I’m not inclined to defend Elizabeth Warren on many counts but on one, well, I have scruples. When the pemmican hit the fan again about her genealogy, much was made of her contributions to Pow Wow Chow, a cookbook put out by the Five Civilized Tribes Museum of Muskogee, Oklahoma, in 1984. In particular, she was accused of plagiarism. A University of Texas law professor at the time, Warren chipped in several recipes of varying appeal, including one for cold crabmeat omelettes that came straight from a Pierre Franey column in the New York Times. (He said it was a great favorite with the Windsors and Cole Porter.)
Odd for Oklahoma? Maybe. Sprinkled with food-snobbery? Perhaps. Copied word for word? Well, close. But that’s pretty much how it goes with the community recipe collection, published in the thousands by churches, civic and local groups, PTAs, and for all I know anarchist collectives since shortly after the Civil War. Designed to raise funds for a new church roof, or to support a museum, or for some other laudable purpose, such volumes were pretty much guaranteed to be local bestsellers. Presbyterian ladies bought the Baptist cookbook with the tacit understanding that the kitchen tables would be turned, as it were, when the newest edition of Calvinist Cookin’ came along in a couple of years.
As the tradition grew in the 20th century, so did custom and convention. The editor asked her circle for their favorites, and contributors knew what they sent would see print. Secret, signature recipes were welcomed but not demanded. And church ladies being human too, a spice of competitiveness brightened the default of the tall-poppy, high-soufflé inclination not to get above one’s leavening.
The hungrier reader will have noted that the era of community cookbooks took off at about the same time as the national grocery market. Very early on it was necessary to tell cooks to “open the top of can with a can opener,” but by the time Campbell’s introduced cream of mushroom soup in 1934, that was a distant memory, and magazines—and the club cookbooks—gobbled up the opportunity to incorporate modern trends. Cake mixes came along and Jell-O too; in an effort to demonstrate its regional appeal, a 1922 cookbook shows a California monk, in the Serra mold, carrying a glistening dessert, in the Jell-O mold.
The ubiquity of product-driven recipes meant a transition from genuinely local cuisine (“first, catch a possum”) to the rapid dissemination of recipes originating in Betty Crocker’s kitchen and its counterparts. By the time a couple of people copied one on three-by-five cards and passed it along, it was like a home‑ec version of the telephone game. Sure, somebody added lemon zest and somebody else some diced onions or Le Sueur peas, but underneath it was the same Des Moines-tested recipe from Better Homes and Gardens.
This means that the golden era of the community cookbook—say the 1950s through the 1980s, before foodism and the Interweb—featured a salmagundi of recipes, from surviving local specialties to a quite astonishing degree of duplication. (Remember, if you submit, it’s going to fit.) Seven recipes for cornbread, sure, but probably 17 for that all-time favorite: Better Than Sex Cake. BTS Cake (sometimes presented with a self-aware question mark) tends to involve the ur-ingredients of spiral-bound cookbooks: cake mix; pudding mix; sweetened condensed milk or Cool Whip or both; crushed pineapple; chopped nuts. The chocolate version is sometimes called “Robert Redford Cake” and may incorporate two (!) pudding mixes as befits the deliciousness of its namesake. Such was the popularity of these cakes that even the bluest-rinsed small-town ladies daringly submitted their versions, and I’ve seen them printed right alongside their recipes for scripture cake (“six eggs, Isaiah 10:14, ‘my hand hath found . . . a nest . . . and as one gathereth eggs . . . have I gathered all the earth’ ”).
As more people mastered fancy cooking and olive oil showed up all over the place, some cooks culled their dishes from fancier sources. That’s how I submitted that coffee dessert involving espresso and whipped cream to the Crawford, Georgia, Woman’s Club Cookbook of 1975, and it’s probably how Elizabeth Warren clipped Pierre Franey’s crabmeat omelette recipe and sent it to her cookbook-compiling cousin in Muskogee. A copied recipe is just a time-tested form of community participation, sort of like sharing an actual meal.
My scruples? A scruple is an ancient unit of measure, about equal to what most of the cooks we’re talking about would call a nice big pinch. It seems like to me we can give Elizabeth Warren the benefit of the doubt here and take the plagiarism charge with a heaping scruple of salt.