Church cookbooks were once so common, they were considered unremarkable. Living in the South, I know the scene well — Ladies League recipe pamphlets and community cookbooks litter the shelves of thrift stores. Yet the best food writers seek these records out, both as a means of preservation and as a way to gain insight on recipes that truly tell the stories of regional foodways and the cuisines of other cultures.
So I shouldn't have been surprised when, in researching Greek recipes for tzatziki, Greek dressing, and Greek salad, I found that a Church cookbook would be one of the most recommended, well-loved, and trusted resources. The Complete Book of Greek Cooking by the Recipe Club of Saint Paul's Greek Orthodox Cathedral is a compilation of two previous best-sellers with a rich history of over 50 years of women cooking and recording the recipes of their heritage.
The forward to The Complete Book of Greek Cooking tells the story succinctly (and modestly): A group of women calling themselves "The Recipe Club" compiled their "old family recipes" together into two different cookbooks, both written and sold as fundraisers for their beloved church. This book was a compilation of their best recipes from the two previous books. It goes on to explain that the Recipe Club also baked pastries for parishioners, gave cooking demonstrations, and hosted Greek food festivals, all the while turning their cookbook royalties into funds for the church.
But the story of the Recipe Club is distinctly more important to the history of Greek cooking in America than that forward tells. The Recipe Club published one of the first English language Greek recipe books, which would go on to to produce two best-selling cookbooks.
The Recipe Club began in 1957 as a group of 17 women, parishioners of St. Paul's Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Hempstead, NY, who wanted to collect and preserve original Greek recipes. They self-published a recipe book, The Grecian Gourmet, in 1958, which they sold as a fundraiser for the church.
It became a national hit when Craig Claiborne (famed food critic of the New York Times) gave it a rave review in the paper. Claiborne's review would pique the interest of larger book publishers, including Doubleday.
"It is cordially recommended not only to travelers to the Isles of Greece, but to those inspired and adventurous cooks who want to know more about the world's most interesting cuisine." - Craig Claiborne
A Deal with Doubleday and Two Bestsellers
Following the Claiborne review, the Recipe Club gave Doubleday permission to publish the recipes from The Grecian Gourmet into The Art of Greek Cookery in 1963. It would go on to be considered one of Doubleday's most successful niche cookbooks. Now out of print, copies are considered collector's items as well as required reading for anyone learning the essentials of Greek cuisine.
The Recipe Club followed the success of The Art of Greek Cookery publishing The Regional Cuisines Of Greece in 1981. Diversified food techniques and regional Greek cuisine became the hallmarks of another Doubleday bestseller at a time when the Recipe Club itself was losing and gaining members.
The Complete Book of Greek Cooking
Ten years later the Recipe Club decided to retest and rewrite their best recipes from both The Art of Greek Cookery and The Regional Cuisines Of Greece, which produced their current bestseller, "The Complete Book of Greek Cooking," published by Harper Collins.
The Complete Book of Greek Cooking takes 50 years of Greek recipes — well-tested, beloved, many passed down from grandmothers and great-aunts — and gives instructions for producing them in the modern kitchen. Many recipes show the cook how to make a recipe by hand and with modern equipment. Recipe names appear in both English and Greek. There are over 250 recipes in this volume, which doesn't leave much room for glossy photos. Instead smart illustrations show folding and cutting techniques as needed.
Fifty years of preserving "old family recipes" is quite a legacy for a group of women from Long Island, but their greater impact — teaching the world at large about Greek food — is often understated. It is also worth noting that all of the profits from the books, an estimated $200,000, have been donated back to The Cathedral of St. Paul, with expenses for creating and testing the recipes covered by the members of the Recipe Club.
Read more: The Recipe Club of St. Paul
What great cookbooks have you discovered lately?