I grew up in western Pennsylvania, where the casserole is king, where most things can be seasoned with Heinz ketchup and Campbell’s condensed soup, and absolutely everything bakes at 350 degrees for 1 hour.
So, when I moved to the South after high school, I arrived unaware of things like roux, barbeque, collard greens, and the “meat and three.” I still remember arriving at my first pig roast, and being completely shocked to see a dead, intact pig lying on the picnic table as if it was the most normal thing in the world. I am still not entirely convinced that crawfish ought to be eaten by humans (we used to keep them as pets).
However, the South opened up my eyes to the joys of regional food, and made it possible for me to revisit western PA cuisine and see past the casseroles to the great, wide, wonderful world of bread and butter pickles, corn on the cob, Amish bakeries, and steak sandwiches piled high with cole slaw and fries.
Uncoincidentally, it was around this time that I began to collect Junior League cookbooks.
Since the publication of the first Junior League cookbook in 1943, hundreds of Leagues from Enid, Oklahoma to Mexico City have published their own collections and used the proceeds to fund outreach programs in their communities.
But they’re not just fundraising tools. They’re also historical documents, tracing the culinary landscapes of America over the course of the 20th century. Through aspics and microwaves and icebox cakes, the Junior League cookbook has been there. Each book creates a record of what people liked to serve to their families, and how they liked to entertain company, and proves that there are as many different kinds of home cooking as there are home cooks.
Junior League cookbooks introduce us to ingredients and cooking styles outside our own regional experience. They help keep alive dying crafts like pickling, canning, and baking from scratch. They can teach you how to host a traditional Wisconsin fish fry, whip up a batch of Pipikaula for your luau, or roast a calf’s head with a side of chainey briar for Sunday dinner.
For the next year, I’ll be cooking and posting recipes from one Junior League cookbook a week, and taking a look at American regional foodways throughout the 20th century.
Some cookbooks are old, some new, and some call for ingredients and cooking techniques that I’ve never heard of. That’s all part of the fun.
But for the record, I am not roasting a calf’s head. A gal’s gotta have some limits.