Montgomery County cooks are eating up Heritage Montgomery’s new “African American Heritage Cookbook,” so much so that a second edition is already in the planning stages.
The project brings together generations of family stories and the local lore of several county communities. It was inspired by the Germantown-based nonprofit’s documentary video and accompanying gospel music CD, “Community Cornerstones: African American Communities in Montgomery County, Maryland.” The film focused on the history, music and anecdotes of several historic African American neighborhoods.
“Sarah Rogers, Heritage Montgomery’s executive director, conceptualized the African American Heritage Cookbook” to be an in-depth look at daily life in turn-of-the-century Montgomery County, according to Lori Ranney, Heritage Montgomery’s deputy director.
It is just as much a book as it is a cookbook. Rogers, who wrote the introduction, calls the 120-page volume “part historic recipes, part stories and history from local historic communities, and part guidebook of Montgomery County’s African American Heritage sites.”
The book features firsthand accounts collected by Dr. George McDaniel, former executive director of Drayton Hall, a National Trust for Historic Preservation site in Charleston, South Carolina. McDaniel wrote introductions to each of the cookbook’s chapters, weaving in the many interviews he conducted in the 1970s with residents of these communities during his work with the Maryland Historical Trust. At the time, his interviewees were in their 70s and 80s, which makes the cookbook a family album as well as an archive.
In addition to the mouthwatering recipes of yesteryear, the cookbook serves as a valuable record of buildings, cemeteries and community. “The book includes many historic photographs,” said Rogers, adding that “the book was designed to bring attention to these historic communities and to encourage folks to come out and visit.”
Between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, 40 African American churches were built in Montgomery County. Here, families cultivated their own spiritual, social and educational experiences, and food was a significant part of that. “African American Cookbook” readers will learn how recipe sharing, meal preparation and table gatherings maintained community connections.
“You do not have to be a cook to love this book,” Rogers emphasized. “The recipes are mostly very simple as people cooked with what was on hand, and even if you hate cooking, you’ll love the stories, the photos and learning about county history” by way of the authentic Maryland recipes dating from the 1700 and 1800s.
The recipes highlight foods served at gatherings like Homecoming and Juneteenth. “We researched many early recipes and to those, added recipes submitted by local churches,” Rogers said.
Rogers’ sister, Larkin Rogers, the award-winning executive chef for Extraordinary Spaces at the Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park, curated the book. For two days last June, the chef also visited the Button Farm Living History Center in Germantown where she demonstrated some of the cookbook’s recipes.
“My favorite parts of the book are the introductions, which tell the history of our many African American communities and the narratives by Dr. McDaniel,” said Rogers. “His interviews with community elders yielded stories from parents and grandparents going back to the Civil War and beyond. It’s so wonderful to hear these stories and get a feeling of entering a world we are quickly losing.”
McDaniel added that his stories “describe their values of faith, family and hard work and the care that [these African American communities] gave to the growing and making of food. It nourished both body and soul. Equally important is that the cookbook thankfully preserves these wonderful historical recipes. As a result, it can give readers the combined pleasures of both reading about the past and tasting it.”
Lest you think cookbooks are a dying breed (losing out to online recipe searches and blogs), Julie Bennett, Ten Speed Publishing cookbook editor, asserted that narrative cookbooks are on trend. “There are so many recipes online, but books present readers with well-curated, well-tested recipes,” she said. “They come with a story that’s unique, and readers are learning more about the personality of the author through their life, world, culture and food. …A personal story gives readers a new way of interacting with food that they thought they knew everything about, or food they knew nothing about. They can connect in an authentic and personal way.” concluded. In other words, no one’s buys Tom Brady’s $200 cookbook for the avocado ice cream recipe.
Asked for his favorite recipe, McDaniel could not choose just one. “I just admire the good food that resulted—all without the aids deemed essential today, such as timers, mixers, blenders, temperature gauges, on/off switches—even exhaust fans,” he said.
Chef Rogers noted that “not all the recipes have been tested and tweaked. Some were left as they stood, to serve as a record, a thank you and a testimonial to the women who so kindly submitted their families’ recipes. I didn’t feel it was my place or my right to alter their words. I did read and examine each recipe to ensure clarity and, where necessary, provide definition of ingredients (e.g. Spry) or techniques.”
Rogers raved about the peanut soup and the crackling bread recipes, adding that “all the desserts” are not to be missed. Bon appetit!
The “African American Heritage Cookbook” is available for $20 on the Gift Shop page at www.HeritageMontgomery.org. Profits from sales are being donated to participating church communities to help support this important part of Montgomery County history. Learn more about Heritage Montgomery here.