Penn Library Exhibitions

HOUSEHOLD WORDS: Women Write from and for the Kitchen

The Communal Kitchen

The most prevalent themes of local and community cookbooks were nostalgic recreations of a lost heritage--the celebration of regional and national identities and the attempt to stimulate interest in women's craft traditions, primarily cooking. The home has most often been depicted as the place where cultural and individual identities are maintained and protected. Some community cookbooks express an opposite view and provide us with the debates in which women engaged on behalf of change for the individual, the family, the community, and, ultimately, the entire nation. Sometimes they expressed a conservative vision that called for a return to the past. This was also an expression of longing for a time in which women's sphere and work were valued.

Through their recipe books women created and maintained social networks. In their interactions around food, they secured emotional and material assistance for themselves and others. In times of crisis women often shared costs and exchanged labor through these informal supports. They cared for one another through illness, childbirth, and dislocation.

These informal mutual-aid networks may have paved the way for the charitable activities organized by women which flourished in their more formal organizations during and after the Civil War. They took the genre of cookbooks and extended their use into a form of communal activity that was geared to social action. Banding together in an effort to help widows, veterans, injured and poor people, they compiled recipes, published them, and finally sold them commercially as well as directly to one another. Profits from these sales were, in turn, funneled into the causes which had generated the books. After the war, the combined efforts of these women raised funds for building schools, churches, and synagogues, fed the poor and the homeless, and contributed to countless other charitable activities which have been called "the benevolent empire."

The community, church, and school recipe collections are archives of local history and of women's activities, frequently illustrated with photographs and maps as well as information-laden introductions. This literature has contributed to the distinctive character of different regions. Recently, the Library of Congress issued call numbers for these home-grown books, which are reminiscent of the limited subscription cookery books of earlier historical periods.

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