I’m convinced that anyone who can lift a 20-pound roasting pan and toss it in the general direction of an oven can cook a decent turkey. It is, after all, just an oversized chicken. But on Thanksgiving, it’s the poultry diva attracting all the attention and anxiety from nervous, hand-wringing cooks.
On my Thanksgiving plate, prime real estate is reserved for the side dishes, not the bird. This year, I’ve decided to forgo my usual search through glossy food magazines for the newest, trendiest Thanksgiving recipes. I’ll no longer be swayed by the promise that goat cheese in the mashed potatoes or turmeric in the green-bean casserole are just the touches I need. Instead, I’m heading to my secret arsenal of side-dish superiority: my church lady cookbooks.
I started collecting these gems a few years ago. The first one I got was from St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in East Providence, R.I. How this 1970 culinary gem found its way 1,376 miles west to a garage sale in Minneapolis remains a mystery, but it offers a glimpse into a past where every organization had its own cookbook, typed by volunteers and run off on mimeograph machines.
Reading the names of the Cook Book Committee, I wondered if Suzanne, Helen, Evelyn and Nancy were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, or were thrilled by this 200-page logistical nightmare/incredible honor.
The names of the contributors are like a roll call of ladies who, wherever they are now, are still wearing chiffon headscarves to keep their bouffant hairdos in place: Gladys, Edna, Mae, Bertha, Dorothy, Mabel, Hazel and Marjorie. And, this being 1970, there are many women with no names to call their own, like Mrs. Arthur Salve (Franks and Corn Bread Casserole) or Mrs. Frederick Hauck (Spiced Pineapple).
The cookbook contains recipes for yeast breads, pickles, preserves and relishes, including endless variations (both in ingredients and spelling) for Piccalilli and Chowchow. Also, tellingly, there is no section 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.
After that first acquisition, I began to pay closer attention at garage sales, and I’ve since picked up cookbooks from the Sunshine Homemakers of Little Falls and Pierz, Minn., the Women of the Moose from Burnett County, Wis., Sacred Heart Parish in Monticello, Iowa, and an optimistically noted “first edition” from the “Evening Division,” whatever that is, of the Granby, Mass., Women’s Club.
My absolute favorite find was the 1962 Guild Committee Cookbook from St. Wenceslaus Parish in Spillville, Iowa. The book includes such treats as Hash Hot Dish (Mrs. William Polansky), Creamed Green Beans (Mrs. George Klimesh) and Snappy Tomatoes (Mrs. Cyril Frana).
The best part, though, is the reproduction of a letter sent from the White House by the First Lady’s social secretary, Letitia Baldrige, to Mrs. Fred N. Kala, Box 116, sending along two of Mrs. Kennedy’s favorite recipes: New England Fish Chowder and Crème Brulee.
Flipping through the pages in search of homespun sides I could prepare for this year’s Thanksgiving meal, I found some real doozies: If you’re wondering why Ruth H. Zeissig (Mrs. Frank) had such a great Sweet Potato Casserole, I think it wasn’t just the marshmallows on top, but the ½ cup of sherry inside.
I couldn’t find a single recipe that called for kale, but Mrs. John Walter shared a dynamite recipe for Baked Lima Beans (including half a pound of bacon, yum) and Mrs. Warren Johnson (Kenosha, Wis.) offered up Celery Cashew Casserole, which would, I’m pretty sure, be the only dish with those ingredients at the family potluck.
I’ll admit that I couldn’t find a mention of endive or frisée in any of the salad sections. But as long as I stock up on cottage cheese, cabbage, pecans, pimento cheese, macaroni, sauerkraut, Jell-O, marshmallows and cream cheese (sometimes all in the same dish, or close to it), my salads will be noteworthy, if not especially nutritious.
With wonderfully retro recipes like these, it’s going to be hard to find room on my plate for the turkey. And that’s just the way I like it.
Julie Kendrick is a local freelance writer whose spirit animal is a can of cream of mushroom soup. Follow her on Twitter: @KendrickWorks