The cookbook I am holding is old. It is every hometown recipe book you’ve ever seen. Spiral bound, thick, stained, and there is a sketch on the cover featuring stately oaks draping over a shaded street.
Inside are the four gospels: church food, wedding food, funeral food, and congealed salads.
You won’t find many things holier than these recipes. They are American history, described in standard measurement form.
I once knew an old Sunday school teacher who made buttermilk pie that made grown men loosen their neckties. Once, at a Fourth of July supper, she gave me a slice and told me:
“God wants all his children to be a little soft in the middle.”
And I’ve always believed that.
This particular cookbook I am holding, however, comes from the Brewton Civic League. The recipes within are everything you need to find a happy life.
Cheese grits, Squirrel D’ete, Congealed Cantaloupe Salad, mint juleps, Miss Paula’s pickled shrimp, and Coca-Cola salad—whatever that is.
None of them use the word “margarine,” but “Oleo.” And in this book, you will also find the secret to perfect fried chicken—peanut oil and Jesus.
You will discover that measurements are open to loose interpretation. A “handful” here, a “passel” there. A “dash,” a “pinch,” a “dusting,” or a “touch.”
Also, there are a dozen variations of chicken-broccoli casserole. Though, the only discernible differences are the varying amounts of cheese.
In this book you will find the exact deviled eggs approved by the Methodist church.
But anyway, I have a long history with homemade cookbooks. In fact, the article you’re reading was typed on a manual typewriter that once typed a similar cookbook.
Many moons ago, I typed 418 recipes using only my index fingers. The recipes were then fed through a Xerox machine which resided in the church office.
After that, the finished recipes were placed into position based on pure favoritism according Mrs. Bellmaker. And a cookbook was born.
The women’s Baptist Bible study group reimbursed me 4 dollars for the sleepless hours of work I put into it. And it was a pleasure.
Some younger people might not remember this, but long ago, recipes were not handed down to us by former celebrities with TV cooking shows. Our recipes came from white-haired oracles who knew how to pronounce “ambrosia,” and could make white barbecue sauce with a blindfold on.
These women could transform cholesterol and bleached flour into miracles. Women like my mother, who could use simple ingredients to cure everything from malaria to a broken heart.
They showed their affection in calories. With this fare they could give you the courage to ask Laney Tyler to the dance, or instill within you the confidence to try out for the baseball team.
In my life, I cannot recall an afternoon that my mother didn’t dirty a kitchen counter. And if I had room in this column, I could replay for you my whole life, one dish at a time.
Mama’s ham-hock-and-navy-bean soup, the drop biscuits she prepared when she was in a hurry and didn’t have time to roll any, her homemade bread.
I will forever recall the sweetness of the chocolate cakes she made for my birthdays, and how every year she would decorate them with Superman insignias until I was 35 years old.
These are holy women. They will mash potatoes if they see you wearing a frown. Before they leave town to visit their dying aunt, they will place foil-wrapped casseroles in the freezer.
Freely, they leave us their wisdom in nondescript cookbooks, similar to the one I am holding.
The book belongs to my wife, but it sits above our oven for quick reference. Time has faded the cover. Inside are the secrets to the universe, the key to happiness, to love, to life, and the pathway to type-2 diabetes.
I flipped through the pages just before writing this. I found Triple Orange Ambrosia, Red Beans and Rabbit, Miss Genie’s Crack-a-Lackin’ Cheese Biscuits, Miss Ruby Hagood’s Old-Fashioned Tea Cakes.
I will never be able to taste them all, but I can hold them in my hand, and I can think of the matriarchs who have gone to the other side.
Also, I can remember a boy who believed in food so much that he once typed 418 recipes for a bunch of beautiful white-haired cheapskates who only paid him 4 lousy bucks.
But that boy is not complaining. No. It was worth it. For books like these are not just old recipes, you see.
They are proof that God wants all his children to be a little soft in the middle.
Steve Winfield - March 17, 2019 6:44 am
I’ve bought a few. My favorite cookbook I got by mailing in UPCs from Marlboro packs. Line Dancers Chili. It’s awesome. I like being the first comment. Love you!
Nell Thomas - March 17, 2019 6:55 am
Great story. I will think about it everytime I thumb through to find “Big Mama’s Meat Loaf. “
Jill - March 17, 2019 7:31 am
Mine is moss green and says Locust Grove Baptist Church on the cover. My grandmother’s Sunday School class wrote it over 50 years ago and my book came into my possession as a wedding gift. I read the names and still see the faces of my grandmother’s friends who each had her specialty. We called them the Sunday School Brigade. If either of my grandparents became ill, hospitalized and yes, finally at their deaths, these fine women mobilized with the efficiency of Charlie Company at Fort Jackson. They cooked, cleaned and comforted whenever called upon. These women lived the church. I remember them fondly and wished I had such stalwart friends now- not to mention my grandmother.
Ginger Smith - March 17, 2019 11:02 am
Mine is the Byromville GA Methodist Church cookbook of the early 1980’s. Fourteen pages of congealed salads, and many relative’s names….good memories. Also Castleberry Baptist in Conecuh County, AL. The best cooks ever.
Jan Hammett Smith - March 17, 2019 11:04 am
I put together a cookbook in 2003 for my family. It consisted of recipes from my mother’s ten brothers and sisters and their children, all the way back to the late 1800’s. I still have a copy and ran across it again because I decided to donate old cookbooks to anyone that would enjoy. After reading this, I’m going back to the cardboard box they sit in …. (the only time a Junior League cookbook and the old ragged Baptist cookbook from ions ago will find themselves together) and place them back on the book shelf. Thank you for the sweet reminders.
CELINA Branton - April 14, 2019 4:19 pm
Jan Hammett Smith: I love your thoughts. I would gladly love to be a recipient of one of your old cookbooks – I’m 79 and still collecting (my first was when I was 9 years old, a gift from an aunt) Celina Branton, 101 Jones Ave, Calhoun GA 30701 (BTW: I’m a positive thinker) LOL
CELINA Branton - April 14, 2019 4:28 pm
I just love all of your stories, but this one “takes the cake!” Ha-Ha I look forward, each time I open FB to seeing your name and think you are one of the Masters of putting pen to paper or fingers to old keys! Thank you for making my days more enjoyable!!! And, please make copies of that cookbook and mail to me or at least some of your and your wife’s most treasured recipes. Celina Branton, 101 Jones Ave, Calhoun GA 30701 – I will pay you more than $4.00! LOL Oh, to thumb through that book! I have two bookcases of cookbooks and still purchase, accept as gifts, etc. I’m 79 and we just had our 60th Rome High School Reunion last year, and a couple of old classmates brought cookbooks to me from their shelves… I treasure their love and generosity! Can’t wait for your next story!!!
Donna - March 17, 2019 11:52 am
Ambrosia in words 🙂
Karen - March 17, 2019 12:33 pm
What Donna said. ❤️^^^^^
Connie Havard Ryland - March 17, 2019 12:42 pm
Totally love this. I’m one of those grandmothers now-one who cooks and believes that food is love. I learned of necessity to feed a houseful of brothers and sisters. I was 12. Then I grew up into one of those Baptist moms who cooked for every occasion. I wasn’t one of the old church ladies but my desserts were always requested. I taught my kids and their generation of nieces and sisters to cook, now my granddaughter has surpassed me on most things. I’m so proud that she loves to be in the kitchen with me and understands the concept of “a little” of this or “a handful” of that. But even with that, I look for donated cookbooks everywhere I go. There’s nothing like a cookbook put together by church ladies. Or school teachers. I have a shelf full. But I still haven’t found my grandmas tea cake recipe. That’s one of the only things I haven’t learned to make, that I really want to learn to make. She was not a particularly good cook but those tea cakes were a treat every time I saw her. But she was old when I was young and I was too dumb to realize I needed to learn from her. Thank you again for all the love you share. If you ever find yourself back in Bay Minette, AL, I would love to feed you and Jamie. It would be a pleasure.
Cindy Allen - March 17, 2019 1:01 pm
Thank you for the walk down memory lane… homemade noodles to the best biscuits ever?my Grandma Chapin’s were the best made from love.
Sallie - March 17, 2019 1:12 pm
Loved this and how true this is ! Thks
Richard - March 17, 2019 1:19 pm
Thank you for a beautifully written, poignant, loving, and humorous reminder of a way of life so many have not and will not experience.
Barbara Pope - March 17, 2019 1:26 pm
Love this and one day I’m going to cook again like nobody is dieting!
Naomi - March 17, 2019 1:27 pm
I have a cabinet full of church cookbooks. I even contributed some recipes to one of them. However, I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household eating Kosher food. My grandfather was a Kosher butcher. Not many people out here in the country where I now live have ever tasted Jewish food unless I made it for them. They don’t know what they are missing.
Nancy Wight - March 17, 2019 1:33 pm
Love, Love a good cookbook. The ladies at the telephone company put out some that are outstanding, and we’ve use them for years. Coke salad is one of my favorite Thanksgiving treats. Try it, Sean. You’ll love it!
Elaine - May 27, 2021 7:30 pm
Those telephone company cookbooks are the best, well, every bit as good as the church ones.
Barbara Shweda - March 17, 2019 1:52 pm
A must have book to add to your collection is “White Trash Cooking “.
Denise Hammond - April 14, 2019 8:52 am
I do have the book “White Trash Cooking” Picture is of a fruit/veg stand near Hastings, Florida. I have also given that book as gifts to friends. Both of our kids love cooking the dishes in that book. When I go to estate sales or yard sales I look for old cook books, I love the ones that the woman would write notes about the dish, likes and dis-likes. I just cannot pass them up.
Linda Trammell - March 17, 2019 1:56 pm
If you like hometown cookbooks, you’ll love family cookbooks. You need a copy of the best one ever compiled, “The Hardaway Family Cookbook.”
Ellen Walters - March 17, 2019 2:08 pm
Loved reading about old cookbooks. I have my mothers old cookbook from the Ashmore Presbyterian Church in Ashmore Illinois. It was from my moms Sunday School Class, the Sunshine Class. I’m so glad that I have those old recipes. They weren’t fancy, just country cooking at its best.
Mary Burns - March 17, 2019 2:24 pm
I have one also. Was given to me by Mrs. Elam Campbell from Asbury Methodist Church in Beaumont Tx. Love to see all the names I remember. Chocolate sheath cake is my favorite recipe in the book. Page 49.
PJ Hart - March 17, 2019 2:50 pm
What a nice tribute to all our good cooks and their treasured recipes. I suppose Rick Bragg had the same experiences you did as he tells in his book, The Best Cook in the World.
Sandi in FL. - March 17, 2019 2:52 pm
Have you ever seen the recipe for Aspirin Cake? Yes, you read that right! It’s hilarious.
Shannon Shelton Brown - March 17, 2019 2:54 pm
Sean, I’m a grandmother who isn’t much of a cook without a recipe to follow and who loves hometown cookbooks. My grandmother, however, prepared delicious concoctions by rote memory. Years ago, we begged her to pen some of her recipes. We most notably wanted the ingredients and directions for her homemade ice cream. I’ll never forget her first line: “Take some top milk and put it in a bowl.” As you would expect, no one in the family could ever recreate this yummy dessert!
Elaine DiRico - March 17, 2019 2:56 pm
May favorite congealed salad to take to funerals:
Coca-Cola Jello Salad with Cherries
Serves Makes about 8-10 side servings
6 ounces cherry-flavored Jello (not sugar-free)
1 cup boiling water
1 cup regular Coca-Cola
1 14.5 ounce can red tart pitted cherries in water
1 8-ounce can crushed pineapple
Put some water in a saucepan and turn up the heat to get it boiling. In a large bowl, add the package of Jello. Once the water is rolling, pour one cup of the boiling water over the jello and stir until dissolved. Stir in the Coca-Cola. Cover and refrigerate mixture until partially firm, about 45 minutes. Stir the jello every 10 minutes or so; you want it a thickened but not set.
Meanwhile, add the can of cherries to a food processor or blender. Pulse in one-second intervals, about 3-5 pulses, until the cherries are chopped into small pieces but not blended.
Once the Jello mixture has thickened, stir in the chopped cherries and it’s juice, pineapple and it’s juice. Pour into a jello mold, bowl, bundt pan, or 2-quart casserole dish. Cover tightly and refrigerate until set, at least 4 hours, overnight, or up to 2 days before serving. Remove salad from the mold by inverting onto a serving platter. Serve cold.
If you made your jello in a mold, bundt pan, or bowl that you have to invert, place the plate or cake stand on top of the mold and turn it upside-down. If the jello does not budge, fill a large bowl with hot water. Dip the mold into the hot water for no more than 3-5 seconds at a time until the jello comes out when inverted.
Sandi in FL. - March 18, 2019 4:03 am
Hi Elaine, wow, thank-you for taking the time to type out this Coca-Cola Salad recipe to share! Sounds delish. Can’t wait to try it next time I invite company for dinner.
Linda Trammell - March 18, 2019 12:55 pm
Thanks, Elaine. Sounds easy to make – ready to try it! Great directions!!!
Marie burns - March 17, 2019 3:16 pm
They remain my favorite guides at 75. I will still pick one up in a far away place.
Tim House - March 17, 2019 5:00 pm
Oh, Lordy… We have a passel of this type cookbook here at home, gained from Churches and the community. A chunk of History relived! Thanks!
Linda Chipman - March 17, 2019 5:12 pm
Several years ago I rid myself of all the fancy bound cookbooks and donated to Goodwill but the type you describe are still in my kitchen. Can’t bear to part with them and still use on occasion. They are the best.
Marilyn Warner - March 17, 2019 5:39 pm
You really brought back some wonderful memories this morning. I had to go into the kitchen to find one particular cook-book put together my my mother-in-laws ladies group. This group of sweet ladies lived in southern Michigan(beautiful farm land), attended a small country church…they also typed their recipes and printed them off on the copy machine. The book has a red checkered oil cloth for the front and back, put together with metal rings used as binders…On the inside page, this was printed…We hope you like our little book…we did our very best, to choose only those recipes which had withstood our test. But more than just a “little book”, we pray in it you’ll see, the precious, loving Son of God who died for you and me! Signed The Ladies’ Christian Circle of the Ogden Community Bible Church, Blissfield, MI. 1973.
Laura - March 17, 2019 6:09 pm
Oh so true! I was raised in this kind of family and church. You should see my recipe books from this or that church. I got tired of trying to find the favorite recipe (forgetting which book it was in) and finally made one of all my favorites. Then my son and nephews began wanting favorite recipes of their grandma and great grandma, so I began giving wedding gifts of a cookbook (hand written) of the favorite recipes for cornbread dressing, dumplin’s, divinity, etc. Very popular gift I might add. Recently on a trip with friends, we were talking about this very thing. One would say “I love your pecan pie” or “that recipe you have for crock pot chicken is to die for”, etc. We decided to make a cookbook of 10 each of our favorites and add to it as we wanted. We call it the Sassy Southern Sisters cookbook. It was fun and we keeping adding when we get together. Thanks for good memories, Sean. Love you!
Norm Hutcherson - March 17, 2019 6:37 pm
Thanks for reminding me of the many hours I spent cooking and eating with my grandmothers, aunts, cousins, and friends. Hand written or typed the binders of unbounded expectations made every gatherering a joy to participate in.
Jannie Bryant - March 17, 2019 6:38 pm
Every one of your columns brings tears to my eyes. Sometime sad, sometimes happy. Sometimes sad and happy. You capture the essence of southern life at a time long before the daily problems according to the media today. Thank you so much for that. Please don’t stop. You are always one of the highlights of my day.
Shelton A. - March 17, 2019 7:17 pm
You nailed this one! Thanks and God bless.
Steve Welch - March 17, 2019 10:52 pm
Damn you Sean! You have me tearing up again. Great piece. My daddy pastored penticostal churches for over 40 years. We had little old ladies that could make Oreo pudding and fried chicken and macaroni pie that people always got first because it would be gone before the entire line got through. One of my relatives once said that Southerns could calm the worst grieveing family with a cassarole dish and a frying pan and biscuits. Lot of truth in that.
Margaret Vandall - March 18, 2019 2:24 am
Such good memories! Thank you
Charaleen Wright - March 18, 2019 4:07 am
Bernadette Wyckoff - March 18, 2019 1:05 pm
Church lady from MARLOW MUMC built in 1928, live in house built in 1928, have some cookbooks 1928(just kidding) well used so they could be. MUMC still has country fish fry every 3rd Sat of month with homemade desserts on little saucers that can fill 5 or more 6ft tables. I would say Church ladies from S ALABAMA still using old recipes or old memories and still loading them with lots of love. Maybe that’s why we are a little soft in the middle or as we like to say Fluffy. Love you and your writing. Bless you
Lori Brown - March 18, 2019 1:59 pm
I have several of these cookbooks! One is no longer spiral bound but is held together with a rubber band (I really need to put those pages in a notebook – I simply could not make chocolate cream pie without Mrs. Fred Stratton’s recipe). Several came from my mom’s kitchen after she passed. You should have seen my two sisters and I haggling over them as if they were diamonds! Thank you for making me smile once again about something as simple and wonderful as a recipe book!
Mary - March 18, 2019 4:14 pm
Church cookbooks are my absolute favorites!!! My most treasured is from Morningside Baptist Church in Tallahassee, FL. The cookbook was put together to raise money for a little boy who later died of Leukemia. That book is so full of love and wonderful recipes! Thanks for reminding all of us that those cookbooks are filled with real people memories!
Mike Bone - March 18, 2019 5:42 pm
You know what you need to be a Baptist? A love of Jesus and a 9″ X 18″ Pyrex casserole dish.
Sharon Hand - March 18, 2019 8:46 pm
This reminds me of my sweet Momma who has been gone for 13 years. Her chicken and dressing were to die for. When I asked her for her recipe, she replied “a handful of this and a dash of that.” Sie note: My Momma had small hands. Me, not so much. I have my Daddy’s hands. Pretty big for a girl.
MaryJane Breaux - March 18, 2019 8:51 pm
Food from loving hearts and willing hands is always the very best. My family has my Grandma’s wooden recipe box from before the turn of the Century. The penmanship is gorgeous. My favorite is the Recipe for how to Cook a Husband, the box and most recipes were her bridal shower gift.
Judy Broussard - March 20, 2019 3:30 am
Sue Cronkite - April 8, 2019 2:24 am
Amen to every cotton-picking word!
Charlene Clay - April 14, 2019 1:20 pm
Man, I’m still looking for the deviled egg recipe! Otherwise, true words as usual.
Charlotte - April 14, 2019 2:12 pm
I left home just before my 18th birthday to go to Japan with my Air Force husband. Before I left it hit me that I had always had Mama beside me telling me what to do wen I cooked and I wouldn’t have that for at least a couple of years. I started asking her to help me write down her recipes for my favorite dishes. It nearly drove me nuts! It was “a little of this”, or “just enough of so and so”, or “until it feels right”. How much is “a little”?? When is it “just enough”? And how the heck do you know we it feels or looks “right”? She was as frustrated as I was because she honestly didn’t know how to quantify it all. She cooked from memory, by feel, and by years and years of experience. I needed cups and teaspoons and ounces! We did our best, and I used those approximated recipes for years, until I too learned to cook without needing them. Fast forward some 33 years, when my baby girl had a home of her own and asked ME to tell her how to cook her favorite “Mama food”. I found myself telling her to “add this until the consistency is right”, and “put in some of this”, and “I don’t know how long, just till it looks done”. She, of course, had no clue what any of that meant. And suddenly it hit me– I had come full circle. I was now the experienced mom who rarely used recipes and just “knew” how to cook dozens of things. And my daughter was my confused 18 yr old self of so many years ago! It was a moment I’ll never forget.
As a wedding gift I scrapbooked a family and friends cookbook just for her. I spent several months gathering special recipes from relatives and women who had been important to her growing up, and writing up my mom’s and aunt’s and grandma’s family treasures. I put in directions for her favorites that I make, and I got her now-husband’s mom to send me recipes for his favorites from home. I added pictures and stories/memories of the women who passed these recipes down to me, and now from me to my daughter. It turned out really well. She uses it all the time and will, I hope, one day pass it down to HER daughter. At her bridal shower the cookbook was a big hit, and I noticed several more that showed up at later weddings! What better gift from a mother to her daughter, than passing down her heritage from the women who came before her?
Paula - April 14, 2019 3:28 pm
I have a few. One reprint of my childhood Lutheran church cookbook. Reprinted in 2008 on the 60th anniversary of the original. My original was so used, it fell apart. I found a copy of Ida Ramsey’s handwritten recipe book from Viola, TN at a used book store. Third edition in 1974. My copy is signed by her in 1975. It’s a treasure.
Wrenn Spencer - April 14, 2019 6:54 pm
I have 3! A United Methodist, a Baptist, & a Congegational Methodist, bought through 50 years of traveling around the country try & finding that God doesn’t care what sign we hang over the door. He attends the services of every church where the people are soft on the inside. Wonderful story. Thank you for the memories it evoked.
Suzanne Cahill - April 18, 2019 1:07 pm
“Inside are the secrets to the universe, the key to happiness, to love, to life, and the pathway to type-2 diabetes.” I had a mouthful of tea when I read this. It ended up spraying all over the table. Totally worth it.
Kelly Beach - November 19, 2019 11:10 pm
I’m looking for my grandmother’s cornbread dressing recipe from that byromville cookbook. It may be in that book (I cannot find mine;(()
Her name was Mary Will Peterman Haugabook. Thank you! kelly haugabook beach
Susan Patterson - May 26, 2021 3:46 am
If you’d like the recipe for ‘Coke Salad’ let me know. Stuff is bodacious.
Sandi. - May 26, 2021 4:10 am
Hi Susan, yes, please share that Coke Salad recipe. I would love to have it and will definitely try it.
Susan A. Royal - May 26, 2021 5:44 pm
I have two recipes framed and hung in my kitchen. Handwritten by my grandmothers. I can glance at them, close my eyes, smell, taste, hear and see both women standing over a mixing bowl with a wooden spoon, making sweet memories I’ll never forget.
Cindy Fester - May 26, 2021 7:01 pm
My collection of church lady cookbooks leans heavily to the Palisade (Nebraska) United Methodist Church series, which are highly treasured. Another surprising gem of my collection was put out in the 1990s by the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s “front office” staff when headquarters was still located in Kansas City. Thanks for your take on the shared experiences of grandmothers’ love.
josie retan - May 26, 2021 9:11 pm
I have so many southern “church” cookbooks and all are GREAT!. So many generous women were sweet enough to share their secrets. I have a cookbook called “Being Dead Is No Excuse”, (the official southern ladies guide to hosting the perfect funeral.) Some good stories go along with the recipes.
Andy - May 29, 2021 10:15 am
Every year the Spartanburg Herald Journal printed a recipe.insert called “The Stroller Cookbook”. ” The Stroller” was the local daily newspaper column.My grandmother bought copies for my mother and aunts who lived out of town, which was no easy task because they sold out so quickly. What a great memory.