Say hello to the newest addition to my collection, Your Neighbors’ Secret Recipes compiled by the Annual Staff Members Production Class of Prescott, Washington, in 1973.
Many church and civic groups have compiled cookbooks for fundraising purposes, often from publishers’ templates. Recipe categories are preset. Printers add filler – kitchen tips, weights and measures, temperature charts. The books tend to have colorful comb or spiral bindings and jaunty covers illustrated with pictures of churches or vegetables.
This is not that kind of community cookbook. The pages are mimeographed on mint green paper, and the recipes sections are separated by manila dividers with plastic tabs. Someone had to type each of the recipe categories and insert them into the tabs by hand. Someone had to run off all the copies, and bind each book. Someone took the time to make an index. This is truly the work of a community of cooks. I suspect that only a limited number were produced, perhaps going no farther than members of the production class.
The front page of the book provides directions:
Open cover and read directions carefully – sit back and accept the compliments which are sure to follow.
What I love about community cookbooks is they include recipes that cooks used. Recipes in cookbooks and magazines are interesting, but it’s hard to know if people cooked those recipes. I’ve seen many “gross” vintage recipes on the internet, but what posters fail to remember is that just because Skippy and Hellman’s advertised peanut butter and mayo sandwiches, doesn’t mean that people actually ate them. Advertisers are always trying to sell their products, but consumers don’t always bite (pun intended).
As a historian, I need more information before I can pronounce peanut butter and mayo sandwiches, or any recipe, a “thing.” I have to ask more questions. How often does a recipe show up in advertisements or cookbooks? Which pages of the cookbook show signs of use? Do families have memories of preparing or eating those dishes? Which recipes made the leap from magazine page to recipe card or community cookbook? The recipes in community cookbooks tend to be things that people actually made. These are the dishes that showed up at potlucks, barbeques, and bake-sales; the ones that people make for company or to share with neighbors in time of need.
While some recipes in community cookbooks are likely family recipes or original cook’s creations, many are not. One of your neighbors’ secrets is that she used recipes from magazines, product labels, and cookbooks. Often in the transition from page to recipe card, the originator of the recipe becomes lost. Let’s say Jane Doe brings a lemon cake to every potluck. In the community, that becomes known as Jane’s cake. No one, maybe not even Jane herself, remembers or knows that the original recipe came from a flour label or a newspaper clipping. When she gives someone the recipe, her name is going to be filled into the space on the recipe card next to “from the kitchen of.”
Case in point – Your Neighbors’ Secret Recipes contains two recipes for “Fudge Sundae Pie.” Both versions nearly identical.
- Melt together 1 c. evaporated milk, 6oz. chocolate chips, 1 c. miniature marshmallows, and ¼ tsp. salt
- Line a pie pan with vanilla wafers.
- Spread wafers with 1 quart of vanilla ice cream.
- Spread cooled chocolate mixture on top of ice cream.
- Freeze for 3-5 hours.
- Melt together 1 c. PET evaporated milk, 6oz. chocolate chips, 1 c. miniature marshmallows, and ¼ tsp. salt
- Line a pie pan with vanilla wafers.
- Spread wafers with 1/2 quart of vanilla ice cream.
- Spread half of cooled chocolate mixture on top of ice cream.
- Spread wafers with remaining ½ quart of vanilla ice cream.
- Spread on remaining chocolate mixture.
- Top with pecans.
- Freeze for 3-5 hours.
Notice that the ingredients are identical, except that the second version specifics PET evaporated milk. That is my first clue that this recipe probably came from a PET label or advertisement. In version 1, the cook specifies one layer of ice cream, one layer of chocolate, and no pecans, while version 2 has more layers and nuts.
After a little searching, I found a PET Evaporated Milk advertising campaign titled “Start Cooking with a Golden Spoon” from the early 1960s. This ad campaign featured recipes such as Cherry Cloud Pie, Pumpkin Pie, Smothered Chicken, Creamy Chiffon Whip, and, you guessed it, Fudge Sundae Pie made with PET Evaporated Milk, all photographed on a golden background and a large golden spoon in the foreground. This dates the recipe as early as 1962, at least eleven years before the publication of Your Neighbors’ Secret Recipes. According to PET’s website, the company opened their test kitchen to develop recipes in the 1950s. Many companies had their own test kitchens to not only ensure quality and develop new products, but to demonstrate the use of their products and drive sales. Tasty new recipes might tempt consumers to buy more PET milk. 1962 is a reasonable date for the creation of this recipe since test kitchens tended to update advertised recipes on a regular basis.
The two versions in Your Neighbors’ Secret Recipes show how recipes evolve over time and with use. Version 2 remains true to the PET advertisement. It specifies PET milk, and it includes the extra layers and pecans, identical to the ad recipe. With some further research, it might be possible find out if the recipe appears anywhere besides the advertisement, such as on a label or in a recipe pamphlet. The cook was either very precise about writing down the recipe, or, more likely, she cut it out.
Version 1 has evolved, taking on a life of its own. Perhaps the cook’s family didn’t like pecans, so she left them out. Maybe she forgot to write down the precise steps of the layers, or maybe she decided it wasn’t worth the bother. The pie will taste fine either way.
As recipes pass from person to person, their provenance is often lost. The recipe for Fudge Sundae Pie is not on PET Milk’s current website, but I found identical recipes on at least four other food blogs, none of which attribute the recipe to PET Milk. This is not unusual. Origins of recipes become murky as they’re passed from person to person like a game of telephone. It is quite possible that the PET Milk recipe developers in the 1960s were inspired by, or borrowed, other existing recipes.