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Today is October 20, 2019

The cooks behind the cooking

At USM, Andrew Haley mines community cookbooks for insight into the lives of 20th century women in Mississippi.

By Debbie Stringer

The cooks behind the cooking

Dr. Andrew Haley, pictured at McCain Library and Archives at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Hattiesburg campus, peruses old community cookboks with a historian’s eye for clues about the lives of the women behind the recipes. Combined with other research, the cookbooks help reveal how family life in Mississippi changed with the times—a subject that has been mostly ignored.

Community cookbooks have not only inspired Mississippi home cooks for more than 100 years but also helped fund the good works of churches, clubs and organizations throughout the state.

For food historian Dr. Andrew Haley, these local cookbooks serve as an unconventional source of Mississippi history—specifically, women’s history.

Haley, associate professor of American cultural history at the University of Southern Mississippi, directs the Mississippi Community Cookbook Project at the university’s McCain Library and Archives. Working with Jennifer Brannock, curator of Rare Books and Mississippiana for USM University Libraries Special Collections, Haley collects, preserves and researches cookbooks reflecting the culinary and community history of Mississippi.

McCain Library and Archives houses some 3,000 regional, national and international cookbooks and cooking-related books. More than 1,100 are Mississippi community cookbooks, what Haley calls the “pride and joy” of the collection; 200 of these were published from 1899 to 1970, and some are very rare.

Among the recipes for congealed salads and ads from local merchants with four-digit phone numbers are revealing tidbits of history. Haley gleans details about the women who contributed and compiled the recipes, the ingredients they chose, the organizations they served and the communities in which they lived.

“These cookbooks are opening up a new way to tell stories of these communities,” Haley said.

“They focus on a very different group of people often ignored in history, women,” Brannock said. “You’ll hear historians remark about how most history focuses on the history of men. I love it that the cookbooks provide a glimpse into the kitchens and lives of women around the state. These are the kinds of topics that really interest me.”

As an example, Haley cites a 1961 cookbook created by the parents of the senior class at Calhoun City high school. He wondered why casserole dishes seemed to be so popular in the community at that time. Where were the traditional Southern recipes?

“When you look at the story of Calhoun City in the 10 years prior to this cookbook coming out, it becomes really obvious,” he said.

Beginning in the 1950s, the area’s economy shifted from furniture manufacturing to the garment industry, thus redefining the local labor force.

“So suddenly you had a community that went from lots of men working all the time to a community where women are now working for the first time. And of course that changes the way you have to cook,” Haley said.

After a long day at the garment factory, these busy women often relied on casseroles using canned ingredients to get supper on the table quickly.

“The cool thing is, you can pick up almost at random any one of these cookbooks and there’s a story like that attached to it. And that’s what really has excited me about these community cookbooks,” Haley said.

Among his favorites is “Recipes for the Bride.” The undated, one-of-a-kind cookbook consists of some 40 handwritten and signed recipes from members of the bridal party, or maybe someone close to the bridal couple. Haley’s students were able to trace its origin to the 1950s in Lucedale.

“Tried and True Cook Book,” published in 1906 by the Presbyterian Ladies Aid Society in Gulfport, is one of the oldest in the collection. With no oven temperatures and few times listed— “bake in a quick oven until done”— one can assume the homemakers of the time needed little cooking instruction.

“Coahoma Cooking Every Day and Sunday Too,” the cookbook first published in 1949 by the Coahoma Woman’s Club, whose members were plantation wives, gave credit where credit was due: “It’s an extraordinarily rare cookbook in terms of not just Mississippi history but in terms of Southern history, because they published and acknowledged the fact that many of the recipes came from black servants,” Haley said.

Community cookbooks authored by African Americans have so far eluded Haley’s collecting efforts.

“Prior to 1970 I have found no evidence of a single community cookbook published by African Americans [in Mississippi],” he said. “That’s one of the things I’d really love to have in our collection. It’s part of the state’s legacy that’s really missing.”

Community cookbooks offer clear evidence of ethnic influences on Mississippi cooking, Haley pointed out. Most are peppered with ethnic-inspired recipes like chow mein, chicken fricassee, courtbouillon and Italian spaghetti—proof that Mississippians embraced the food diversity trend sweeping the nation in the mid-20th century.

The influence of immigrant cooking further diversified food in the state. “In the Delta, Chinese grocery stores were essential in spreading ideas about food, and Italian immigrants opened restaurants,” Haley said.

Creole and Cajun cuisine became strong influences in south Mississippi and in the port cities located along the Mississippi River.

Also evident in community cookbooks is the impact of rural electrification on home cooking, beginning in the 1930s. As electric cooperatives began electrifying farm homes across Mississippi, wood stoves gave way to electric appliances and refrigeration.

Some electric cooperatives employed home economists to instruct rural women on the safe and efficient use of electric appliances. County extension offices offered programs in safe food preparation, storage and preservation.

“Not only was it transformative in the way people cooked, it transformed what people cooked. And that was intentional, because home economists had been trained to think about people’s nutrition. The traditional diets in Mississippi were not particularly nutritious,” Haley said.

Community cookbooks reflect the outcomes of these educational efforts and the subsequent evolution in recipes. “They tell us what people actually ended up cooking as a result of those interactions, and as a result of having those [electric] stoves,” Haley said.

The idea for the Community Cookbook Project started several years ago when Haley was asked to deliver a talk on food in Mississippi. While researching the topic in libraries around the state, he found only small “accidental” collections of local cookbooks that had come bundled with donations of personal papers. Packed with Gov. Paul B. Johnson Jr.’s papers, for example, were his wife Dorothy’s cookbooks.

“It was his stuff they were collecting and her stuff came along with it,” Haley said. “Women’s history was often treated that way. It was kind of a subset of men’s history.”

When he looked through USM’s own 15 community cookbooks at the time, “I was so excited about what they could possibly tell us about how Mississippians lived,” Haley said.

“Over the next couple of years I kept coming back to this collection, and finally I approached Jennifer and asked if we could make this a serious part of what the library does.”

Brannock agreed. “A part of my mission [as curator] is to collect items that document the history and culture of Mississippi. I’m always looking for different ways to do that as seen in our collection of books by Mississippi authors, local histories and even material on the infamous Pascagoula alien abduction. When Andrew approached me, I felt that collecting more cookbooks was a great way to explore and preserve the state’s culinary history and traditions,” she said.

Initially, Haley focused the collection on community cookbooks published in Mississippi before 1970, when he believed them to be “somewhat rare.”

“I was entirely wrong about that. It turns out that a hundred was a ludicrously small estimate. Right now, we have about 200 community cookbooks from prior to the 1970s,” and at least 50 more identified, he said.

Historic community cookbooks can turn up in flea markets, auctions or estate sales. Some are deteriorating in attics. Too many end up in the trash when the owner moves or dies.

“We’re trying to acquire these books before they’re lost,” Haley said.

Most of the cookbooks in USM’s collection came through donations. Carthage native Anderson Orr, of Norfolk, Va., last year gave his collection of more than 2,500 cookbooks to the university. The Orr donation expanded USM’s holdings to include regional, national and international cookbooks, many of which influenced home cooking in Mississippi.

Haley sees the collection as a valuable resource not only for historians but also culinary professionals, sociologists, nutritionists—and everyone else.

“If you want to know how to cook bread, we have all the major and recent works on cooking bread,” Haley said. “We have classic works on French and American cooking. It’s a resource for anyone who cares about food.

“Even if all you want is to find your grandmother’s recipe you remember her making, you should come here, look at all the cookbooks we have from [her] community and see if it shows up.”

The collection may be viewed by the public any day but Sunday at McCain Library and Archives on the USM campus.

Dozens of the copyright-free community cookbooks can also be viewed online and downloaded free from the University Libraries website. Work is ongoing to digitize more cookbooks for the site.

“I think that the cookbook collection and its popularity have surpassed our expectations,” Brannock said. “At first, I thought that it would be a great collecting area that would support the research of Andrew and his students. Once we got deep into collecting the cookbooks, I realized that we were the largest cookbook collection in the state.

“The interest from community groups like DAR chapters, historical societies and other groups reflected the interest in cookbooks in the state and how many people wanted to make sure that these cookbooks were preserved,” Brannock said.

“We’re doing this to help Mississippians hang on to something that’s precious,” Haley said.

To view complete digital versions of more than 90 community cookbooks, go to Click on Digital Collections and Mississippiana Digital Collection. Search for “community cookbooks.”


Don’t toss out those old community cookbooks!

Donating them to McCain Library and Archives at the University of Southern Mississippi helps preserve and share Mississippi’s culinary heritage.

Andrew Haley, USM associate professor of American cultural history, has these four titles on his “wish list” of yet-to-find community cookbooks:

• The Twentieth Century Cook Book, 1902, Young Woman’s Guild of St. James’ Episcopal Church, Greenville
• Newton Cook Book, 1903, Presbyterian Church Ladies Aid Society, Newton
• Power School Cook Book, 1950?, Power School, Jackson
• Kosciusko Cooking for Everyday and Sunday Too, 1950s?, Kosciusko Garden Club, Koscuisko

To donate cookbooks, contact Jennifer Brannock, USM’s curator of Rare Books and Mississippiana, at 601-266-4347.

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