cooking cornucopia

Community cookbooks as historical relics: Detailing the past, present and where our community is headed

Community cookbooks as historical relics: Detailing the past, present and where our community is headed

Austin Photo Set: News_Layne_community cookbook_april 2012_baked apples
Gluten-free salted caramel apple dumplings were featured in Karen Morgan's first cookbook. Her new cookbook will be the first gluten-free community cookbook. Courtesy of Black Bird Bakery
Austin Photo Set: News_Layne_community cookbook_april 2012_cookbook
Karen Morgan's first cookbook, "Blackbird Bakery Gluten-Free." Courtesy of Black Bird Bakery
Austin Photo Set: News_Layne_community cookbook_april 2012_community cookbooks
During a recent cookbook conference in New York, Addie Broyles encountered numerous historical community cookbooks. Photo by Addie Broyles
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Members of the Austin Food Blogger Alliance recently celebrated the alliance's one-year anniversary. The alliance has also started working on its first community cookbook.
Austin Photo Set: News_Layne_community cookbook_april 2012_baked apples
Austin Photo Set: News_Layne_community cookbook_april 2012_cookbook
Austin Photo Set: News_Layne_community cookbook_april 2012_community cookbooks
Austin Photo Set: News_Layne_community cookbook_april 2012_logo

Community cookbooks have been prevalent in the publishing world since the rise of their existence at the end of the Civil War. Junior Leagues, elementary schools, Red Hat societies, church volunteers and countless other organizations have used these literary devices to document their dietary habitats for the rest of the world to read and replicate. And despite the vast cornucopia of online recipe databases and personalized food blogs, these community books are growing in popularity around Austin. 

"Community cookbooks are like historical documents because they show how everything in our lives has evolved: how we get our food; what kinds of food we make; who is doing the cooking; who we're doing the cooking for; what tools we have in the kitchen — you name it," Addie Broyles, advisory council chair of the Austin Food Blogger Alliance, says. 

At barely one-year-old, the Austin Food Blogger Alliance is climbing on the cookbook bandwagon and compiling its first cookbook this summer. The group of nearly 130 bloggers is aiming to have the book released by October 2012 to feature an estimated 100 recipes. The bloggers were inspired to write a joint cookbook after discovering one of their members, David Ansel of The Soup Peddler, had compiled a small comb-bound book for his long-devoted blog readers. 

Throughout history, community cookbooks have prospered and evolved, Elizabeth Engelhardt, associate professor of the department of American studies at the University of Texas at Austin, explains. She emphasized that these antiquated volumes of text have their ways of informing and — sometimes — misinforming society about U.S. culinary history. 

 "These books were written about food, but they are about the culture of the people as well. . .They each tell us a little bit about race, class, gender and former communities." - Professor Elizabeth Engelhardt

For example, it's nearly impossible to study old community cookbooks and know for certain which recipes were actually used by readers, if what was written down was what people consumed or were, instead, things they wanted readers to believe they consumed. And who is to say that the surviving text of dated community cookbooks were the best of their kind? Could the reason they survived be that they were placed on the highest shelf, never to be used by home cooks?

"These books were written about food, but they are about the culture of the people as well," Engelhardt says. "They each tell us a little bit about race, class, gender and former communities."

Though the Austin Food Blogger Alliance cookbook will be joining millions of others, the alliance hopes it will historically document the current state of Austin's cuisine. "This has evolved into a fun project for us to do because we are essentially taking a snapshot of Austin right now," Broyles says. "Who better to do that than Austin's food bloggers?"

Members of the alliance bring an eclectic mix of personalities, neighborhoods, writing styles, and eating habitats. "A lot of these bloggers moved from other places into Austin," Broyles says. "I want these bloggers to submit their recipes that tell their story, whatever story that is." 

The project won't be as simple as copying and pasting previous blog entries and images in Word documents and mailing them off to a printer. In fact, the alliance hosted a recipe writing class for members to explain the do's and don'ts of cookbook writing. 

Karen Morgan, founder of Blackbird Bakery, attended the recipe writing class and served as a panelist and advisor to the bloggers. She emphasized that recipe testing and impeccable writing are the essential steps to writing cookbooks, saying "preparation is king, execution is its mistress."

Morgan is a gluten-free chef who is currently working on her second cookbook, which also happens to be a community cookbook and the first-ever gluten-free community cookbook. With numerous non-gluten-free recipes submitted from the community, Morgan will test and transform the recipes into gluten-free dishes. She hopes to have the book published by fall of 2012.   

The gluten-free chef used Kickstarter to raise awareness about the book and gather funds to put it together. She successfully raised $30,000 in 30 days. "Writing a cookbook is a community effort in and of itself," Morgan says. "My intention all along was to raise awareness that gluten intolerance affects everybody in someway, whether directly or indirectly."

She believes her new book will inspire communities of gluten-intolerant individuals to understand that, despite being diagnosed with a difficult disease, there should be no reason one's favorite recipes must be abandoned and forgotten. And despite the undeniable rise of recipe blogs and electronic cookbooks, Morgan believes the interest in community cookbooks is rising because people are bonding through both new media and joint causes. 

"We're making the impersonal personal again. With the blogging community and everything on the Internet, that personal intimate connection that happens when you're sitting across the table from someone is lost," she says.

"These books show who we are as a community and how we connect with each other again. People are really wanting to tap back into that because there is so much emotion around food."