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The rise of the humble community cookbook

They tell us, “You are not alone. Others have been here before.” That's exactly what we need these days.

Last week, a distant cousin of mine posted a picture of her old “More With Less” cookbook on Facebook. She asked friends to comment on what their favorite recipes are. She soon had more than 30 responses, including one from me, because this is a cookbook that everyone with Mennonite heritage has on their shelf. There's such an expectation to own this cookbook that, in a Mennonite church where I worked as secretary long ago, it was the default wedding shower gift to all young couples. (For baby showers it was a quilt.)

The More With Less cookbook is beloved beyond the Mennonite community, to which its 4.25-star reviews on Goodreads can attest. It's a fine example of a community-created cookbook, containing recipes that were submitted by home cooks from across the U.S., as well as many who were working abroad for Mennonite Central Committee, the NGO that commissioned its publication by Herald Press in 1976.

The everlasting appeal of the recipes never fails to astonish me. Some are seriously dated (Clam Whiffle or DIY Cheez Whiz, anyone?), but others are eternally useful, as the commenters on my cousin's post revealed. Baked lentils with cheese. Pakistani kima. West African groundnut stew. Spicy split pea soup. Basic biscuits. Apple crisp. Whole-wheat buttermilk pancakes. Oatmeal bread (a.k.a. the loaf of bread I'll never stop baking). These are the same recipes that I turn to day after day because they're so simple and satisfying. I know that, no matter how few ingredients I have on hand, there will always be a recipe in More With Less that I can make.

More With Less pages© K Martinko – My family's favorite pancake recipe, used every weekend

It is this radical simplicity that makes community cookbooks so appealing, especially in strange times like these. The New York Times writes, “In an age of celebrity chefs, glossy coffee-table books and multimedia cooking websites, the community cookbook may seem an anachronism, a dog-eared remnant of church suppers and Junior League fund-raisers.” But in fact, it is precisely what we need. We crave a sense of connection with others, recipes that don't call for anything fancy, and menus that are quicker to prepare because we're definitely feeling some cooking fatigue from the sheer number of meals we're making at home.

These community cookbooks make us feel closer to others. I like seeing the names in mine, especially when they're people I've known. With books like More With Less, the names of strangers and their accompanying recipe anecdotes have become familiar over time and lead me to wonder who they were. For example, why was Holly Yoder making cheese pizza over a charcoal brazier in Zambia in the 1970s? How did Jennifer Kennedy end up in Nunavut, in Canada's High Arctic, where she served baked lentils with cheese to her Inuit friends alongside caribou stew and arctic char?

I never have these thoughts when flipping through a professional cookbook because there's nothing to imagine beyond a sterile professional kitchen – other than perhaps the idea that this person knows a lot more about cooking than I do, and how will I ever recreate those perfect images?! (Printed community cookbooks generally have no images, which means no pressure to make it look a certain way.)

Lindsey's community cookbooks© Lindsey Reynolds – Another TreeHugger staffer's collection of community cookbooks

The pandemic is spawning a new generation of community cookbooks, as the Times article reveals, often in the form of Google docs and PDFs shared among coworkers, social groups, and family members. Just like the older books, these new iterations cause us to think about one another and feel a warm sense of connection, despite physical distance. Justina Santa Cruz, a 30-year-old woman in Minneapolis, is compiling a Google document of her Filipino-American family's favorite recipes during this time of isolation. She told the New York Times that “many cookbooks ‘have such a stringent point of view… It is not a conversation.' Compiling her family’s recipes, on the other hand, has spurred lively discussions. The process feels more intimate.”

Other new versions of community cookbooks include ones compiled by social workers trying to maintain connections with clients they cannot meet face-to-face; a Seattle women's choir striving to maintain contact with each other and get to know each other better through food; numerous friend groups who are learning new cooking skills and needing some support and guidance; and unemployed bartenders in San Francisco trying to make cocktail hour accessible to people stuck at home.

What makes these community cookbooks so special is that they de-glamorize cooking and make it accessible. They tell us, “You are not alone. Others have been here before.” And those are words we need to hear more than ever these days. If you don't own any community cookbooks, I urge you to look for some. Call a local church or service group to see if they've ever made one as a fundraiser. Ask your parents or relatives if they've got some old ones gathering dust, or put the question to friends on Facebook. Order More With Less online (yes, you can still get it).

Then start cooking, honing your skills, repeating favorite recipes, until you know what you'd contribute if asked to help make a community cookbook. These are the kinds of back-pocket recipes that make one feel truly confident in the kitchen.

They tell us, “You are not alone. Others have been here before.” That's exactly what we need these days.