Chef Tim Graham spent his youth trailing his parents around flea markets. While they looked for mid-century modern ephemera to sell for their business, Graham would page through stacks of women’s community cookbooks. Even then, he had a sense of wonder about the books. Now, his enchantment is balanced by curatorial responsibility. “These books are an etymology of our modern food pathways,” Graham says. “They are the wheel ruts of the food traditions that we all share today.”
Graham has amassed more than 300 books, all produced by women for church groups, community centers, and charities. Most come from different parts of the Midwest, and the collection inspired the comfort food menu of Graham’s now-closed Chicago restaurant, Twain. Here, he shares his favorites.
'Ottawa's Favorite Recipes'
“The final paragraph reads, ‘The purpose of this cookbook is to raise enough money to purchase a projector and screen to provide our entertainment, especially during the long winter.’ It melts my heart. The section dividers are little envelopes for your own index cards. There’s maybe 20 pages of actual food in this one.”
'Cookery Illustrated and Household Management'
“Almost every one of these books is not just a cookbook—they’re about household management. The pre-internet, pre–food magazine, pre-cookbook era. These were guideways and maps of how to form a life. In that time, you’d be adrift without a textbook.”
“I took this to culinary school and showed everybody. There’s a caption on a black-and-white picture of unhealthy-looking foods that says, ‘Almost anything you like may be wrapped in bacon.’ It’s a snapshot of a generation where meat was front and center on the plate, all the time.”
'Secrets From Our Kitchens'
“The casserole chapters are huge, and there’s the introduction of frozen vegetables. A whole lot of cream-of-mushroom and cream-of-chicken soups. There’s less of a focus on rudimentary cooking. I guess that had to do with changing job needs and no longer dedicating as many hours providing for the household.”
'500 Delicious Salad Recipes'
“When these recipes tell you to use sweet milk, that’s not sweetened—it’s fresh milk, as opposed to sour milk, or buttermilk. Back when there was poor refrigeration, people made cottage cheese to preserve milk that was going bad. That’s why cot-tage cheese is so prevalent in these recipes. I take more joy in cottage cheese now.”