Many of you know that I love cookbooks, especially old and rare ones, but you may not know much about my background. For many years, I was a rare book specialist at an auction house here in San Francisco called Pacific Book Auction. I would research the books to see what made them valuable, and when a consignor gave us an entire collection I got to take a deep dive into the material. For me, this was rabbit hole heaven! A seven-volume Civil War diary, in which the author wrapped up one battle scene by writing, “And thus concluded the Battle of Gettysburg, and I hope to never see such a battle again.”
I read stacks of Gold Rush letters to home, describing the poor, filthy conditions in the makeshift mining towns—and can guarantee that every letter-writer described rampant gambling and prostitution, but assured the reader that he was taking no such part in these activities.
We once got in the entire archive of Henry Miller—basically, his file cabinets, filled with letters to him from Anais Nin, Erica Jong, Lawrence Durrell. Heartbreaking letters from his early Paris lover, June, from a mental hospital, describing her lonely old age. A letter Henry Miller wrote for his young son, Tony, to Santa Claus one year (which I bought). And his own typed essays about his youth in New York, dancing at Roseland with the girls and taking the streetcar to neighborhoods his mother had banned him from exploring.
In short, I love to get to know someone through their writing. So when, about five years ago, I purchased a collection of about 800 community cookbooks from around the country, most dating from the 1880s to the 1920s, I couldn’t wait to dive in and start researching them.
Today, most people remember community cookbooks as the spiral-bound homemade-looking ones on their mother’s kitchen shelves, with recipes for guava jam, and cherry pie, and chicken tetrazzini. But these cookbooks were so much more than just a catalog of recipes—they were fundraisers, political pamphlets and historical accounts of the communities they served. In America, the first charity cookbook was published in 1864, to subsidize medical costs for Union soldiers injured in the Civil War. Like that one, most began as a way to raise funds for a common goal, and were published either by church groups (to rebuild or remodel their church) or schools or homes for impoverished or orphaned children.
I love the early ones, published before mass transportation and refrigeration, because they speak to the local foods of the place they were published. While the Eskimo Cookbook by the Students of Shishmaref Day School in Anchorage (above) had recipes for soured seal liver, bear paws, walrus stew and lingcod Eskimo ice cream, a 1919 Alabama cookbook called Culinary Crinkles contained instructions for making pork sausage, pea-pod soup, Mrs. George R. Ward’s sliced sweet potato pie, sunflower marmalade, preserved watermelon citron and sweet peach pickle.
Even as transportation and refrigeration made many recipes ubiquitous across the country (every one of these books had its favorite banana salad and pineapple ambrosia with maraschino cherries) there were still ways to find out what made the place unique. My goal, of course, was to sell these and to point out what made each special, so I would first look at the game and preserves chapters. No matter how modern, those chapters were still about what was local to shoot or pick. The 1961 Alaska Wild Game Cookbook contained recipes for moose mince meat pecan bars, baked spruce hens, sour cream deer chops, reindeer scallopini, savory roast mountain goat, etc. A special mushroom section contained detailed illustrations and descriptions for foraging Alaskan delicacies.
A mid-century Colorado cookbook might have high-altitude baking recipes, or rhubarb jam. And sometimes, I’d just have to give up and admit defeat, as I did in my description of the Recipes of the Woman’s Society of the First Congregational Church of Denver from 1926. I wrote in my description, “This was the nadir of our cooking history in America, and it is proved out here: sausages with fried bananas, Irish tamale, cocoanut creole soufflé, corn flake kisses, and other early attempts at fusion cuisine.”
Sometimes, if I could find nothing special about the recipes, I’d research the place it was written, or detail the ads for local businesses in the book, which could give the reader an idea of what a town was like. Like an early Nevada silver mining town with ads for local banks and mining equipment and Chinese restaurants. And sometimes, if a name of a contributor sounded unique, I’d google it. Of course, all the contributors were women, and all the names were their husbands’, with a “Mrs.” before it.
So, here’s what happened with the Home Cook Book of Detroit, published in 1917 by the Tower Bible Class of the Mack Avenue Evangelical Church. Again, there was nothing particularly special about the recipes, so I thought I’d look into the congregation—maybe they were African American, or immigrants from Armenia. Who knows? One of the regular contributors was Mrs. Leon Breiner, and that name sounded unusual enough that a quick search of the name and the city would probably turn up something.
The story I uncovered was fascinating. In 1925, eight years after this was published, Gladys and Ossian Sweet were the first African American couple to move into a white middle-class neighborhood in Detroit. Their appearance caused an uproar in the neighborhood, and for two nights mobs gathered outside their home to protest. The first night, the Sweets huddled alone in their new house, afraid for their lives, as rocks struck their windows. The second night, they invited over seven friends, all men, who brought their guns, ready to defend the Sweets and themselves in the upstairs bedrooms. The shades were drawn, but with all the shouting and rock-throwing, confusion reigned. Before long, shots were fired from the upstairs window. One rioter was injured below, and a man protesting on a porch across the street was shot in the back and killed. That was Mr. Leon Breiner.
It turns out this was a huge case in Detroit, and Clarence Darrow took on the defendants as clients. Because the blinds were drawn, he argued, no one could be sure who had fired the shots. After an impassioned final argument, the result was a hung jury. On appeal, Darrow repeated his defense, and also managed to keep getting the case put off on technicalities, until it made it out of the headlines and people moved on to other news. He finally prevailed, and an all-white jury found the Sweets not guilty, which was obviously remarkable, especially at the time. I mean, this kind of thing still goes on, and white juries still have a hard time finding black men not guilty.
The Sweet Trial became part and parcel of the changing fabric of Detroit. The church that now stands in place of Mack Avenue Evangelical Church is now an African-American church. Whether Mrs. Breiner’s corn pudding stands the test of time is an entirely different question.