The thought provoking 150 Best Minnesota Books Blog often makes me, a cookbook collector, think about what I’d chose as the best Minnesota cookbooks of the last 150 years. Thousands of cookbooks have been published here during that time, most of which are fun to read — and many have at least a recipe or two worth trying. I’d like to suggest some possibilities from the MHS Library’s excellent cookbook collection for the Best Minnesota Cookbook Ever title. It would be great to read your nominations as well. Please comment, naming your favorite and telling us why you love it.
Maybe the most influential Minnesota cookbook nationally has been the classic Betty Crocker book known today as “Big Red.” In 2011 its 11th edition was published, a fitting way to celebrate Betty Crocker’s own 90th birthday. The first edition of Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook appeared in 1950, published by General Mills. MHS has both a regular first edition and a special limited first edition. Both are in remarkably good condition, considering that many of the copies in home kitchens have been used so much they’re falling apart.
My very favorite cookbooks are the fundraisers, community cookbooks put together by churches, synagogues, and nonprofit organizations of all kinds to raise money. The reason they’re fun to read is that they’re usually done by home cooks rather than professional home economists, recipe developers, or restaurant chefs. Members of the organization contribute a favorite recipe – either a recently tried dish popular with the family, or a tried & true favorite handed down from (grand)mother to (grand)daughter—and it appears in the book with their name. These books give a collective portrait of the group, often mostly women, who produced the cookbook, with their ethnic backgrounds and reflecting the time, popular recipes, and ingredients of the era when it was published. The MHS Library has fundraiser cookbooks from the 1850s to the 2010s, and its popularity as a way to raise funds has continued to increase.
A classic in this category is the cookbook produced by the Waverly Lutheran Church Mothers Club of rural Truman, Minnesota. The 2nd edition of their Adventures in the Kitchen: a treasury of family tested recipes was published in 1954 by one of the many cookbook publishers located in small towns all over the Midwest. This publisher is the Graphic Publishing Company of Lake Mills, Iowa.
Many other types of cookbooks clamor to be acknowledged as best, like those by talented Minnesota professionals including Eleanor Ostman, Bea Ojakangas, and Raghavan Iyer. My current favorite among the library’s books by one author, though, is 212 Ways to Prepare Potatoes, by Mrs. J. B. Graham, a home economist, published in Duluth by the Fuhr Publishing and Printing Co. in 1935.
The book illuminates the challenges of feeding a family and of making a living on a northern Minnesota farm during the Great Depresssion. Mrs. Graham dedicates the book, which sold for 75 cents, to “Our Rural Friends of the Arrowhead. May it Wend its Way Into Every Home and Add Interest to the Homemakers Cookery. May it Help to Bring Prosperity to The Arrowhead Farmer.” [The Arrowhead is the region of northeastern Minnesota shaped like the tip of an arrow. Beautiful country but poor soil.] The recipes came in large part from the Duluth Chamber of Commerce’s annual recipe contests held during the city’s Potato Weeks in the 1930s. There are recipes for potato breads, muffins, pancakes, and a chocolate mashed potato spice cake, potato doughnuts, fritters, patties, and pies; Cornish pasties and English pasties, dumplings and puddings, soufflés and sausage; potatoes smothered, creamed, and scalloped, hashed and fried. The “foreign recipes” section includes Swedish Kropp Kakor, Norwegian Lefsa, and a savory/sweet Austrian Potato Potica that calls for sugar and cinnamon as well as ham or bacon.
Books about how people eat and ate in Minnesota are a treat to read and cook from. In this category I nominate The Minnesota Ethnic Food Book, by Anne Kaplan, Marjorie Hoover, and Willard Moore, published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press in 1986. Along with great stories about favorite food traditions of many of the state’s ethnic groups from African Americans to Mexicans to Scandinavians, Greeks, Italians, and Ojibway, British and Germans, Finns, Italians, and Jews, South Slavs and Hmong, it provides excellent recipes from each group. I can testify to the deliciousness of the Ojibway Maple Syrup Apple Pie, the Mexican Pork with Green Chile sauce, and the Greek Stifado.
Reference Specialist, MHS Library
Co-author, Potluck Paradise: Favorite Fare from Church and Community Cookbooks