When Southern Living recognized the most famous and cherished community cookbooks, eleven of the fourteen cookbooks were published by Junior Leagues across the South. My copy of River Road, published by the Junior League of Baton Rouge, is forty years old, crumbling and missing the gumbo section, but it still has the recipe all Louisiana cooks rave about – Spinach Madeleine. I heard about River Road long before I bought it. When at friends’ houses in New Orleans, I’d compliment a recipe, and inevitably the response was “That’s from River Road.” I was young and poor but scraped together the cash to purchase my first cookbook. Of course I had received wedding gift cookbooks, but this book I chose. I loved it so much I even bought the “healthy” volume several years later. It’s just not as tattered.
In the South, Junior League cookbooks are on par with The Joy of Cooking or Mastering
the Art of French Cooking. No matter the city, Junior Leaguers capture the essence of a community with popular, tested recipes that reflect the region. They also have a knack for titles and, in some cases, you can name the town before you open the book. Look at these — Encore! from Nashville; Winning Seasons from Tuscaloosa, home of the University of Alabama football champions; Pirate’s Pantry from Lake Charles, Louisiana; Gasparilla from Tampa; Jubilee from Mobile; and Jambalaya from New Orleans.
In Tyler, Texas, rose capital of the world, the league coined the title Through Rose-Colored Glasses along with fictitious cook Rosie. After living there for seventeen years, I agree it’s a perfect title. Tyler exists because the muddy, oil-laden streets of Kilgore were way too dirty. The oil barons settled in Tyler and viewed the town through rose-colored glasses.
For a place with less notoriety like Greensboro, North Carolina, the league editors came up the fitting phrase Out of Our League.
More than 200 Junior League cookbooks are now in publication. And, as the text of Truffles to Trifles of St. Joseph, Missouri, reminds readers
To make an artist of the cook,
We recommend to you this book,
For gathered here from all about,
Are dishes gourmets dream about,
Some handed-down from Great Aunt Sue,
Some straight from father’s bar-be-cue,
We thank the cooks whose inspiration,
Resulted in our publication,
A noble book you will agree,
For proceeds go to charity.
According to the Association of Junior Leagues, the first Junior League cookbook, Recipes from Southern Kitchens, was published by the Augusta, Georgia, Junior League in 1940 to begin their tradition of cookbooks as fundraisers. Despite the wave of feminism and decline of women’s pages in newspapers, Junior League cookbooks have survived as have 284 clubs in the U.S. Founded in 1901 by a New York City debutante, the womens’ group makes a difference with the profits from cookbooks. The groups assist nutrition centers, literacy programs, children’s theaters and museums, promote clean water, domestic violence awareness, and tackle contemporary issues like cybercrimes and juvenile justice. In the South, though they’ve never quite shaken the debutante image, Junior League is synonymous with excellence in cookbooks and community service.
The Lafayette, Louisiana, Junior League, which has four cookbooks in print, has earned over $1.2 million for the community from cookbook sales, according to the Washington Post. And, much to my surprise, no one has ever tested the recipes in Talk About Good! – number fourteen on the Southern Living list. I paid two dollars for a first edition (1967) at an estate sale recently. The tabbed dividers include a gumbo section with twelve – yes a dozen – gumbo recipes. Gumbos with duck, sausage, guinea, wild goose, oysters and goose reflect local fare. I’m partial to submissions by Martha Jones (not me, but my first name and my maiden name) and more Davis Family recipes.
Many Junior League cookbooks feature recipes from local restaurants, celebrities and chefs. Sugar Beach from Fort Walton Beach, Florida, has an entire section of restaurant recipes. They’ve reprinted the original seafood gumbo recipe from The Original Seafood & Oyster House Restaurant. Get a big pot because the recipe makes 16 gallons.
Different from most Junior League books, Pensacola, Florida’s Some Like It South! rarely names the contributors. I miss that personal touch. There’s a “joy in cooking” to find a neighbor’s recipe in print. Some Like It South’s sixth printing includes four gumbo recipes, two which reflect today’s woman. The first is a microwave gumbo for the working woman with a busy schedule. Making microwave roux is enough of a shortcut for me.
The second is the prize-winning recipe from a working woman — local chef, restaurateur and cookbook author Julie DeMarko. The former Poet Laureate of Northwest Florida, when Julie’s not cooking, she’s creating delicious poetry. Yes, it’s nice to see a friend’s name under a recipe.
Baton Rouge Junior League trimmed the calories from favorite recipes from River Road when they published River Road Recipes: The Healthy Collection. All recipes include the nutritional analysis for calories, fat, percentage of fat calories, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium. The cookbook also includes a section with tips for lightening recipes and a fat-free roux recipe. The editors have taste-tested and included three lighter gumbo recipes. The lightest is the seafood and okra, which, glory be, still has a roux.
True Grits from Atlanta resembles a coffee table book more than a cookbook. The Junior League of Atlanta, 5000 women strong, is the largest in the world. Their 304-page impressive hardback is rich in stories, photographs and recipes. Faithful to its title, it includes eight recipes for grits but lacks one single gumbo dish. Surely my copy is missing a page.
I’m not sure how cooks rank Junior League cookbooks from the rest of the country, but I think the titles are just as catchy. From the Midwest, the pork capital of America, comes I’ll Cook When Pigs Fly from Cincinnati, and my favorite, from the Waterloo-Cedar Falls, Iowa, Junior League two simple words: Pig-Out