Community cookbooks are compilations of local recipes, often assembled and published by a historical society or church group as a way to raise money for a good cause. Mostly, they don’t make it onto library shelves, but if you frequent yard sales or examine almost anyone’s cookbook collection, you’ll find them, bound with a wire or a plastic comb, authorless and often lacking either copyright page or publication date.
They’ve been around forever. Stuffed with recipes donated from local women, and sometimes men, they have been sold as community fundraisers all over the country, including Montauk, East Hampton and Shelter Island. Reading them today is a journey to the past, where you may dine with the kind of people who chose to be immortalized by their favorite recipe.
The Ladies Village Improvement Society of East Hampton Cookbook
The best-known community cookbook in these parts is The Ladies Village Improvement Society of East Hampton Cookbook, which has been revised and reissued many times since its first appearance in the Victorian Era.
Recipes were contributed by the cream of society, including families with still-familiar names such as Bouviers, Payne, Bartholet, Conklin and Bradford. At a time when a woman with status avoided having her name in print (with the exception of her wedding announcement), having her name attached to a recipe included in a cookbook compiled for a charitable cause was considered acceptable. It also provided an opportunity to show off her family’s refinement, and how beautifully she entertained.
In 1948, Mrs. Nathan H. Dayton, chairman of the cook book committee and a charter member of the LVIS helped bring forth a 300th anniversary edition, the anniversary being the founding of the town of East Hampton. The 1948 Ladies Village Improvement Society Cookbook included the history of food produced by “the rich East Hampton soil or of the sea and bays which surround the township on three sides, and the preparation of these products by famous East Hampton housewives.”
Mrs. I.Y. Halsey’s recipe from the 1948 edition suggests that one should not use a newfangled “food chopper” to make her Cabbage Salad, but stick with a “chopping knife.” Mrs. Arnold Rattray’s recipe for Tossed Green Salad is an essay that calls for sorrel and “wild young dandelion” and ends poetically: “This makes a vegetable dish that never lacks variety.”
Subsequent revisions of the LVIS Cookbook continued the tradition of including famous East Hampton housewives and househusbands. The 2020 edition was edited by Florence Fabricant, and included contributions from Christie Brinkley, Craig Claiborne, Pierre Franey, Ina Garten, Carla Hall, Ricky and Ralph Lauren, Eric Ripert and Martha Stewart.
Seafood Recipes from Local Waters
In 1972, Jacqueline Tuttle brought out the first edition of Seafood Recipes from Local Waters, which she collected and compiled from cooks on Shelter Island, baymen in Greenport and East End restaurants. Her family owned a fish market in Greenport for many years, and she became so frustrated with customers who had no idea how to cook fish, that she decided to do something about it.
To read the book is to experience time travel—back to days when the local waters were full of a variety of fish and it was easy to get. She described seven different kinds of clams, and wrote about lobsters and mussels, “Lobsters can be caught throughout the year but they are most plentiful in the summer when they come closer inshore,” and “The blue-black mussel grows abundantly on the edges of many of our creeks.” Today, most clams are farmed elsewhere, and lobsters and mussels come from the cooler waters of Maine; becoming scarce even there as the waters warm.
The recipes in Seafood Recipes from Local Waters are true to their time, often calling for ingredients that were considered fancy at the time, such as maraschino cherries and Campbell’s Golden Mushroom Soup, or reflecting the nutrition science of the time; suggesting margarine as a healthier substitute for butter.
Some contributed recipes were already considered antique in 1972. To make potted mackerel the way Shelter Island’s Captain Ed Clark Jr. learned it, you don’t need modern refrigeration, but you do need a bean pot. He called for six mackerel, cleaned, head and tail removed and cut crosswise into chunks, to go into the bean pot with salt, brown sugar, cloves, bay leaves and pickling spice. The pot is filled with wine vinegar to cover the fish (and dissolve the bones) and then baked in a low oven for four hours. The technique preserved perishable fish until it could be served, usually as a snack or appetizer.
The Montauk Point Lighthouse Cookbook
In the early 1990s, the newly renovated Montauk Point Lighthouse needed some funding, so the Montauk Historical Society answered the call with a community cookbook that is still loved and used by cooks at the far end of the South Fork. Some of the recipes involve Ritz crackers and Jell-O, as 30 years ago when manufacturers developed recipes and printed them on the box, home cooks often adopted the recipes as well as the products. But Mia Certic, director of the Historical Society says the recipes, while somewhat uneven by contemporary standards, include real gems.
Certic likes a recipe for pickled bluefish, from contributor Nancy Perretta, who said it came from “a couple who were camping in Hither Hills State Park many years ago.” Capt. Clark’s potted mackerel, from Jackie Tuttle’s book, is a very old version of the same dish.
Contributor Gail Webb’s recipe for stuffed clams is a crowd-pleasing appetizer, and includes the instruction to use a microwave to steam open the clams and a Cuisinart to chop them. These were the ’90s; days of appliance-crazy cooks, when owning a food processor was a status symbol and there was only one brand that would do.
Prominent local citizens have long been important contributors to community cookbooks and Montauk is no exception. Who would hesitate to prepare Roberta Gosman Donovan’s Flounder Stuffed with a Shrimp, especially since she is a member of the same Gosman family that owned a Montauk seafood institution?
The Shelter Island Historical Society Cookbook
Published as a fundraiser 10 years ago, the Shelter Island Historical Society Cookbook is equal parts showcase for the worldliness of its contributors and preserver of Island food traditions. You can practically smell Kirsten Lewis’s Sudanese Tabbuli, described in her headnote as coming, “from the time we lived in Khartoum”—a fragrant blend of green and red onions, bulgur, mint and two bunches of parsley.
Dorothy Bloom’s recipe for Aunt Annie’s Ginger Cookies comes with a brief history of the bakery run by her grandmother in the 19th century when the cookies were an Island favorite. Thanks to Shelter Island’s community cookbook, you can taste them too. Pour yourself a nice cup of tea, get out the rolling pin and experience days gone by.
But maybe substitute butter for the Crisco.
Pickled Bluefish from the Montauk Point Lighthouse Cookbook
- 2 1 lb bluefish fillets
- 2 medium onions (or 1 large Bermuda onion)
- 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
- 1/2 cup white vinegar
- 1/4 cup kosher salt
- 3 tbsp sugar
- 1 tbsp pickling spice
- Remove and discard all dark meat from fish fillets and cut fish into bite-size pieces.
- Slice onions thinly and layer alternately with fish in a suitable container (glass or plastic) with a lid.
- Boil all ingredients for marinade for 3 minutes. Allow to cool.
- When marinade is cool, pour over fish and onions, covering completely. Refrigerate for at least 7 days. The pickled fish will keep almost indefinitely in the refrigerator.