Kearney, Nebraska, is best known as a stopping point for wandering sand hill cranes. Aside from seasonal bird watchers, the city doesn’t get many other tourists. But some people make the pilgrimage to Kearney for something completely different. Past the endless corn fields, a building with a red and white sign invites you to linger and offers all newcomers a free cookbook. One step inside takes you out of the surrounding farmland and into a magical cookbook collection filled with creative tomes written by church ladies and bikers alike. Morris Press is the largest community cookbook publisher in the United States, and their Kearney headquarters showcase the variety of their catalog in all its glory.
First, a brief introduction to the community cookbook. According to Don Lindgren – an antiquarian bookseller who currently publishes a multi-volume encyclopedia on the genre – community cookbooks are typically recipes that are collected, organized into a book, and sold by groups such as churches, schools, and social groups Raise money. They’re also known as fundraising cookbooks, nonprofit cookbooks, church cookbooks, or just “those spiral-bound books,” says Lindgren.
Morris Press headquarters is a small gray building that houses the company’s offices, printing and binding equipment, and an on-site bookstore that sells surplus cookbooks from fundraising across the country. Ryan Morris, the fourth generation of his family to run the company, spreads out a series of titles on a conference table to show me. Illustrations of country singers, athletes, aquarium workers and sailors peek out from the front pages.
A sign invites passers-by to stop and read some cookbooks.
As a pay-to-publish company, the company very rarely turns potential authors away, which means their catalog is extensive and colorful. With more than 60 million books printed and 150,000 individual titles published, “what you call it, I’ve seen it,” laughs Morris. They have published cookbooks by soap opera stars, the Chicago Bulls, and even a collective of gay clowns in San Francisco. (Note: Morris didn’t have the gay clown cookbook on hand and couldn’t remember its name. If readers know of a group of gay clowns in San Francisco who produced a cookbook with Morris Press, please contact us Link.)
I open a particularly weathered, spiral-bound tome labeled Old Family Favorites and find a recipe for “Fluffy Turnips” attributed to First Lady Mamie Eisenhower. Mommy’s turnips, along with other recipes for salads, casseroles, and something called “pork cake” were part of the vintage cookbook’s campaign to raise funds for the Nebraska Council for the Aging. Another title, Go Big Red: Recipes and Traditions From the Hearts of Huskers, features recipes contributed by members of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln football team. Player photos adorn each page, along with their favorite recipes, from defense attorney George Sauer’s Hot Chicken Casserole to offensive guard Randy Schleusener’s carrot cake.
Outwardly, Morris Press is humble.
Morris ‘favorite publication in the archives is a cookbook based on the early’ 90s sitcom Evening Shade, starring Burt Reynolds. The book includes recipes from Reynolds as well as “Friends of Evening Shade,” which somehow included Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Morris Press opened its doors in the 1930s as a small printing and office supply business. Her cookbook focus was a later development. But the history of American community cookbooks dates back to the 19th century. Lindgren names Nantucket Receipts, a Boston cookbook published in the 1870s to raise money for a local hospital, as the country’s first community cookbook. He attributes the creation of these hyperlocal publications to advances in printing technology and kitchen tools that expanded the range of what chefs could make at home.
Traditionally, community cookbooks were the responsibility of church groups. Morris knows this well. He remembers traveling around the country with his parents as a child to attend religious conventions. His father took care of distributing sample cookbooks and brochures. In the conference room in Kearney, Morris shows me Feed My People, an undated orange vinyl cookbook from the United Methodist Church of Eustis, Nebraska.
Each section of “Feed My People” by the United Methodist Church of Eustis, Nebraska, focuses on a specific food group and Bible verse.
Feed My People has recipes for everything from orange cake to German dishes. But, as is often the case with community cookbooks, there is more to it than just recipes. The book begins with an introduction entitled “What is a United Methodist Woman?” The definition is appropriately food-focused: “She is COMFORT with a casserole in hand, SERVICE when sweeping up wedding cake crumbs, COMPASSION with her deposit card in her pocket, FRIENDSHIP with a happy smile on her face and a hunger for knowledge, armed with her Bible and a study book. ”(It also apparently had the“ energy of a pocket-sized atom bomb ”.)
Feed My People’s self-gratifying introduction points to the unexpected power community cookbooks granted to women. In the era before larger publishers like Morris, a community cookbook printer was often a neighbor or other member of the parish. For example, because they could easily trade printing fees with a churchgoer, women did not have to involve their husbands in contract negotiations. And since the books have proven to be incredibly effective fundraising tools, they also provided the women with the money to make change in their communities.
However, the informality of this process has challenged culinary historians. Lindgren did research on church records to determine the financial implications of the books. While men are always named in these records, women are often only listed with the initials of their social clubs. “This should hide the fact that these women are raising all this money,” he says. “You would never name them, but they would put those little acronyms … And you would see and see that 62 percent of the money for the new church tower was raised by them.”
Even first ladies have contributed recipes to Morris’ cookbooks. Here, Mamie Eisenhower’s fluffy turnips.
Whether it was building a library, expanding a hospital or repairing a church tower, the funds from community cookbooks gave women the opportunity to engage in civic engagement that they had previously been denied. (It should be said that “women” here refers primarily to white women who have the resources to produce them, although African American women in their early 20’s came out as a suffrage cookbook before women’s suffrage was passed.
The informality of local publishing was also fraught with unpredictability. Local print shops dwindled in the 1890s as smaller presses consolidated into larger companies. Many community cookbookmakers were looking for alternatives. According to Lindgren, some went the DIY route, using whatever resources available, sewing book spines by hand, tying them together with silk thread and ribbon, and covering them with oilcloth, wallpaper, or even linoleum.
The state cookbook wall in the bookstore.
The result was a patchwork of beautifully designed tomes published from the turn of the century through the 1920s. In the next decade, those who did not want to bind their books in linoleum finally had another option: the specialist publisher for cookbooks. While Morris is the only holdover from that niche industry, the central United States once had several printing companies offering affordable, simple community cookbook templates. This approach may have reduced the incredible ingenuity of the earlier years, but the more accessible publishing option has helped democratize the community cookbook and push it out of the realm of church fundraising.
As a result, almost every social group in the United States has published a community cookbook. In her 24 years as proofreader and manager of the Morris Press in-house bookstore, Cindy Schneider has seen and sold books by everyone from cemetery clubs to quilting clubs. “I have a distorted sense of humor,” she laughs as she shows me From Our Solid Waste Family to Yours, a cookbook published by a Texas plumbing division. She divided the company’s storefront into several sections: a whole wall of state cookbooks (it all comes from Hawaii, a hot commodity), local cookbooks (like cowboy recipes by a Kearney artist whose western paintings are on the Walls of the office), single-focus cookbooks (including yearbooks for blueberry and strawberry festivals), animal-themed cookbooks (there is more than one cookbook called Bone Appétit published by Humane Society Chapters), church cookbooks, and family cookbooks. If you ask nicely, Schneider will even pull some rare titles out of her back, including what she calls “really naughty” erotic cookbook.
The family cookbooks are one of the most touching titles in the bookstore.
But alongside the goofy and daring titles, there are deeply moving books on the shelves. With the decline in church attendance and the increase in other fundraisers like GoFundMe or Kickstarter, Morris finds that the company is now marketing cookbooks as personal keepsakes as well as a fundraising engine. The family area of the bookstore is particularly touching, filled with anniversary cookbooks, which are reminiscent of a couple cooking together, and wedding cookbooks, which combine the culinary traditions of two families in one tome.
It could be the personal touch that enabled Morris to survive in the internet age. No matter how tasty, a recipe downloaded to your phone may not have quite the same effect as an old spiral-bound book of fluffy turnips from a former first lady. Despite the struggles of the print media and the rise of celebrity chefs, food blogs and digital publishing, Morris boasts that all of his cookbooks are still making a profit.
Most of the money, of course, goes to the communities and their fundraising drives. For Schneider, one of the most meaningful parts of the job is the charitable purpose of the books, helping them get them published and sold. “I cried more than once while looking at some, ”she says. She points to the wall of small, colorful cookbooks on display in the store and mentions a memorable book published to raise money for a child with leukemia. “They’re touching.”
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