Monday, May 21, 2012

Finding Cookbooks in the West

Today I welcome guest blogger Gena Philbert-Ortega! Gena has a new book out - From The Family Kitchen: Discover Your Food Heritage and Preserve Favorite Recipes. I met Gena a couple of years ago at the Colorado Family History Expo and we have kept in contact through Facebook. I've also enjoyed her blog Food. Family. Ephemera.

Social history helps to make family history research more interesting. However, social history, specifically food history is not something that can be easily incorporated into every genealogist’s research. What if you don’t have any recipes handed down from your family? How can you incorporate food history into your family history? One way is to explore cookbooks from the era or place that your ancestor lived in.

There are different types of cookbooks and while perusing any vintage cookbook will provide you with ideas about what foods were available and cooking methods, community cookbooks might provide you with a better idea of what your ancestor may have actually ate. Community cookbooks also referred to as church or fundraising cookbooks will be your best bet for finding recipes. Cookbooks were published by religious, benevolent and membership groups to raise money. In many cases being included in a community cookbook might be one of the only times a woman’s name would appear in print. It stands to reason that the recipes a woman contributed would be among her best. Recipes that she actually cooked for her family and friends and that she may have even been known for.

The other benefit of community cookbooks is that they contain so much more than just recipes. They often include advertisements from local businesses. These ads helped finance the publishing of the cookbook. Together these advertisements are like having a business directory within the cookbook. While most community cookbooks provide standardized information, there are ones that provide histories of the organization, provide street addresses, photos and more.

So where can you find community cookbooks for women in the west? While community cookbooks have not always been archived because they weren’t seen as having research value, there are libraries and archives that do have collections of them. As you begin your search look for online catalogs of public, private, and academic libraries, archives and museums. Make sure to also consult manuscript collections. These collections can include recipes, cookbooks, menus and food related ephemera.

Some websites  to consider are:

The Library of Congress has a bibliography of community cookbooks, complete with links to digitized copies. American Church, Club, and Community Cookbooks: Selected Titles from the General Collection;  is not a comprehensive list but is a place to start.  Make sure to look at the Library of Congress catalog as well for additional titles. One of the cookbooks listed is a Colorado cookbook from 1883 that starts off with the admonition “You can’t cook in Colorado like you did [in the] East.”;

It’s always a good idea to start with a local public library. Denver Public Library has a few community cookbooks including the 1943 West Side Christian Church Cookbook (Denver) and the 1985 cookbook, A Book of Favorite Recipes by Christian Laity Fellowship. First Christian Church (Loveland). The Los Angeles Public Library has a culinary collection that includes community cookbooks and digitized  menus.

In some cases libraries and archives have worked together to place their catalogs on one website, making it easier for the researcher to search many catalogs at once. Online Archive of California includes 200 academic and public libraries, museums, and archive catalogs. In some of the manuscript collections found in this catalog you will  find community cookbooks as well as family cookbooks. Another similar library catalog is the Mountain West Digital Library.

Texas Women’s University has a Cookbook Collection made up of donations and manuscript collections from cookbook and food ephemera collectors. According to the website, one of the donated collections includes community cookbooks primarily from the northwest. Baylor University in Texas has a collection of community cookbooks from that state.

Some community cookbooks can also be found on digitized book websites like Google Books and InternetArchive. They are not typically categorized by the phrase “community cookbook” so make sure you use other keywords in your search like the city or church name and the word cookbook.

Outside of the Internet there are other places to keep your eye out for community cookbooks. Thrift and antique stores, used and  library bookstores are great places to find these works. It’s always a good idea to keep an eye on eBay. By using  search keywords like “church cookbook” or “community cookbook” you will see listings for cookbooks from all over the United States. Try saving a search on the name of the place your ancestor was from to find cookbooks and genealogically relevant documents for that area. However, in some cases the cookbook listings don’t include the place so it might be a good idea to also conduct generic keyword searches using phrases like “community cookbook.”

I write more about using community cookbooks and finding them in my new book, From the Family Kitchen

What are some places that you have found community cookbooks? Do you know of any local collections? Have you found your ancestor in a community cookbook?