Blessings be upon the cook
Who, seeing, buys this little book
And buying, makes and tastes its fare
Then joyfully asks her neighbor cook
To treat herself to this good book.
— Heaven’s Best Recipes, St. Anthony Parish, Charleston
Some people have one — worn and spattered — that came as a wedding gift. Some people have several — propped on shelves — dutifully purchased from church, school and garden club. Some people are obsessed and would never consider their collection complete without that one more.
Community cookbooks have been around in the United States since 1864, when Maria J. Moss published “A Poetical Cookbook” to subsidize medical costs for Union soldiers injured in the Civil War. The concept was so successful that more than 3,000 community or charity cookbooks were published between 1864 and 1922.
West Virginia has its share of community cookbooks and collectors, as Bill Clements of West Virginia Book Company will attest. Currently, his publishing company has between 15 and 20 cookbook titles in its inventory. And Clements says there are many more that are self-published or published by companies that specialize in them.
“People collect them and love to read them,” he said. “Some people never make a recipe from these cookbooks, but they love the stories and the regional flavors the books include.”
Putting one together is a labor of love, as Roberta Fowlkes and Susannah Johnson know well. As co-chairs of the Kanawha United Presbyterian Church cookbook committee, they worked on “Kanawha Gatherings: A Celebration of Food and Fellowship.” The cookbook project was part of the church’s 200th anniversary celebration in 2019.
“Our church has a history of fellowship programs that bring church and community members to events that often include food,” Fowlkes said. “Many people will remember the Kanawha Forum which ran for 18 years, including a musical program and light lunch. We had a notebook full of the recipes from that.”
“We have many good cooks in our church who bring special recipes to our potlucks and celebrations,” Johnson said. “We knew it would be a challenge, but we felt like we had a head start.”
The creative cookbook committee included Tresa Davis-Weir, Emily Jessee, Betsy Johnson, Otis Laury, Gretchen Lewis, Lynne Payne, Julia Plackett and Gina Rugeley. Others provided support, advice and recipes for the project.
After looking at a broad selection of book designs, the team selected their favorite — a hardbound book with wire binding that would hold up to use. Then they faced another decision: What to call the book?
“We knew we wanted a name that would give a sense of community and fellowship,” Fowlkes said. “We considered so many names, and then one day when we were tossing ideas around, Susannah suggested ‘Gatherings.’ We knew it was just right.”
To illustrate the cookbook, the committee called upon the art talents of members Lynne Payne and Betsy Johnson. Payne’s front cover illustrates Kanawha Boulevard in the spring; Betsy Johnson’s back cover illustrates the historic church on Virginia Street. Each section features art by Payne.
Culling the recipes to a reasonable number was something of a challenge.
“We worked hard to select recipes that are doable and considerate of how much time people have to cook today,” Fowlkes said. She said many of the Kanawha Forum recipes were already simple to prepare, easy to make ahead and tried-and-true favorites. But they couldn’t use all 1,000 of them, so some had to go.
“There are seven food sections in the cookbook and an index,” said Johnson. “We also included a menu section that offers ideas for special events and holidays.”
The book is available through Kanawha United Presbyterian Church and local businesses, including Eggplant, Taylor Books, J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works and WV Marketplace at Capitol Market.
“We see a lot of interest in these local cookbooks,” said Clare Wegmann. “Some customers come specifically to look for new ones, or ones that they don’t have yet and to buy them as gifts for friends who have a connection to West Virginia or our area.”
“The cookbooks range from traditional to contemporary, so there is something for everyone’s taste,” Wegmann said.
One of her favorites is “Mid-Century Recipes from Cocktails to Comfort Food” by M. Lynne Squires. “It is a great collection of the recipes people remember from the mid-1950s to mid-1960s,” she said. “You can find a lot of those family dinner and cocktail party recipes that were popular in those years.”
And there’s nothing ordinary about Ordinary Evelyn’s cookbook, “An Ordinary Cookbook.” “Evelyn’s products are customer favorites,” Wegmann said. “Her cookbook is full of traditional recipes and recipes that are great for families.”
For someone looking for traditional Appalachian and handed-down recipes, she recommends “Cookin’ from Scratch” by Dean Six, and “One Foot in the Gravy—Hooked on the Sauce” by Cat Pleska.
“Those are good choices,” Wegmann said.