Once upon a time, back about ten years ago, I was dating a fine lass who hailed from a tiny Missouri burg by the name of Moberly. Moberly is halfway between St. Louis and Kansas City, about 35 miles north of Columbia, and surrounded by... not much. It is, however, home to St. Pius X Catholic Church. In 1995, the year I spent a little time in Moberly, St. Pius was badly damaged by a tornado... on the 4th of July, no less. But as far as I'm concerned, the more momentous occasion that year was the release of "Pleasures of the Good Earth", the St. Pius X Community Cookbook, a culinary compendium that is impressive in all kinds of ways.
In terms of the development of culinary appreciation, 1995 was a good year for me. It was the year I learned not to nonchalantly dismiss low-brow and semi-homemade concoctions. Stop laughing. Moberly was where I learned to stop looking down my nose at biscuits and gravy. Moberly was where I first sampled frozen meatballs simmered in a crock pot with yellow mustard and grape jelly, and was forced to admit that they were really tasty, no matter how disturbed I was by their composition. Moberly was where I watched Grammy Jo take an industrial-sized jar of the cheapest, nastiest breed of limp hamburger dills available, mix in a cup of sugar and a few dashes of Louisiana Hot Sauce, toss it in the fridge for a couple of days and magically produce a jarful of sweet, piquant and delightfully crisp pickles. It was like watching an alchemist at work. She might as well have been turning lead into gold.
But what I love about this cookbook is that it isn't exclusively composed of magical grandmotherly recipes. It delights and amuses from both ends of the spectrum, simultaneously encapsulating everything I adore and abhor about small town American food. It has the homey, comforting feel of a Scott Peacock cookbook, but with a lot more condensed soup. There are some real gems, to be sure, including a fantastic hot slaw I've made on a few occasions, more creamy appetizer dips than you can shake a triscuit at, and a horde of cakes and pies that look awesome. And when I'm done appreciating the homey goodness, I can gape at the train wrecks... of which there are quite a few.
There's the green bean recipe that calls for Sizzlean. There are a number of "Oriental" recipes that appear to have earned that moniker purely by virtue of the fact that they contain a modest amount of soy sauce. There are some pastas I found particularly disturbing, including the lasagna that incorporates cottage cheese and the "Seafood Linguine" that includes both milk and cream, garlic powder and chicken bouillon. As mentioned, condensed soup is present in abundance, but Ms. Leonard's "Clam Chowder" takes the Campbell's crown by mixing equal parts Campbell's celery soup, Campbell's cream of potato soup, Campbell's French onion soup and... oh yes... Campbell's England clam chowder (but, as the recipe reads most emphatically, "NOT Manhattan chowder"). How the clam chowder managed to outbid the other three for naming rights, I have no idea. But nothing, absolutely nothing, makes me die a little like reading the following "Helpful Hint" from the first page of the Meat, Poultry & Seafood section (my emphasis):
When shopping for red meats, buy the leanest cuts you can find. Fat will show up as an opaque white coating, and it can also run through the meat fibers themselves, as marbling. Although much outer fat (the white coating) can be trimmed away, there isn't much to be done about the marbling. Stay away from well marbled cuts of meat.
I'm assured that rumors of a connection between the printing of this helpful hint and the Moberly Independence Day tornado are entirely unfounded. This was, for context's sake, leading into the chapter containing recipes with ingredient lines such as 2 Lbs. bulk pork sausage, 1 C. melted oleo, 1 stick of butter, 2 cans gravy, 10 thick slices bacon and 1 Lb. Velveeta cheese. Apparently, the good denizens of Moberly might very well be done in by their foodstuffs, but by god, beef fat won't be the culprit! I feel a little guilty poking fun, but I hope it's clear that it's well-intentioned, loving abuse. If it hasn't already been done, somebody really needs to scour the country for these parish cookbooks and produce a master compilation. They're history, amusement and deliciousness all in one... though not necessarily at the same time.