Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Church Ladies’ Cookbook

In October, 1970, someone in Rhode Island had a fabulous birthday. I know this because I now own one of the gifts this person received – the Centennial Cookbook of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in East Providence, Rhode Island. Better yet, the copy was inscribed by the authors.“Happy Birthday and Happy Cooking,” it says, and it’s signed by contributors Frankie Willis and Helen Bromage. Through the magic of the Interweb, I've discovered that the church is still standing; it's pictured here.

I found the cookbook in a twenty-five cent pile at a garage sale this weekend. How it traveled 1,300 miles to make it to that sale is just one of its fascinating mysteries. While I plan to use the book as first prize for this spring’s soup swap (“Joy of Jello” was first prize this fall), I’ve already read it a couple times myself, and I’ve found it riveting stuff. 

It offers a glimpse into a past where every organization had its own cookbook, typed by the volunteers, run off on mimeograph machines and GBC bound in complementary colors. I imagined every part of the process of putting St. Mary’s offering together. I wondered how the “Cook Book Committee,” as they called themselves, happened to be formed.  Were Suzanne, Helen, Evelyn and Nancy just in the wrong place at the wrong time, or were they thrilled at the honor? Once they got to work, was there a great deal of political infighting regarding which recipes to keep and which to pass over? 

For example, was Hazel Johnston, who submitted the recipe for Grasshopper Pie, (which calls for a quarter cup of crème de menthe and two tablespoons of white crème de cacao), the falling-down drunkard of the congregation, the one who could never be left alone near the communion wine? Maybe she had a long-standing affair with equally pickled Frank Dearnley, who submitted a Low Calorie Egg Nog that called for Dream Whip and rum. Frank and Hazel, with the love, and the sweet tooth, that dared not speak its name.

The names of the contributors to this book are like a role call of ladies who, wherever they are now, are still wearing pastel nylon headscarves to keep their bouffant hairdos in shape: Gladys, Edna, Mae, Bertha, Dorothy, Mabel, Hazel and Marjorie. And, this being 1970, there are those women with no names to call their own, like Mrs. Arthur Salve (Franks and Corn Bread Casserole) or Mrs. Frederick Hauck (Pecan Pie, Spiced Pineapple).

In the midst of these mature women, there is a ringer, Lori Hassel, who contributes no fewer than 20 recipes, each one of which notes that she's 13 years old.  I wonder if this is a point of pride or a way of absolving St. Mary’s from any damages done by Lori’s newfangled recipes. I found myself thinking about Lori. She’s 54 years old now.  Still in Rhode Island?  Still an Episcopalian? Still known for her beguiling ways with tuna and chips?  These are questions that bedevil me.

The cookbook is full of recipes for stuff no one makes anymore.  Yeast bread, are you kidding?  There’s an entire section for preserves and relishes, with an illustration of a canning pot and rack (nimbly illustrated by the Rev. James P. Frink, according to the credits). The apparatus could just as well be a washboard and wringer, as old fashioned as it seems. Also, tellingly, there is no section at all for appetizers.  No cheese balls, no seven layer dips, no chicken wings. You’ll just ruin your dinner, I can almost hear Gladys telling me. 

What about ethnic foods?  Not really, although Bertha Sarganis (iffy name for an Episcopalian, if you ask me), has an entry for Spinach Pita.  Someone has typed in “GREEK” next to the recipe, and Bertha has added a note that the Filo pastry sheets can be found at the Near East Market at 253 Cranston Street in Providence. Sally Bagdasarian (must be Bertha’s sister-in-law), tried to slip in Rice Pilav, but the alert typist has sniffily added “ARMENIAN DISH” next to the entry. There is a modest attempt at regionalism, with a few recipes for foods native to the area:  Whoopee Pies (Ethel deMerchant), New England Baked Shrimp (Mrs. Clara Nichols) and Stuffed Quohaugs (Mrs. Gladys Dearnley, possibly the wife of pickled Frank). Also, I love this book's 1970’s definition of  “salad,” with recipes that feature jello, cans of condensed cream soup, or both.

This certainly made for entertaining reading, but I probably won’t be making any of these recipes myself. I mean, I had to read Secret Italian Recipe Meat Balls (Brenda Davey) several times, perusing its six ingredients to guess which one was the secret. Was it the “hamburg” the “two slices bread; wet bread and wring” or the Parmesan cheese? I’m going with  the Parmesan as the secret. Possibly, in 1970, it was a big secret, the kind of thing you had to get at that market on Cranston Street that Bertha was always gassing on about. Also, I think even Mrs. George C. Gartner, Sr. is overselling “Nice Luncheon Dish.” First, I’ve never eaten “luncheon.” And second, it’s scrambled eggs, Mrs. George, so stop fooling around and submit a real recipe, or we’ll get Mrs. George Junior for the next edition.

The dessert recipes included here invariably reminded me of my own mother and her friends. It seemed as if dessert recipes would whip through our neighborhood as if they’d been posted on Facebook pages, forty years before it was invented. I can remember when Watergate Gate hit the ladies hard, and I have a dim memory of Harvey Wallbanger Cake having a similarly popular run before that. The year of the Christmas cookies that were made of corn flakes, melted marshmallows and virulent amounts of green food coloring, and shaped to look like wreaths, is especially vivid. This cookbook, from simpler times, did feature the lemon cake with the poked-hole-and-goo-pouring method, as well as cookies like Aunt Ana’s Hermits (Vivian Hubbard), Hello Dollies (Mrs. Clara Nichols) and Leilani Bars (Bertha, again, but this time, no need to head to Cranston Street; all the ingredients are A&P approved).

I know that no one eats dinner together anymore, and that’s why our kids are all overweight drug addicts, but I have to question the quality of all those once-upon-a-time meals, with this cookbook as Exhibit A. So many of these recipes have the stink of four p.m. desperation, the sort of thing pulled together by a  woman who had too many highballs at Bridge Club, whose children are starting to whine, and who knows her husband will arrive on the late train from the city, blotto as usual. Entrees like Heavenly Hot Dogs (Caryl Frank) and Sauerbraten Patties (Mrs. L. A. Rabe) are sad excuses for family meals, the sort of thing prepared by a cook who keeps an ashtray near the stove, and whose countertops are always sticky.

As I reached the conclusion of this riveting read, I had to wonder if someone battled the woman who wanted to add the “Recipe for a Happy Home” that I had assumed was mandated by law for church cookbooks (“Take one cup of love, one pinch of fun … “). I can just hear Suzanne now: “God dammit, Evelyn, we’re St. Mary’s Episcopal. We have to have some standards!”  Possibly they placated the “Recipe for a Happy Home” submitter by allowing her to edit the Household Hints section, in which one paranoid soul warned, “Beneficial note: Never ask for a recipe in a restaurant.  You may receive the recipe and a bill … which could amount to $500.00.” Cue the scary music, Evelyn.

Some of the hints in this final section were real doozies, such as “To erase fingermarks from wallpaper, try rubbing with soft chunks of white bread.” I imagine the lady from Bridge Club trying this stupid idea, while she waits for the Heavenly Franks and Beans to finish heating up on her spattered stovetop. God, she needs another cigarette.

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