I was going through some of my cookbooks the other day, and found this gem. This is where I obtained what is now my “signature” (at least within our family) green bean casserole, one based on a sour cream sauce and bacon, that has been a staple for Freestone family gatherings for probably 25 years.
This cookbook represents a largely extinct breed – the church cookbook. These were, for many years, complied by churches as fundraisers – a committee would be formed, recipes gathered from the congregation, and all would be typed up and sent to a publishing company. The company would then usually just photograph the pages as is, make printing plates from that, and print and assemble the pages into books with plastic ring bindings.
And then they would be sold, hopefully raising more money than the publishing cost. These cookbooks were favorite bridal shower gifts back in the day – and from the handwritten inscription inside the cover, it looks like this was given to me by one of my husband’s aunts at a shower approximately three weeks prior to our wedding in 1991.
I haven’t looked at this cookbook in quite a few years, the green bean recipe having long since been committed to memory and feel, but I decided to more or less read through it the other day. It gave a glimpse into an era of cooking that in today’s fashion of farm to table and fine dining may be sniffed at as “unsophisticated”, but also shows a charming ingenuity and creativity.
First of all, there is the copious use of prepackaged ingredients – not only canned beans and corn, etc., but lots of canned soups. I mean, a LOT of canned soup – cream of mushroom, cream of celery, cream of chicken – just about any creamed soup you can think of – sometimes two or even three types within one dish. And the jello…used for salads, desserts, you name it – along with its constant companions cream cheese and Cool Whip.
And then there’s recipes that make you go, “what the…?” – e.g., Pinto Bean Pie and Refried Bean Cake. You have to have some serious imagination to come up with those – not to mention probably being a pretty good salesperson (or good liar) in order to get your family to try them.
Now, you have to remember that since this cookbook was published in 1990, many of the venerable church ladies who put this together would have been mostly drawing on dishes created perhaps twenty to thirty years prior. And that was, at least in the Midwest, the era of casseroles. (I counted no less than six tuna casserole recipes!) You have to understand that this was a time before cooking channels, before the internet, before you could order prepackaged meal kits, before you could pay someone to shop for and deliver your groceries.
You had to do it all yourself – and even if a woman didn’t have employment outside the home, she had to take care of the kids, do laundry (including ironing – not much was wrinkle free back then), clean, do the shopping. She also probably served on committees that ran the church, school, clubs, etc. And if she was employed outside the home, she was usually responsible for the cooking, anyway – that’s just the way it was back then. So getting a hot dinner prepared in an hour or so each evening in an era before microwaves were common was a challenge, and you’d take any help you could get.
Not that there aeren’t representations of more, shall we say, elevated cooking in here- there are some competition winning dishes that sound pretty good – pecan rice, pork florentine, Grand Marnier Souffle – and that look to be accomplished more or less from scratch. But then again, there’s also a Beef Wellington using refrigerated crescent roll dough from a tube. (But Beef Wellington, as a concept, just never made sense to me anyway, even if you do use handmade puff pastry).
I think what resounds with me most of all, though, is the obvious caring within the pages – the caring of a congregation putting together a book to support their church, and no doubt the joy of sharing some dishes that they were proud of, many of which were probably passed down in their families over many years. As I flip through the pages, I see that Aunt Jane took the time to place handwritten notes next to recipes she had tried and that were her family’s favorites.
And then there’s the recipe for Burnt Sugar Cake – accredited to Aunt Jane, but that she is sure to notate as coming from her mother in law and my husband’s grandmother, Virginia Freestone, boiled frosting and all – talk about hardcore old school!
I have a feeling I’m going to be making this one.