Saturday, September 13, 2008

Cookbooks Rich in the Tradition and Culture of Community

(My monthly column for Heartland Women)
September 2008

Back in August, just as I was pondering new recipes to tempt you, I got a tip from Chanda, my editor at Heartland Women, that September was National Chicken Month. “OK,” I said. I already had an idea about a topic, but I decided it would be easy enough to tie it in with chicken recipes. But then I began to wonder about National This Day and National That Month and was curious to see if there was anything else I should know about food for September.

With just a few keystrokes, I was speeding through cyberspace in search of food facts. Now here comes the problem. Sometimes Googling is an amazing help to writers . . . so much so, that we find ourselves in over our heads. Do you know there is a National Something Food Day for every single day of the month? And four National Food Weeks? And no less than seven National Food Months? Neither did I!

What’s a girl to do? My job is to synthesize all this information for busy readers. Would it be possible to spare you the endless hours of searching for just the right dishes for ALL of these special meals? Where could I find enough recipes for such a diverse month?

If cooks used organic flour to make biscuits, would that take care of celebrating National Biscuit Month and National Organic Harvest Month? Was it over the top to pour on some gravy to cover Biscuit and Gravy week too?

I wasn’t sure I could even hit another food trifecta like that in the same month, but I was beginning to relish the challenge. Let’s see, Better Breakfast Month, National Waffle Week and Drink Beer Day . . . no, that wasn’t going to work! Better to just try to reduce this culinary dilemma to a manageable few by some other method.

The next challenge was where to find so many recipes. As most of you know by now, my cookbook collection is . . . well . . . rather extensive. But I don’t care how many books I have on my shelves there are those certain “go to” books that always seem to provide quick and easy crowd-pleasing recipes. Just the kind of recipes that are perfect for cooks challenged by changing seasons, busy back to school schedules, and events honoring the odd celebratory food of the day or week.

Thanks goodness, I’ve always had a soft spot for this genre known as community cookbooks. You know which ones I’m talking about. Churches, schools, civic organizations and charities sell these books to fund their good works. Recipes are usually collected from the group’s members and friends, and center on home and family meals that are familiar and comfortable to everyone. Real recipes for real people.

Community cookbooks first appeared around the time of the Civil War, when they were published by churchwomen wanting to raise money to help wounded soldiers and their families. Since then, when faced with the prospect of raising funds, whether for a church group, a civic group, or any other variety of organization, women turned to creating cookbooks. As homemakers, it was something they knew a lot about.

These days, the Junior League is the recognized leader in producing community cookbooks, selling more than 20,000,000 copies since 1943, through their nationwide network of clubs. With more than 200 titles currently in print, they are by far the most professional looking books, often with hard covers and colorful artwork or photography. Proceeds from the sales of Junior League books support local charities.

Another very popular style of community cookbook comes from Southern Living, especially the annual editions of a year’s worth of recipes from the magazine. Southern Living magazine is a recognized institution in homes across the southern tier of states, and many further north. Although these are professionally published, vs. the classic self-published fund-raising books, they still feature recipes submitted by faithful readers and homemakers and, as such, provide a look into the tastes and traditions of families and communities across the region.

In fact, it is this cultural perspective that makes community cookbooks so valuable, especially to collectors. Not only do they provide a rich collection of recipes for the cooks who purchase them, they reveal the effects of social, cultural, economic and political events on real people. Recipes are geared toward family or group meals, things you would take to a covered dish supper – good basic comfort food that consoles the bereaved, welcomes new neighbors, nourishes sick friends, and lends a hand to busy households.

My very favorite community cookbooks are the ones put together by small groups and sold directly or, perhaps, in small shops within the community. It is a treat to discover how several cooks will vary their ingredients or techniques, ever so slightly, for what is essentially the same dish, often with charming little notes added for clarification. And, of course, every variation is included and credited in the cookbook! Reading someone’s name below an entry gives you a sense of connection, almost as if you are in her kitchen, sharing a day in her life.

For those of us who love to cook and love to share recipes with friends, being able to contribute to a community cookbook is an honor. Who doesn’t like to see her name in print? So the next time you are offered a cookbook from a civic or church group, consider all that you will be getting in that small book. I’ve just sent some recipes to my friend, Libba, for her church’s newest cookbook. I can’t wait to get my copy, so I can learn more about the people Libba knows, the history of her church, the culture of her community, and a lot of good recipes from women doing what comes naturally – feeding their families and friends, and lending a hand to help others.

OK, now where was I? Oh, yes! Here are some chicken recipes for National Chicken Month and a few other special food days in September.

I’ve saved these recipes through the years by reading and collecting community cookbooks and most are quick and easy. You won’t see any credit given to a particular cookbook or cook because, of course, I have taken them into my home kitchen and made them my own. Most of these recipes were inspired from books given to me as farewell gifts when the Air Force would move us from one place to another. Those community cookbooks are dear to me because they represent my history – a place where I belonged, if even for a brief time, and where friends extended me a helping hand.

National Chicken Month
National Biscuit Month

6 boneless chicken breasts
6 c. chicken broth
1 pkg. (16 oz.) frozen mixed vegetables
1/2 c. butter
1/2 c. flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
1/2 tsp. thyme
1/2 tsp. poultry seasoning
2 c. Bisquick
1 c. sour cream
1/2 c. grated sharp cheddar cheese
2 tbsp. snipped chives

Pour chicken broth into large saucepan or Dutch oven. Add chicken breasts and some water to cover, if necessary. Bring chicken breasts to a boil; cover pan, turn off heat and allow chicken to sit for 10 minutes. Remove chicken breasts and cool. Turn heat up to medium-high and reduce chicken broth to 4 c. (32 oz.). Chop chicken breasts into large bite-size pieces and set aside. Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium heat and add salt, pepper, thyme and poultry seasoning. Whisk in flour and continue to cook for 1 minute. Slowly add reduced chicken broth to butter-flour mixture, stirring until well blended. Bring chicken broth mixture to a boil over medium-high heat and stir until thickened. Add frozen mixed vegetables and chicken to sauce mixture and stir to blend. Pour chicken mixture into a greased baking dish. Preheat oven to 350 degrees while making biscuits. In a medium bowl, stir together Bisquick, sour cream, cheese and snipped chives. Place dough on floured surface and knead briefly. Roll or pat to desired thickness – about 1/2” is good – and place biscuits on top of chicken mixture. Brush melted butter on tops of biscuits, if desired. Bake until biscuits are nicely browned on top and sauce is bubbly. Serves 8 – 10.


Betty said...

This looks so good I will have to try this soon I hope! Your the best!!!

Cora said...

Thanks so much - hope you like it! I've also made it with Parmesan cheese in the biscuits and that's good too.