals (2008) 75,500 copies
- The Bounty of East Texas (1977) formerly Junior Service League of Longview
- A Perfect Setting (2005)
- La Piñata (1976) formerly Junior Service League of McAllen 64,500 copies
- Some Like It Hot: The Climate, Culture, and Cuisine of South Texas (1992)
- Texas Ties (1997)
- Texas Tables (2009)
- The Blue Denim Gourmet (1973 and 1998 Anniversary Edition)
- The Wild Wild West, Cuisine from the Land of Cactus and Cowboys (1991) 50,000 copies as of 1994
Plano (Collin County):
- Lone Star to Five Star (2004)
- Texas Sampler: Handmade, Homemade, Recipes You’re Bound to Love (1995)
- Plain & Fancy: A Cookbook by The Junior League of Richardson Texas (2005)
- The Junior League of San Angelo, Inc. Cook Book (1977)
- Pearls of the Concho (1977, 1996)
- Flavors (1978) >75,000 copies
- Under the Mistletoe
- Cooking Through Rose Colored Glasses (1975) over 50,000 copies
- And Roses for The Table (1997) >20,000 as of 3d printing
- Entertaining in Texas (1982) formerly Junior Service League of Victoria
- Ropin’ the Flavors of Texas: Culinary Cuisine of the Coastal Bend (2000)
- Hearts and Flours Cookbook: A Sampler of Recipes from the Heart of Texas (1988)
- Simply Serving (2005)
- Home Cooking (1976) 50,000 copies
- Now Serving (2008) 10,000 copies as of 2008
I have provided links where I could fine a way to directly buy from the Leagues. I suspect that a phone call would do the trick for Leagues that still have books in print. For vintage volumes, I suggest Half Price Books or a good old fashioned Google search which will turn up copies on Amazon, eBay, Etsy, and independent online booksellers. Try Cookbook Village. If you are ever in New York, I think you are going to want to see Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks. And the next time you are in New Orleans, for the love of all that is good in the world, stumble into Kitchen Witch. And, then you probably need to go to Omnivore Books in San Francisco to make sure there is nothing there that you need. What did I miss?
For my information and statistics, I scoured the individual Junior League websites as well as the Association of Junior Leagues International website. I also had several conversations with women from the various Junior Leagues and the Association of Junior Leagues International. If you like this topic, consider the following articles, which I enjoyed reading in preparation for my symposium talk:
Long Before Social Networking, Community Cookbooks Ruled the Stove by Jessica Stoller-Conrad
A League of Their Own, Community Cookbooks by Michelle Green
Week 1: Charleston Receipts from Cooking with the Junior League
And if you’d like to see some real Gullah cookbooks, consider My Gullah Kitchen by Eva Segar and Cooking the Gullah Way by Sallie Ann Robinson which reflect the way the Gullah people and their descendants cooked for themselves and their families, as opposed to what they cooked for others. They are books of exceptional hospitality.