• Set the Table with Switchel

    Set the Table with Switchel

    Long a staple in Northeast hayfields as a thirst quencher and restorative, switchel—alternatively called “haymaker’s punch” —was a colonial era proto-Gatorade, a source of both hydration and electrolyte replenishment. Recipes vary, but the most common ingredients were molasses, cider vinegar, and ginger, mixed to taste in a jug of very cold well water. While the concoction could have provided benefit to all manner of laborers and sporting folks, its use was particularly common among the workers of the hayfield and the children who carried the switchel jug to them.

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  • Bartered, Smuggled, and Bought

    Bartered, Smuggled, and Bought

    When the Upper Valley Localvores took their first 100–mile diet challenge in August 2005, we came upon a serious stumbling block. No local salt! Tomatoes and corn–on–the–cob were abundant, but oh, we needed salt. Fortunately, one of our members had vacationed in Maine and brought back a precious supply of sea salt. It made us wonder what our Upper Valley ancestors had done for salt.

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  • Eat it on the Radio

    Eat it on the Radio

    In his book Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, Vermont author and environmentalist Bill McKibben focuses on the importance of strong communities for the health and well-being of the planet and its people. He suggests that we can strengthen our home regions by producing more of our own food, generating more of our own energy, and even creating more of our own culture and entertainment. To achieve these goals, McKibben advises, we need to build or rebuild local institutions that draw people together, and one such institution that he cites in his book is a low-power radio station in the Mad River Valley: WMRW-LP Warren, 95.1 FM.

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  • A Passion for Artisan Soap

    A Passion for Artisan Soap

    My soap-making journey started a decade or so ago, when I was becoming more and more sensitized (allergic) to mainstream, detergent-type soaps. Eventually I just couldn’t use them anymore. As I researched the subject, I became alarmed at what was being used in cosmetic products on the market, not to mention all the harmful chemicals leaching into our waterways as a result of those products. I decided to start making my own soap, and the enthusiasm I had back then for soap making has now turned into a passion and a business for me. My only regret is that I didn’t start making them sooner!

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  • Halal in the Hills

    Halal in the Hills

    Art Meade is a 59-year-old livestock and poultry farmer with a thick Maine accent and a farm on Route 100 in Morrisville. He also happens to run the only state-licensed slaughter facility in Vermont that caters to Muslims who practice halal slaughter. This is the Muslim tradition of swiftly slitting the throat of a domesticated meat animal with a sharp knife; the animal is believed to be killed instantly and painlessly (though there is some debate about that). Muslims, who are directed by their religion to eat halal meat, can purchase such meat in Vermont stores, but some prefer to do the slaughter themselves.

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  • How to Start a Community Garden

    How to Start a Community Garden

    Back in January, as my husband and I searched for a place to live in Middlebury, we had big plans to create a summer vegetable garden. But it quickly became clear that housing in town with gardening space wouldn’t be easy to find. Apartments that advertised a “big yard” always seemed to have a “scruffy lawn,” and few landlords reacted well to my desire to dig out a portion of that lawn to plant vegetables.

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  • The Story of Bread

    The Story of Bread

    Green Mountain Flour, a new artisan bakery in Windsor owned and operated by Zachary Stremlau and Daniella Malin, takes a unique approach to its craft: it uses local wheat, local milling, and local fuel to create its flours, breads, and pizzas. Here, woodcuts that comprise the bakery’s logo tell “the story of bread,” echoing a time in early New England when, according to Zachary and Daniella, “the farmers knew the miller, the miller milled with stone, and the baker baked with fire.”

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  • How to Get Grounded

    How to Get Grounded

    On a road in Cabot, not far from the land that Laura Dale and Cyrus Pond bought this past March, you can look out to the west at a horizon dominated by the undulating spine of the Green Mountains. For many young farmers in Vermont, the cost of land can seem as daunting and insurmountable as the largest of those mountains in the dead of winter.

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  • Tapping for Taste

    Tapping for Taste

    There are people in Vermont who prefer fake maple syrup—not just people who are looking for something cheaper but who actually prefer the stuff made of corn syrup. There are other people in Vermont who don’t talk to those fake syrup types. And there are Vermonters who stand by Grade B for all occasions and others who keep a little Fancy on hand.

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  • Farming & Feasting with the Robinsons: Winter

    Farming & Feasting with the Robinsons: Winter

    In the not-so-distant past, eating locally was a way of life and a matter of necessity. For four generations, the Robinson family farmed in Ferrisburgh, at the place known today as the Rokeby Museum. The museum’s collection includes correspondence and household records detailing the family’s ways of farming, preserving, and eating. In the last of this four-part series, we take a look at how the Robinsons cooked, ate, and farmed in the late 1800s.

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  • Classy Wheat

    Classy Wheat

    Last year, I arrived at The Putney School as their new gardener and was tasked with getting the high school students at this Putney boarding and day school excited about gardening. Early on, the farm manager told me he had planted some wheat on the edge of one of the farm’s hayfields. I was intrigued.

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  • Farm Camp—Planting Confidence, Harvesting Strength

    Farm Camp—Planting Confidence, Harvesting Strength

    As I downshift off the Putney exit of I-91, my husband, Jerry, is roused from his dozing by the hollow sound of several hundred jostling maple syrup jugs. It’s April, time to buy containers for our maple syrup at Bascom’s 10% container sale, and time to post Farm Camp flyers.

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  • The First Localvores

    The First Localvores

    I have always been fascinated by wild foods. When I was a kid growing up in Indiana we had a copy of Euell Gibbons’ book Stalking the Wild Asparagus, and I remember how exciting it was to read about eating cattails, making acorn flour, and brewing sassafras tea. As I recall, the cattail stalks tasted a bit like mild turnips, the acorn flour was tannic and needed a lot of processing before being edible, and the tea tasted like something just this side of root beer. Little did I know as a kid that wild edibles such as cattails and acorns were just a couple of the foods historically gathered and consumed by the first people to inhabit the state I would one day call home.

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  • Restoring Vermont’s Heritage

    Restoring Vermont’s Heritage

    “The farming of our fathers was exceedingly simple, content to draw from a virgin soil the supplies of simple wants, instead of aiming itself for their increase. With the impoverishment of the soil, with the forests almost swept off the face of the country and the consequent climate change, with the multiplied wants of society and development of so many new industries, the highest intelligence and energies are required to remodel our system of agriculture so that it may fully meet the demands made upon it.

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Cookbooks, Culture, and Community


Written By

Michael Lange

Written on

September 01 , 2010

Food and culture…the localvore movement, the Food Network, celebrity chefs, ubiquitous foodies, holiday dinners, ethnic recipes, and restaurants. Plenty of people would happily agree if you told them that food was an important part of culture. They may not know exactly what you (or they) mean by the word culture, but most people are pretty sure that food plays a large role within it. And many people take part in food culture by buying, reading, and using cookbooks.

I am an anthropologist and a folklorist, so I study culture for a living. In my day job, I’m a professor at Champlain College in Burlington, teaching courses in critical thinking and culture, while my academic research is ethnographic, which means that I interact with and observe people directly in order to understand their cultural beliefs, behaviors, and norms. By talking with people, both formally and informally, about their own lives and in their own contexts, I try to understand what is important to them and why.

When I moved to Vermont three years ago, never having lived in New England, I began focusing some of my research on the cultures of Vermont in order to start understanding my new home. I garden and cook myself, and food has always been personally, as well as professionally, important to me, so it seemed only natural to use food as an avenue for understanding Vermont culture. I wanted to learn how food was intersecting the lives of local, everyday people, rather than just a few, or the elite. I also wanted to explore some aspect of food that was out of the ordinary—food as a special event, so to speak. So I decided to talk to people who produced local cookbooks, the type created by individuals or organizations as fundraisers or to promote a certain aspect of Vermont. My goal was to get some idea of what they were trying to convey in their cookbooks. Specifically, I wanted to see how they were creating and presenting a sense of local identity.

I started by asking friends for cookbooks. Being new to Vermont, I needed to get the lay of the culinary land. People loaned me cookbooks of all types, from professional, widely available books down to ones created by their family to celebrate Grandma’s birthday. After some reconnoitering, I contacted the people who produced some of the cookbooks—the writers, editors, and publishers. I looked at more than 40 Vermont-based cookbooks in all and interviewed approximately a dozen people who had a hand in creating one. Some of the cookbooks were produced to raise money for a school district or church; others were promotional items for businesses. They ranged from barely more than pamphlets photocopied and distributed to friends and family all the way to professional publications with full-color photography.

One aspect shared by all the cookbooks was a conscious effort on the part of the authors, editors, or compilers to create a sense of locality in their cookbooks. Local cookbooks are very often firmly rooted in a place. That place can be, say, a parish church or a local tourist stop. Whatever scale the cookbook is trying to cover, each one attempts to connect itself to some identifiable place in the mind of the person viewing the cookbook. Why? Rooting a cookbook in a place makes it more than a recipe collection. It makes the collection an extension of that spot, a little portable piece of the place. This aspect is especially important in the tourist industry, which is dedicated to packaging places and experiences for consumption. When tourists visit an area, they often want to take away a small piece of that area as a souvenir (evidence of their visit) and a cookbook can play that role.

On the other hand, one interviewee who coordinated and edited a cookbook talked about her book as a response to a feeling of “rootlessness” in her town. She summed it up better than I could when she said, “We want this cookbook to be the voice of the community.” Local cookbooks often try to be just that. They try to speak of something essential to whatever community from which they come. As an anthropologist, I call that essential something ”cultural identity.”

One of my favorite cookbooks was created by a class of English language learners to celebrate their various homelands and the new bond they shared as Vermont residents. It especially resonated with me because it showed how these new Vermonters were integrating themselves into the culture of the state while maintaining their immigrant identities from places such as Sudan, Russia, and Morocco. Their cookbook was designed for the students to be “a tangible item that marks in some way one of their successes in this country,” as their teacher said. The recipes in this cookbook are surrounded with pictures of the students, emphasizing the memento role of the cookbook. The pictures also make a connection with the reader; I don’t have to know the students to feel connected to them through their smiling faces and their food.

Local cookbooks can also serve an internal community. The congregants of a church, for example, can buy a parish cookbook to represent their connection to the group, to financially support their church, or to send portions of their church metaphorically to others as a gift. The person is buying a symbolic piece of the church—but what is it symbolic of? The purchaser wants to remember the experience of visiting the church, or the congregant wants to represent their connection to the community that is represented by the church building.

So, when someone decides to create a local cookbook, it’s usually a good idea to make sure the book can serve as that symbolic vessel. In Vermont, one of the easiest ways to make a cookbook symbolically “Vermonty” is to include a maple recipe. Maple is the paradigmatic Vermont flavor, and you would be hard-pressed to find a cookbook that claims Vermont provenience without at least one maple syrup recipe. Other ingredients can stand in for Vermont, of course. Wild game, apples, cheddar cheese, and milk can all be employed to evoke a characteristic sense of Vermont in recipes. By evoking Vermont with such ingredients, a cookbook can connect someone to the state and the experiences they have had (or even wish to have) here.

I am still working on this research, so there are no complete answers yet, but I’ve learned a few things about Vermont so far. People here have a very strong sense of identity, and they very consciously use their food as part of that identity. I would like to be able to tell you what that identity is, but I can’t, and I won’t. There is no singular Vermont identity. People living here have many different ways to be Vermonters, and those ways come out in the cookbooks they create, the recipes they cook, and the foods they enjoy. There are certain common themes, like maple syrup, but you only need to leaf through a cookbook or visit a sugarhouse to see all the different things that maple can mean. The fact is that for every person who states categorically, “This is Vermont’s identity,” there are five people standing behind them doing things differently. It is the mix of these individual personalities—and the connections between the people—that makes Vermont what it is, just as it does any other place.

Local cookbooks make connections. They do so in different ways, but they all attempt, consciously or unconsciously, to link people to a place, a person, or an experience. This process of affiliation is more important in local cookbooks than in nationally distributed ones. Rachael Ray, Rick Bayless, and Mario Batali try to create symbolic connections in their cookbooks as well, but they want you to connect to their public persona. For a small-scale, local cookbook, there is no cult of personality on which to draw. By evoking a memory or symbolizing a place or experience, a local cookbook trades on an identity. As soon as a reader can relate to the identity that is being constructed and presented in a local cookbook, then that cookbook becomes meaningful to them. And meaning is where culture resides.

Photo by Meg Lucas

A sampling of Vermont cookbooks

Large-scale cookbooks designed for wide distribution

Cooking Close to Home, by Diane Imrie and Richard Jarmusz

Dishing Up Vermont, by Tracey Medeiros

Cooking with Shelburne Farms, by Melissa Pasanen and Rick Gencarelli

The River Run Cookbook, by Jimmy and Maya Kennedy and Marialisa Calta

The Cook's Garden, by Shepherd and Ellen Ogden

Small-scale cookbooks for local distribution

Treasured Recipes from Burlington Convalescent Center

Now You’re Cookin’ with Vermont Gas, by Vermont Gas

A Collection of Recipes and Memories from the Converse Home, Burlington

Green Mountain Favorites from the Northern Vermont Chapter of the American Red Cross

Cooking Up Community from F. H. Tuttle Middle School PTO in South Burlington

VPT Cooks! from Vermont Public Television

Living Soil, Thriving Farms, Healthy Communities from Rural Vermont

The Vermont Beekeepers’ Cookbook from the Vermont Beekeepers Association

Vermonters’ Guide to Gathering, Growing & Cooking with Local Foods, by Sue Greenall

The Official Vermont Maple Cookbook series from the Vermont Maple Foundation

Out of Vermont Kitchens from St. Paul’s Cathedral, Burlington

IBM Club Favorite Recipes

Home Cooking from Hinesburg Elementary School

Spider Bread, Cider Pie & Rhubarb Wine, Hundreds of Recipes, Ancient & Modern, from Members & Friends of the Weathersfield Historical Society

Kristina's Kitchen Cookbook, by Kristina Creighton

The Vermont Village Cook Book, published by The Alpha Press, Landgrove, VT, 1963 for the benefit of the Community Fund.

Congregation Beth El: A History with Recipes of the Jewish Community in St. Johnsbury, Vermont (2009). Published by Congregation Beth El, PO Box 568, St Johnsbury VT 05819. Watch for updates at http://kitchenrevision.blogspot.com

If you know of any other Vermont cookbooks, tell us and we’ll add them to the list on our website. Email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

About the Author

Michael Lange

Michael Lange

Michael Lange is an anthropologist, folklorist, and professor at Champlain College in Burlington. He is doing research on various aspects of Vermont, including local cookbooks, education, and sugarmaking.

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