“These books sort of appear at moments in history or around social organizations,” Sarah Whitman-Salkin of Classics Cookbooks tells me, of politically tinged cookbooks. Whether it was women’s suffrage or the anti–Vietnam War movement or the eco-minded ’70s, cookbooks reflected the cultural causes of their times.
“The thing about cookbooks is that they are first and foremost a historical document,” she says, reminding us that even the “garbage” that you might see coming out now reflects our attitudes toward food, gender and the general state of things. Here, a starter list in her words for anyone interested in how we can learn how to read the past as we cook in the present.
Want to support a local business when shopping for these books? Check out our guide to New York City’s cookbook stores written by Whitman-Salkin herself.
A Domestic Cook Book and What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking
When slavery ended, a number of cookbooks were written by freed black women in the 1860s and early 1880s, primarily as money-making endeavors—but they served a larger purpose of “proving” that black women had valuable knowledge to share. One from 1866 is A Domestic Cook Book by Melinda Russell. She moved from Tennessee to Michigan, and once she was in Michigan, she was so entrepreneurial and wrote this book as a way to raise money to get back to Tennessee. Another one from that era is called What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking by Abby Fisher. She couldn’t read or write. She’d moved from Mobile, Alabama, to San Francisco and built a community around her that helped her write down these recipes as a means of raising money for her family. It’s extraordinary.
The Woman Suffrage Cookbook and The Suffrage Cook Book
There were a lot of books that came out in the late 1880s and early 1900s around suffrage. There’s one from 1886 called The Woman Suffrage Cookbook by Hattie Burr and in 1915 there was another called The Suffrage Cook Book, edited by L.O. Kleber. These were books that did a number of things: They raised money for the movement, but they were also tools that women were using in the name of organizing.
Here you have a tool for women to network with each other and learn how to sell advertising—things women really weren’t doing at the turn of the 20th century. Additionally, a cookbook was an interesting thing for suffrage because, like so many women’s movements, it was spearheaded by women of privilege, upper-class women and women of means who could afford to pay someone to take care of their children while they went out and protested. But the cookbook actually helps to communicate with women across class lines, because at the end of the day, these women were also responsible for feeding their families. So the recipes are pretty straight-forward—brown bread, roast beef, apple pudding—and also include tips for housekeeping, like how to remove mildew and kill ants.
Peace de Resistance
After suffrage, it wasn’t really until the ‘70s that more explicitly politically minded cookbooks started coming out. Then there was a range of cookbooks on a range of issues.
In the 1960s, there was a group called Women Strike for Peace, founded by Bella Abzug and Dagmar Wilson to protest the Vietnam War and specifically to support nuclear disarmament. They were a really effective organizing group and in 1961 gathered 50,000 women to march in 60 cities across the U.S.—one of the largest national peace protests in the 20th century. Their cookbook, Peace de Resistance, is both practical and very tongue-in-cheek. There are basic recipes for salads and meatloaf and brownies. And there are also recipes of the era, like a recipe for something called Mary’s Mishmash which sounds pretty gross—it’s just putting all this canned shit in a casserole dish. But the premise is, “Did you rush off to demonstrate with such enthusiasm that you forgot to take something out of the freezer for dinner?” There’s a lot of that kind of language in there. Because the issues facing women who were protesting in the ‘70s weren’t really that different than for women who were protesting for suffrage: these were still middle-class white women and they still had to feed their families.
Diet for a Small Planet
When Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore came out it was one of the first environmental activism books that made an impact. It sold so many copies (3 million to date), which was extraordinary for the time. Basically it argues that meat production is deeply harmful to the environment and is a drain on resources, and ultimately we have larger systemic problems when it comes to thinking about food choices. She includes a lot of recipes for a vegetarian diet, and takes a different approach to vegetarian cooking than we see today. She had something called “protein complementarity,” where she spends time convincing people that they can get enough protein without eating meat, because people just didn’t think that you could be ok without eating meat. That feels sort of dated in a way, to think about that kind of substitution. Now if you eat a primarily plant-based diet that doesn’t confuse anyone. But this was one of the first books to come out of the counterculture that changed how people thought about the intersection of environmental health, personal health and public policy. It takes the personal-political to a very body-based, specific place.
The Political Palate
This book is by the Bloodroot Collective, a lesbian feminist vegetarian cooperative restaurant in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The staunch feminism that they embody is maybe politically passé in today’s “lean in” culture, but it was so essential in the late 1970s. Their restaurant was a place where likeminded women could gather and eat and talk, and their seasonal, culturally diverse recipes reflect that ethos of collaboration, thoughtfulness, and justice—that’s where the vegetarianism comes from. I’m trying to track down a copy for my own collection, and in my search I came across an Amazon review that gave it one star and said, “I don’t want to read erotic lesbian literature—much less in a cookbook.” And I’m like, “I so want to read erotic lesbian literature, especially in a cookbook from the ‘80s!”