Church Cookbooks As A Recipe For Community Building
Image Credit: One notable example of church cookbooks is the Lutheran Women's cookbook from 1975

THE second half of the 20th century witnessed a captivating culinary phenomenon across the Western world — an upsurge in community cookbooks, particularly those curated by women's organisations affiliated with religious institutions. These cookbooks, which have been in circulation since the era of the American Civil War, transcend their role as mere compilations of recipes. They function as profound tools for fostering community cohesion, while accentuating the material, gustatory, domestic, and creative aspects of the culinary arts.

One notable example is the Lutheran Church Women's cookbook from 1975, which emerged as a response to the feminist movement that, in the eyes of these women, tended to devalue their roles as homemakers and caretakers. Positioned as a celebration of the knowledge and experience entailed in nourishing a family, this cookbook not only raised funds for the church but also served as a poignant reminder of the women's identities and cherished values.

Although the women involved in the Lutheran Church Women's group adopted behaviours aligned with feminist principles—such as collective organisation and the cultivation of creativity—it is crucial to discern that their goals and ideology differed significantly. They chose to embrace and celebrate traditional gender roles, emphasising the virtues of nurturing and maintaining a household. Consequently, the production of community cookbooks, including the aforementioned example, can be perceived as an expression of agency and resistance to prevailing gender norms. Nevertheless, their approach does not necessarily involve direct challenge or opposition to the dominant ideology.


In essence, community cookbooks serve as platforms for women's communities to express their collective tastes and create a profound sense of belonging. While individual contributors utilise taste as a means to position themselves within their immediate social circles, the cookbooks as a whole are authored or edited by groups or committees. These cookbooks transcend the promotion of religious beliefs, often dedicating their proceeds to charitable causes and addressing the diverse needs of their communities.

Within the cultural context of church cookbooks, the significance of communities and racial identities is greatly intensified, giving rise to a complex tapestry of identity, history, and cultural transmission. Race, as a potent marker of identification throughout American history, includes several ever-shifting meanings based on factors such as genealogy, politics, pigmentation, language, geographical location, and legal frameworks. In community cookbooks, racial identities interweave with notions of identity, otherness, familial connections, moral propriety, ethical behaviour, civilisation, and cultural continuity.

These cookbooks serve as tangible and textual records that amplify, communicate, and compartmentalise the boundaries of racial identities. By incorporating food as a core element of identity, they communalise taste at a profound sociopolitical level, offering a potential resolution to the intricate conflation of ethnicity, religious tradition, skin colour, and history inherent in the concept of race. The communalisation of taste within these cookbooks not only replicates but also offers a provisional resolution to the complexities surrounding racial identity.


The collectivist nature of race is vividly expressed and recorded through these cookbooks. Some cookbooks focus on specific family lineages, meticulously tracing genealogies and sharing recipes as a means of consolidating familial identity and transmitting the history of a family through culinary traditions. Other community cookbooks encompass broader racial categories, such as Jewish community cookbooks that seamlessly intertwine race and ethnicity, thereby reinforcing Jewishness as both a historical and racialised identity. These cookbooks skillfully narrate recipes, intertwining them with references to familial relations, significant events, prayers, and dietary laws, all of which serve to reaffirm racial and cultural continuity.

In the United States, cultural identities and racial identities are intrinsically intertwined, often serving as substitutes for one another. The connection between food practices and these identities is widely acknowledged in community cookbooks, which offer glimpses into the social, economic, and political complexities surrounding race and its manifestation in everyday life. While some cookbooks unknowingly bolster ideologies of white supremacy by reinforcing stereotypes and hierarchies, others explicitly acknowledge the importance of racial and cultural heritage, carefully charting the role of food as a vessel for history, tradition, and culture within specific communities.

Furthermore, community cookbooks are reflective of class distinctions within society. Privileged groups often publish cookbooks that mirror their lifestyle and social standing, featuring extravagant ingredients, elegant presentations, and an emphasis on the art of entertaining. These cookbooks serve as aspirational guides for their readers, offering glimpses into the opulent and refined world of the upper classes.


Conversely, cookbooks created by working-class or marginalised groups address practical needs, economic constraints, and cultural preservation. They prioritise affordability, utilising readily available ingredients and emphasising the resourcefulness required to prepare nourishing meals on a limited budget. These cookbooks play a crucial role in preserving cultural heritage and transmitting knowledge from one generation to the next, ensuring that traditional recipes and cooking techniques are not lost over time.

Ultimately, community cookbooks serve as fascinating chronicles of the evolving dynamics of class, race, and gender in society. They offer valuable insights into domestic life, cultural practices, and changing societal norms. These cookbooks encompass a broad range of recipes contributed by individuals, showcasing regional specificity, genealogy, and the merging of social history with geography.

The recipes within these cookbooks evoke a profound sense of mass identities in a particular region, referencing historical development and evoking sensory memories. They celebrate the culinary traditions that have shaped aboriginal communities and reveal the diverse influences that have contributed to the formation of regional cuisines.

While community cookbooks often reflect a domestic ideology, they are also repurposed for various ends, aligning with dominant narratives and asserting distinct class and racial identities. They serve as modes of collective resistance, affirming the value of women's work and communicating overlooked knowledge. These cookbooks empower readers to selectively engage in the self-development of community, embracing the complexities and intensities that align with individual preferences.