Find Your (or someone’s) Southern Grandma’s Recipes at the Library
Grandma’s cookbooks? Many of us with far-flung families and “shallow roots” have probably never even seen them. I remember recipe cards from my childhood, that my mother had saved from her mother, but those handwritten, food-spotted cards are long gone, lost in multiple moves and numerous down-sizes.
Enter our local library, ready to come to the rescue of the kitchen-history deprived, with regional cookbooks worthy of Grandma’s kitchen cupboard.
Tucked in the stacks of the North Carolina Room at the main library, a handful of shelves house a cook’s delight of vintage regional cookbooks and recipe collections from local organizations and clubs. This is not a huge collection, or an especially historic collection, but it is interesting. If you are looking for a selection of retro hors d’oeuvres for your ’70s theme cocktail party, or a pimento cheese recipe that has passed the church cookbook committee test, this is your place.
The Special Collections and Archives of the New Hanover County Public Library emphasizes materials from the southeastern region, with a sprinkling of books from across North Carolina. Cape Fear area clubs, churches, women’s organizations and non-profit groups are well-represented in the collection, with dozens of spiral bound cookbooks featuring favorites from local kitchens. Beth’s best brownie recipe, the one that everyone in the bridge group was vying for? It’s probably here. That grit cake secret passed down through many generations of Wilmingtonians? A politician’s family meat loaf? It’s probably here.
Jennifer Daugherty, Special Collections Librarian, says that most of the regional cookbooks in the collection have been donated directly to the NC Room, or culled from boxes of books donated to the library. There is a wide variety of materials in the collection. The spiral Lower Cape Fear Historical Society cookbook, for example, was printed as a local fundraiser. On the other hand, Jennifer explains, most of the bound books represent Southern cooking in general, like the cookbook from the North Carolina Museum of Art, which makes them pertinent to the collection. Most of the books, she says, are regional, or written by local cookbook authors.
“One of the North Carolina Room missions is to house information about North Carolina history, genealogy, and local families,” explains Jennifer. “So, especially for school children who study North Carolina history in fourth and fifth grades, this kind of collection preserves a cultural record that isn’t available on the internet. The second part of our mission is to be an archive that preserves the history and records of our area.”
She notes that the cookbook collection is interesting as a cultural archive because what might otherwise be a single cookbook in one person’s kitchen, and another single cookbook in another kitchen, is gathered as the series at the library: “If we didn’t save them, where would you get the whole run of three or four cookbooks by one organization?”
“A lot of people still use these cookbooks for the recipes,” Jennifer says. “Most people have nice cameras on their phones, so they can just take pictures – as long as they don’t use a flash. Somebody is in here almost every week doing research. These cookbooks are really accessible, and the recipes are clear and they are generally what people can do in their own kitchen with local ingredients. In most of them, the theme is kind of “home cooked meals.” There are also a few cookbooks from local restaurants, some of which no longer exist. The regional cookbooks are actually a great way to introduce people to all the resources of the North Carolina room.”
There are almost 50 cookbooks in the collection. They can be searched in the online catalog, if you sort by “North Carolina Room.” You’ll have to visit the library in person to leaf through the cookbooks because they are part of the non-circulating collection. These titles could tempt some serious menu planning, and, although you cannot remove materials from the North Carolina Room, you can use the copier for only 15 cents.
To entice you to trek to the library in person, a few of the cookbooks from the North Carolina Room’s shelves include:
Confederate receipt book: a compilation of over one hundred receipts, adapted to the times. (2006) Series: Antique American cookbooks.
Treat yourself to a couple hours with the cookbook collection:
North Carolina Room at the New Hanover County Public Library
201 Chestnut Street, Wilmington, NC 28401
Hours M-T 9-8 W-Th 9-6 Fri-Sat 9-5 Sun 1-5 (NC Room Closed)