Most recipe lovers who dig through their cookbook collection will find a few treasures published by a group of church women. The books may be inherited from a mother or grandmother, or picked up at a church fundraiser. They’re filled with homespun recipes, but is there really much more to them than recipes for meatloaf and gelatin salad?
Cheryl McCann and her friends at the Clay County Archives and Historical Library believed it was a pot that needed to be stirred. With more than a pinch of research, the real story bubbled to the top, and a new fundraiser was born: It’s one that mixes memories with meals to give a unique perspective on the women who helped build Liberty — one teacup at a time.
“The Economy Cook Book,” first published in 1880 by the Presbyterian Ladies of Liberty, then revised and republished in 1903, was uncovered in a thrift store and donated to the archive. McCann has now compiled a “third” 2017 edition — “Stirring Up History” — that proves the women behind the recipes were more than women who could make a good creme puff.
Of course, Mrs. M.E. Lawson, given name Kate, did make a good creme puff. Kate had auburn hair and the great love of a man named Martin. She lived in a Liberty home that still stands with its sweeping front porch on a corner lot. Kate knew by instinct that you needed to leave the creme puffs in the oven with the door closed to cool, or they would not rise correctly.
It was something McCann had to learn by trial and error.
“It’s a really simple recipe, but it’s kind of intricate,” McCann said. Simplicity is what the cookbook leaves behind as the women’s legacy, but McCann found a more intricate story.
For instance, Mrs. Dougherty’s raspberry jam is an award winner. It came out red and sweet, but not too sweet. Her written version shows much of the cooking of the time was instinctual. There are no times or temperatures. There was no running water at the time, or gas or electric stoves. Instructions include making sure the mix is heated “until you can’t bear your finger in it. It doesn’t say that “Mrs. Dougherty” was born Missouri Anne America Carry, or that the minister at her wedding was the president of William Jewell College.
Henrietta White Champ evidently made an excellent sauce for baked fish and cold plum pudding. Her recipe explains the necessity of boiling a lemon peel until the flavor in drawn out. But the reader of the book does not discover what McCann and her friends unearthed: Champ came to Clay County from Kentucky as a slave. Nor does it mention she stayed in Clay County with her husband, Jack, after emancipation to raise their eight children in Liberty. Thirty years later, she could read and write, and she owned her own home.
The cookbook research challenges some ideas of what these women’s lives might have been like nearly 140 years ago. McCann says she found resilience in these early Clay County residents. These women had lots of children and many faced the loss of one or more of them. Many were widowed and remarried more than once. One woman ended up in a mental hospital.
“When you start writing their biographies, you find out these women were not doormats,” McCann said. “They didn’t have the same rights and privileges we have today, and yet they were still very effective. They still raised great children. They were out selling school bonds. They were powerful in their community.”
Many of the women were well-educated in a town where there were two colleges for women.
Some of them might have been a little vain. Why else might Missouri Anne America Bevins have insisted that her Confederate-leaning husband save her large mirror when they were fleeing Union troops camped near their home? He complied, and the mirror survives and can be seen in the Clay County Historical Museum on the Liberty Square today.
McCann first saw the “Economy Cook Book” when a friend donated it to the Clay County Archives and Historical Library. The little building is often packed with volunteers going through the hundreds of thousands of pages of donated historic documents. They are slowly indexing the materials so they can be found and used by researchers like McCann.
Nancy George, the vice president of the Archives, says while the City of Liberty owns the building, the facility is kept open exclusively through volunteer labor and donations. She started volunteering when looking up her own family history.
“Preserving your history tells you a lot about your past, but it may help you understand the future,” George said. “If we’re able to preserve these records, it’s helpful for people who have an interest in history. When people come in, you can put in a name and it brings up a whole list of things we have available for that person or family.”
McCann decided to not take a profit from the sale of the “Stirring Up History” book and instead donate the proceeds to the Archives, where she did much of her research and where her friend originally opened the question of what it would be like to discover the stories of the women in the book and try out their recipes.
Once McCann got started on the project, it really captured her imagination.
The research became a community effort, kind of like the original cookbook. It is one of the things McCann likes best about the project, the broader story of community and inclusion revealed behind the pies, breads and advice for cleaning carpets. The “Presbyterian ladies” who edited the recipes clearly included a wide swath of women from different backgrounds and social levels.
“In this town that was very Southern leaning and somewhat segregated during different times in its history — during this time, for this project, they came together,” McCann said.
The women also saw a lot of changes over time. Their stories track through Civil War stories, women who arrived in Clay County in the 1820s, and at least one woman who lived until the late 1970s. Many of the women are buried at Fairview Cemetery, just a few blocks from McCann’s Liberty home.
She walks there often, and discovered researching the recipes and the women behind them also stirred up a new sense of her own history and identity. She hopes she has cooked up something that will inspire others to look at a new perspective on history in their own families.
“I don’t have a lot of family history of my own. I don’t have stories or heirlooms,” McCann said. “So, these ladies have kind of become a replacement for that. My family didn’t write their stories. If I could provide that for someone else, that would be nice.”
McCann is available for presentations on the subject. She does not charge for the service. The book can be purchased through her website at the Clay County Archives Library, the Clay County Museum & Historical Society, the Atkins-Johnson Farm and Museum, Leila’s Hair Museum, Inklings’ Book and Coffee Shoppe, Midwest Genealogy Center or Mid-Continent Public Library.