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The Joy of Cooking Other People’s ‘Secret Family Recipes’

From Grandmother’s Old Fashioned Boston Brown Bread to Aunt Scrilda’s Toffee Squares, the under-appreciated world of community cookbooks is big on practical recipes and warm hits of nostalgia

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A pile of spiral-bound cookbooks, several open.
Amy McCarthy is a staff writer at, focusing on pop culture, policy and labor, and only the weirdest online trends.

This past Christmas, my favorite gift came in the form of a hulking 1976 cookbook that contains all the flavors of my childhood. Titled Pots, Pans, and Pioneers, the book is a staple in many kitchens across Louisiana, containing the recipes for everything from five-cup salad to Depression chocolate pie alongside Creole favorites like crawfish étouffée and chicken and oyster gumbo.

Pots, Pans, and Pioneers is not a particularly well-known cookbook, at least outside of Louisiana: It’s actually a collection of recipes gathered by the Telephone Pioneers of America, Louisiana Chapter No. 24, and it is one of many incredible community cookbooks, painstakingly curated by families, churches, community groups, workplaces, and charities, that have functioned as the backbone of American home cooking for decades. In the era of glossy, chef-driven cookbooks that are arguably more beautiful than they are practical, it’s time for community cookbooks to finally get the recognition that they deserve.

Flipping through one of these cookbooks almost feels sneaky, like you’re peeking into someone’s grandma’s recipe box to find her most treasured culinary secrets. In the 1984 edition of Superlatives!, produced by the Junior League of Oklahoma City, you’ll find the recipe for Hattie’s Never-Fail Southern Fried Chicken. A name like that conveys a sense of place and permanence: Even though you’ve never met Ms. Hattie and don’t know what exactly it is that makes her chicken fail-proof, you can almost visualize an old Southern woman in her kitchen, cooking up a time-tested recipe.

These books are packed, beginning to end, with sacred family recipes. Passed down through the generations, the roots of these dishes often run deep. In Applehood and Mother Pie, a cookbook curated by the Junior League of Rochester, New York, you’ll find Grandmother’s Old Fashioned Boston Brown Bread, which is apparently a “great way to use up sour milk!” In Cooking With Love: Recipes Old and New, assembled by the First United Methodist Church in Prague, Oklahoma, there’s a recipe for Aunt Scrilda’s Toffee Squares that’s clearly been passed down as a family treasure.

Books like these are intensely personal by nature, packed with the recipes that everyday people believe are good enough to share with the world. These recipes aren’t tested by a chef in a professional kitchen over the course of a couple of months; they’re honed over decades of Thanksgiving dinners and Thursday-night suppers with family crowded around the table. A lot of times, somebody’s “secret family recipe” for pumpkin pie is just the recipe off the back of the can of Libby’s pumpkin puree. But that often doesn’t matter, once recipes have been passed down, and when someone forever immortalizes their family’s most beloved recipe in their church’s cookbook, everyone who reads that book is better for it.

Sometimes, the most charming — or utilitarian — aspects of these books aren’t even the recipes. Maybe there are a few poems or funny stories written by the contributors. Often, they include several pages of straightforward cooking advice, clever and common ingredient substitutions, and measurement conversions. For many home cooks, knowing that three apples are roughly equivalent to a pound and that soaking cabbage in cold water will keep it crispy is infinitely more useful than knowing how to make a rose out of an avocado or produce restaurant-quality pasta.

The world of cookbooks is now hyper-specialized. It’s easy to go out and find a book written by your favorite chef, catering to the fad diet that you’re trying out this month, or introducing a cuisine you’d like to explore. But with community cookbooks, nobody’s trying to reinvent the wheel or show off their skills. So much history and authentic personality lies within these pages that the feeling of Grandma’s pride and joy is nearly palpable. It’s almost impossible to not get teary-eyed when you read a note like, “This chocolate cake was my late husband Arnold’s favorite. I hope you love it as much as he did.”

And sure, the way that Americans eat has changed pretty dramatically since these cookbooks were published in 1976 or 1983. Now we’re all trying to cut back on sodium and focus on “clean eating,” but that shouldn’t dissuade anyone from digging back into these old-school tomes. You may bristle at the ubiquity of condensed cream soups and Velveeta in ingredient lists, but there’s nothing stopping you from avoiding the chemical maelstrom and making your own cream of mushroom soup and processed cheese. Just don’t be surprised if it doesn’t quite taste the same.

Maybe times like these, when the world feels like it’s falling apart and there’s no end in sight to a literal pandemic, are when we should be leaning in to the idea of nostalgic comfort foods. We have been lied to about what is and is not healthy, and there’s no hard evidence that putting a can of mushroom soup in your casserole every once in a while is going to result in serious physical harm. Digging back into these old cookbooks is an opportunity to eschew the fatphobic, classist expectations that govern what is “good” and “bad” food and just eat the damn fake cheese.

It’s also not surprising that, during the COVID-19 pandemic, community cookbooks are making a comeback. As Priya Krishna reported for the New York Times in April, these cookbooks have taken on new life in the past few months, with community groups both virtual and in-person coming together to share recipes via shared Google Docs and instructional videos. Not surprisingly, many of these new collections focus on simple, comforting dishes that don’t require pricey cooking equipment or esoteric ingredients to make.

Obviously, given that these are informal cookbooks full of recipes written by amateur chefs, not everything works. But maybe that’s part of the charm, and it’s certainly part of cooking out of even the fanciest chef-written cookbooks. Who among us hasn’t been lied to about how long it will take a pot of onions to caramelize? How many times has a brave home cook followed every single direction in a complicated recipe meticulously, only to pull something completely inedible out of the oven?

Community cookbooks are not particularly difficult to find, especially on auction sites like eBay and the shelves of thrift stores. The best resource, though, may be the back of your mom’s (or grandma’s) kitchen cabinets, where it’s likely you’ll find a book or two that will evoke some nostalgia for the dishes you grew up on. If there were ever a time to recreate the tuna noodle casserole you begged for five nights a week as an elementary schooler, that time is now.