Women’s History Month – Congressional Cookbooks

This blog post was written by graduate assistant Emma Fenske, a master’s student in the History Department.

A pair of cookbooks
Congressional Club Cookbooks from 1970 and 1998 from the W. R. Poage Legislative Library’s collection.
As truly as food is, first and last, our most important concern in life-so perhaps governing, in one of its forms or another, is the second in importance. And so it seems peculiarly appropriate that the other half (on the general average) of our great governing body should be concerning itself with food-not only with the food of its own individual lawmaker, but with the cooked food for the nation. [1]
– Lou Henry Hoover, introduction to 1927 Congressional Cookbook 

At Poage Library, surrounded by boxes of political documents and books on government, war, and great men, lie two very unexpected shelves of cookbooks. But maybe cookbooks are less unusual than one would believe. As we wrap up Women’s History Month, Congressional cookbooks offer a valuable glimpse into women’s history within the Poage Library.

The Congressional Cookbooks came from the Congressional Club, a group founded in 1908 to offer a community of support for the wives and daughters of Congressmen. In 1927, when the club needed funds for expansion, the Congressional Cookbook was created. [2] These cookbooks began featuring the recipes of wives and daughters of legislators from all regions of the United States but expanded in later editions to include recipes from men and international recipes from diplomats.

Gender plays an interesting role in the history of the Congressional Club and its Cookbook. While the inclusion of men may seem an interesting choice to point out in a post emphasizing the women’s history of cookbooks, their representation signifies the changing gender dynamics within Congress. While the Congressional Club initially functioned as a community of support for only wives and daughters, as women began to hold positions within Congress with more frequency, the club expanded to offer support to male spouses as well. Men began to make an appearance in the Congressional cookbook as recipe contributors in the 1955 issue, with men-only recipes referenced in newspapers in 1961. [3] The club also embraced changing gender proportions in Congress. In fact, 2021 saw the election of a man as the president of the Congressional Club: Charlie Capito, husband of Senator Shelley Moore Capito. Senator Capito describes about her husband becoming president of the club, saying, “I think we’re reflecting what America looks like… I think that’s important.” [4]

While the history behind the Club and Cookbook offers interesting insight into women’s history, the content within the cookbooks does as well. Cookbooks were only recently recognized for their value to historical studies. The movement to preserve cookbooks began in the 1960s, was supported by women’s history theory in the 1990s, and was followed by significant historical interventions in the early 2000s. [5]

The scholars who study cookbooks argue the cookbooks allow a glimpse into both women’s lives and the greater society around them. Food, as a very fundamental element on which all humans are dependent, should be analyzed as historically significant. Women’s cookbooks allow scholars to “discover what time meals were served, how much people ate, what they ate, what the school hours were, how long men worked and when they took a break, the changes in food production and in family living styles.” [6]

The Congressional Cookbooks intended for this to be true, as exemplified by the opening quote of this article by First Lady Lou Henry Hoover from the 1927 Congressional cookbook. As the introduction to the 1933 cookbook explains,

the very able committee who complied the original Congressional Cookbook truly said of their work that it pictured ‘the present day of American cookery more accurately than ever attempted before. Its contributed recipes come from every part of the country, from representative sources in every section of each state…In number of recipes, in variety, in practical value to the cook, experienced or amateur, this may be truthfully called the Great American Cook Book. [7]

Research on cookbooks has noted particular factors in the history of cookbooks, which are also seen in the Congressional Cookbook collection at Poage Library. As Hélène Le Dantec-Lowry notes in her article, “Reading Women’s Lives in Cookbooks and Other Culinary Writings: A Critical Essay,” cookbooks “were from the middle and upper classes, were usually white women, and represented and promoted a lifestyle associated with those groups.”

The Congressional Cookbooks clearly demonstrate this thought. As a 1956 newspaper article titled “Long-Protected, Secret Recipes Yielded by Congressional Wives,” describes the cookbooks,

Much has been written about the big-time, big-money Washington hostess. But the unsung heroine on the Washington hospitality front in the most popular Washington hostess of all – the Congressional Wife. Wives of U.S. Congressmen and Senators have to be ready to serve up a home-cooked meal to uninvited guests every day in the year… Little wonder then that the most-thumbed book in town is the best-selling cookbook compiled by members of the Congressional Club. [8]

Congressional cookbooks offered to the everyday women at home the belief that they could serve their family the same meals that “no doubt won as many votes as baby-kissing did in sending their husbands to Congress.” [9]

Another major historical factor demonstrated through the Congressional cookbooks is an emphasis on healthy living and wellness as a major theme at the turn of the century. In the Congressional Cookbooks, several First Ladies’ introductions to the Congressional Cookbook, including Eleanor Roosevelt (1933), Bess Truman (1948), Jackie Kennedy (1961), and Pat Nixon (1970), reference healthy living.

The emphasis on international foods from diplomats, as mentioned at the beginning of this post, is another turn seen within the Congressional Cookbooks. As Hélène Le Dantec-Lowry explains, part of the shift toward international recipes can be attributed to the “gourmetization” of American cooking in the 1940s and 1950s, the growth of ethnic-consciousness and cultural diversity in the United States post-1950s, as well as counter-culture movements which began to view food as pleasure. [10]

While gender in politics, class influence, health and wellness, and globalization can be seen within the cookbooks, this analysis would not be complete without actually making the recipes in the cookbooks.

To better understand what this experience looked like, I asked some fellow workers at Poage Library and my mom in Indiana to join me in making recipes which had been contributed by Congressmen and their wives who have collections at our library. These recipes are not even close to all that could have been used (our Texas representatives were prolific recipe contributors), but the recipes included come from a variety of the Congressional Cookbooks we have in our collection, as well as from many different Congressmen and their wives.

Amanda Fisher, Collection Services Archivist at Poage Library, tried two recipes from the Congressional Cookbooks: Mrs. Jack (Colleen) Hightower’s Grits Au Gratin (1982) and Representative Chet Edward’s Butter Thins (1998).

grits-au-gratin
Amanda Fisher’s recreation of Mrs. Jack (Colleen) Hightower’s Grits Au Gratin (1982). This recipe is included at the end of the article.
butter thins
Amanda Fisher’s recreation of Chet Edwards’s Butter Thins (1998). This recipe is included at the end of the article.

Through these recipes, and several others including Mrs. Wright (Merle) Patman’s Oatmeal Cookies (1933), Mrs. O.C. (Marian) Fisher’s Italian Delight (1945), Mrs. Thomas (Louise) Pickett’s Armenian Cake (1955), Mrs. O.C. (Marian) Fisher’s Hot Meat Loaf (1970), Mrs. John (J.D.) Dowdy’s Texas Chicken Enchilada and Fresh Fruit Pie (1976), several American food history facts were revealed:

  • Amanda Fisher noted apparent oven baking temperature differences from the recipe to her oven when she made Grits Au Gratin.
  • Marcie Fenske noted an emphasis on canned food and Jello as stars in her recipes. This reflects the canned food trend in the twentieth century.
  • Marcie Fenske also noted how spices were not included in most of her recipes. This is explained by the transition to international food and spices that did not occur until after the 1970s with globalization and the counter-culture movement (as discussed above).
  • Emma Fenske noted the vague descriptions of pans as well as oven temperatures throughout the recipes.
  • Emma Fenske also noted the emphasis on certain brands and corresponding sizes of goods that are no longer sold in that form on the shelf.

Discussing what we learned from these recipes made the project even more fun. The created community of women in the kitchen that both cookbooks and this project demonstrated mirrors the womanist theory of the kitchen table:

The kitchen table is an informal, woman-centered space where all are welcome and all can participate. The table is an invitation to become part of a group amicably comprised of heterogeneous elements and unified by the pleasure and nourishment of food and drink. At the table, people can come and go, agree or disagree, take turns talking or speak all at once, and laugh, shout, complain, or counsel—even be present in silence. It is a space where the language is accessible and the ambience casual. At the kitchen table, people share the truths of their lives on equal footing and learn through face-to-face conversation. [11]

Cookbooks create a community for conversation and sharing for women and embody women’s history as well as give a glimpse into the larger American society.

I hope you have learned along with us the value of cookbooks, particularly the Congressional Cookbooks, for women’s history and broader studies of United States History. Cookbooks hold a significant role in the archives here at Baylor. In fact, apart from our cookbooks here at Poage Library, The Texas Collection at Baylor University holds the Texas Cookbook Collection which is currently made up of over 7,600 volumes. [12] Cookbooks are women’s history, and Baylor special collections offer an excellent example.

Be sure to let us know if you try any of the recipes!

Find the Featured Recipes at This Link!

Works Cited

[1] 1923 Forward quoted in 1976 Congressional Club Cookbook

[2] https://history.house.gov/Collection/Detail/15032440084

[3] 05 Jul 1961, 6 – The Park City Daily News at Newspapers.com – CCC Blog.pdf

[4] Sen. Capito’s husband, Charlie, first man to lead Congress spouses’ club (senate.gov)

[5] Reading Women’s Lives in Cookbooks and Other Culinary Writings: A Critical Essay  Cairn.info

[6] Reading Women’s Lives in Cookbooks and Other Culinary Writings: A Critical Essay  Cairn.info

[7] 1933 Congressional Cookbook p. xi

[8] 21 Jun 1956, 10 – The Selma Times-Journal at Newspapers.com CCC blog.pdf (pg. 10)

[9] 26 Mar 1951, Page 4 – The Record-Argus at Newspapers.com CCC blog.pdf

[10] https://www.cairn.info/revue-francaise-d-etudes-americaines-2008-2-page-99.htm

[11] https://silo.pub/the-womanist-reader.html

[12] Research Ready: March 2019 – The Texas Collection (baylor.edu)

Works Referenced

Congressional Cookbooks 1933, 1945, 1955, 1970, 1976, 1982, 1998 at Poage Legislative Library

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