The skinny on the subject of church cookbooks - Jan 2009
It occurs to me that some people are maybe not familiar with the concept of the church cookbook. I'm sure that the tradition sprung from the habit of church pot lucks. Church pot lucks are also something rarer nowadays, but when I was growing up, they were a staple...especially here in the midwest.
At the church pot luck there would be a proliferation of potato salad, pasta salad, Jello salad (there are 12,583,245 different variations of Jello salad dishes and every one that winds up at the pot luck will contain crushed pineapple - ick) and casseroles. We love our casseroles.
All the church ladies (I'm not being politically incorrect, the women overwhelmingly cooked for these) would have special knitted or sewn thermal cozies for whatever dish they brought. They mostly also had address labels on their dishes. Whether this was a matter of pride (as in, "I want them to know this Jello salad is MY recipe!") or a matter of thrift (as in, "I better get my good Pyrex baking dish back!) I know not.
Our natural inclination would be to eat what Mom brought, but my mom would always make four-bean salad and rice pudding and I don't like either of those. When I saw the preparation going on in the kitchen, I knew the next day was pot luck day.
The cleverer consumer would scope out the pot luck table looking for things made by people that we knew didn't let their 6 pet dogs eat from containers of human food in their kitchens. "Oh, there's Mrs. Allendale's goulash...she's pretty clean."
Women also played it close to the vest when it came to giving out instructions and now I know why. It's because other cooks will still blatantly steal your recipe and call it their own. Then it winds up in the church cookbook as "Chicken and Wild Rice Salad" submitted by Edith Wilson. Sure, she looks benevolent enough sitting in church on Sunday, but she'll steal your signature dish right out from under you and there's nothing you can do but quietly stew.
YOUR secret...grapes, water chestnuts and the tiniest bit of curry powder, CLAIMED by that cunning woman and brazenly placed in "Feeding the Flock - recipes from the congregation of Second Presbyterian Church" with her name, bold as you please, right under it!
So, here's what you do if you are chased by the church lady horde trying to get a recipe out of you. You say, "Oh, there's no recipe, I just throw in a little bit of this and a little bit of that." They won't believe you, but they'll stop dogging you. It's a great poker bluff and they'll respect you for it. Or, if you're feeling particularly feisty, you can play the "bait and switch bitch" and tell them that the secret to your mouth-watering lasagne is 1 cup of anchovy paste, spread thinly, fourth layer from the top.
You might even ask, "Hey, are we assembling the church cook book? I have some recipes I'd LOVE to submit!"...then write out the cold hard facts of how you made the "Cheezy Chicken Orzo with Peppers and Broccoli" and make sure everyone knows it's your invention. That leaves Edith nothing to do but suck sullenly on her dentures looking for other innocent prey:
"Say, child, HOW ever did you make that chicken casserole taste SO good? Do I detect a little nutmeg? You know, I'd just LOVE your recipe! Here, I even have an index card and a pen!"