Tuesday, February 13, 2007

what's cookin?

One of my little fantasies is a backyard cookout to which everyone will bring dishes made from Church-lady cookbooks. There will be three or four Jello molds, at least one noodle casserole, and everything will be covered in either crumbled potato chips or Chinese noodles, and will contain a can of cream of mushroom soup.


This is my little collection of Church-lady cookbooks. I usually buy them at library book sales. I guess they used to be a popular fundraiser for church and other ladies' groups (like the Alaska Crippled Children's Association, beneficiaries of Cooking from Alaska's Kitchens, in which bear chunks are paired with cream of mushroom soup for a new kind of American taste sensation).

Last night we were having a good guffaw over some of the recipes while HWWLLB baked up an "Impossible Pie" from What's Cookin' at Annunciation. I have no idea where Annunciation is located, but I'm sure this book dates to the 1960's and was published in the South, because it contains many fine southern turns of phrase such as "I reckon" and "if you fancy...". The ladies who contributed these recipes clearly belonged to two distinct generations; the older church ladies who apparently have no first names of their own, such as "Mrs. George Ketchum," and the younger, more liberated married ladies who use their own first names, such as "Maureen Burket."

So the Impossible Pie... the way it works is, you take a bunch of pie ingredients (flour, sugar, milk, eggs, coconut, etc), throw them in the blender and mix them all up. Then you pour it all into a pie pan and bake. Three levels basically fall out, with floury stuff on the bottom, eggy stuff in the middle and coconut on top - a coconut custard pie! (more or less). We had it for breakfast this morning - it couldn't touch my mother's coconut custard pie, but it wasn't bad.

My most favorite recipe comes from Cooking with Christians in Brevard, NC. Brevard is where HWWLLB's parents live, and this book contains a recipe from my childhood that I just can't wait to make for the cookout. Here it is:
Strawberry Salad (Barbara Johnson)

First layer:
2 2/3 cup broken pretzels (sticks) mush up
3 Tablespoons sugar
3/4 cup margarine

Cream sugar and margarine together. Spread pretzels with layer in 9 x 13 pan and with sugar on top. Cover and bake 350 degrees five minutes and stir and bake five minutes more. Cool.

Second layer:
8 oz. soft cream cheese
1 cup sugar
1 9oz. Cool Whip
Cream sugar and cream cheese together. Fold in Cool Whip, spread over first layer.

Third layer:
1 1/2 Cup boiling water
6 oz. strawberry jello
2 10oz. frozen strawberries

Mix jello and boiling water, chill partially; fold and chill partially again. Spread over second layer and refrigerate.

(I do believe that we were supposed to include those frozen strawberries in layer three - Ed.).

Imagine this three-layer Jello mold in the shape of a big red bundt cake, with salty, crunchy pretzels on the bottom, sweet cheese in the middle and sickeningly sweet strawberry jello on top. Heavenly! My Aunt Cindy used to make this for every family gathering, and I always took an extra-big slice. I will definitely be making this for the fantasy cookout - I hope you all can come!

I'll leave you with this bit of wisdom from Cooking with Christians:

"Joy is love making its own sunshine, even in times of gloom."


  1. I looovve that strawberry salad. And, I have to say, we have it at least once a year ;-) It's good with raspberries, too. Hey, there's nothing wrong with a little comfort food (read: church-lady food) now and again.

  2. Wowie! Cooking with Christians is one fine title.

    Many of my favorite holiday cookie recipes come from church cookbooks I inherited from my grandma. There are plenty of ingredients like oleo and corn syrup. I usually avoid those recipes.

    The entree sections are often quite terrifying, especially to the former vegetarian/not quite carnivore.

  3. a treasure-trove! I live in the Land That Time Forgot. That salad is a staple at family (in-law) gatherings, my MIL ROCKS IT! I freaked the first family gathering here in the Midwest. I was a chef in Berkeley at the time, and was overwhelmed by the presence of jello molds!! Salads with Snickers in them! Now, I reach for those Church Lady cookbooks pretty often... assimilation... aaaaaaaa!!!

  4. i am probably the most unsouthern southern person in the world. i have lived below the mason dixon line my entire life, and have managed to dodge many of these recipes and their relatives. not until i was a college student, did i experience a true southern casserole. cornflakes?! i am a jello purist, and don't think it sould be mixed with marshmellows and fruit. and i'm terrified of things that can be made by simply dumping in boxes and cans of stuff, all processed foods. eeks! how did this all come to be? ... well, my parent's aren't southern.
    and you're right ... the last time i went to the big library book sale, the cookbook tables were loaded with church recipe books!
    happy cooking/assembling/experimenting :)

  5. you're a woman after my own heart... i am fascinated/obsessed by church lady cooking. casseroles with potato chips? hook me up! i would love to attend your fantasy backyard potluck :) most of my southern experiments center around the noodle casserole. cream of mushroom soup is of course key, sometimes with cream of celery... the foundation of a super-fine macaroni and cheese!
    my parents (both immigrants from india) have a similar fascination, especially my dad. i distinctly remember the day he first made banana pudding, and the joy he felt in decorating it with the nilla wafers.

  6. I always go to the church lady cookbooks to look for cookie and cake recipes. I have to admit that there are few of the casseroles that my kids love too. Who can go wrong with macaroni as far as kids are concerned?
    As for the salad? I have to admit that I am intrigued and horrified at the same time. What can I say? I'm Canadian and pretzels go with salt, not sweet up here. But with y'all ravin' 'bout it, I'm willing to give it a go in the spring.


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