Cookbook Obsession

Gwen Schock Cowherd

Minnesota Women's Press, July, 2011

When did my cookbook obsession begin? Was it when I joined a 4-H club back in the 1950’s and was prodded to enter pie-baking contests? Was it when paging through my mother’s red plaid Better Homes & Gardens? Was it when my dad, a part-time Raleigh salesman, gave me a colorful pictorial spiral-bound Raleigh cookbook in the fifth grade? I’m not sure. I just know I’ve always loved cookbooks.

I check them out at the library, scout rummage sale for early ethnic church editions, attend library sales, purchase online and find myself exploring bookstore cookbook sections more often than the bestseller shelves. Cookbooks are a favorite bedtime read.

When I decided to study cake decorating, I accumulated a small library on the craft plus a stack of books on how to bake the perfect cake. Becoming a grandmother launched me into baking memorable cookies. My English husband, hailing from Kentucky, urged me to recreate his mother’s banana pudding, thus spiraling my interest in southern cooking and soul food. Reading between the lines, soul-food cookbooks reiterate America’s shameful history of racial prejudice. Cookbooks can transport you to another time. I visualize barren gardens as I read 1930s Depression-era recipes. They make me realize how tough it was for my Dakota prairie ancestors.

My favorite collection began while searching online for a dill pickle recipe. Never satisfied with store-bought pickles, I decided to can my own heritage pickles. The Internet led me to North Dakota State University’s Germans from Russia Heritage Collection (GRHC). It was GRHC’s cookbooks that propagated my interest in genealogy and the study of my cultural history. Studying these cookbooks and consulting with other German Russian cooks has led me, and a few others, to respond to worldwide German Russian recipe and cooking method requests that are sent to the GRHC. I have cultivated many new friendships because of a shared interest in cookbooks.

Cookbooks that include short stories and pictures nurture cultural and historical understanding of ethnicities and their geographic locations. Since reading Minnesotan Raghaven Iyer’s cookbook, “The Turmeric Trail: Recipes and Memories from an Indian Childhood,” I have wanted to visit his Bombay, India homeland. His descriptive stories and telling photos engage my palate without stepping into the kitchen.

You can read a cookbook and travel to faraway places and historical times without leaving your chair. Sense the kitchen environment. Visualize the mixing and stirring. Hear the crack of the egg. Engage your taste buds and sense of smell. And, have a savory time studying history!

Gwen Schock Cowherd is the mother of four, the grandmother of seven, and lives in White Bear Lake with her husband.

Gwen Schock Cowherd recommends these cooking-related books:

The Joy of Pickling by Linda Ziedrich 
Food 'N Customs: Recipes of the Black Sea Germans by Germans from Russia Heritage Society, Bismarck, North Dakota Volunteer Women Cookbook Committee 
The Taste of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis 
The African-American Heritage Cookbook by Carolyn Quick Tillery 
The Amish Cook by Elizabeth Coblentz 
FFI: The GRHC recipe website:

Reprinted with permission of Minnesota Women's Press.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller