Breaking bread: Cookbooks capture rich culinary traditions at local churches

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When former first lady Mamie Eisenhower was spotted in Greenfield in 1976, she was presented with a cookbook from Greenfield Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Pictured are, from left, former Greenfield mayor Berry Hurley, Marjorie Hurley, Wanita Marshall, Mamie Eisenhower, and Bob Marshall.

File photo

Years ago, when someone noticed former first lady Mamie Eisenhower making a spontaneous stop in Greenfield, they offered her hearty greetings and a local church cookbook.

That’s how powerful the food shared in area congregations can be in capturing the feel of a place.

Along with the spiritual nourishment churches seek to share through the year, many food-related events form a local culinary calendar of sorts. Here’s just some of what’s served in a given year:

-In late January and early February, near the end of football season, there are Souper Bowl events at some churches. The congregation of Gateway Community Church of Fortville, for example, will gather Feb. 5 after the 10 a.m. service for a Souper Bowl time of fellowship featuring homemade crocks of soup and desserts. On the line is the traveling first-place trophy for the best soup.

-In early February, people of Mt. Comfort Church also come together over soups and desserts. This year’s event is 5 p.m. Feb. 5. Desserts are auctioned to raise money for the youth group’s summer mission trip and the Joyful Days Childcare Ministry. With the dessert prices really being donations, it’s possible for a chocolate cake, for example, to fetch $200.

-During Lent, Hancock County’s Catholic parishes typically serve a series of fish fry meals (or other meatless selection) on Fridays. This year, the first Friday in Lent is Feb. 24, and meals continue throughout March.

-In June, Bradley United Methodist serves up strawberries, ice cream and shortcake in the annual Strawberry Festival — using a shortcake recipe passed along by nearby First Presbyterian Church. The latter closed in 2020, but not before passing the festival baton, and the recipe, to Bradley.

-In summer, Gateway Community Church of Fortville and Shirley-Wilkinson Community United Methodist Church serve some summer lunches each week for schoolchildren away from their school cafeterias, or anyone else who would like to stop by for a meal.

-In August, a chicken noodle dinner is a signature part of the menu at the annual St. Thomas Festival.

-In September, there’s a fish fry going on at the annual Lord’s Acre Festival, a 70-year tradition at McCordsville United Methodist Church.

There’s also a cube steak dinner at Willow Branch United Methodist Church that offers neighbors in this rural community a chance to come together over food and conversation. Proceeds from the event go back out to organizations serving the community.

-In October, fudge and noodles are likely to be among the items Westland Friends Church members are selling at a Riley Festival booth. Proceeds from the booth fund charitable endeavors, such as large baskets of food and cleaning supplies given to families in need at Christmastime.

Also in October, churches offer candy and prizes to children during trunk-or-treats.

-In November, a team at McCordsville United Methodist Church makes noodles for the annual community Thanksgiving dinner served on a Saturday a week or two before Thanksgiving.

-In December, church bazaars and cookie walks feature homemade cookies and candy, often sold by the pound.

With all these food-related events going on at local houses of worship, it’s perhaps not surprising that a number of churches have published cookbooks over the years, sometimes selling them at their own bazaars or at the Riley Festival.

Often they were sold as fundraisers: a 1975 cookbook at Eden United Methodist Church raised money for church choir projects, a 1984 cookbook at Greenfield Church of God raised money to help pave the parking lot, and a 2018 cookbook at Fortville Christian Church supported ministry in the Dominican Republic.

Among other church cookbooks noted in the archives of the Daily Reporter are volumes by Faith United Methodist Church (1975), Mt. Comfort United Methodist Church (1981), Fortville United Methodist Church (1983), Bradley United Methodist Church (2001 and 2021), and St. James Lutheran Church (2003, published along with the A Day Away adult day care that met at the church).

But what of Mamie Eisenhower and the cookbook gifted to her? Well, in 1976, the widowed former first lady was traveling from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to attend a dedication service in Abilene, Kansas — site of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum.

Riding along I-70, she saw the Greenfield exit and remembered James Whitcomb Riley was from Greenfield, so she stopped to eat lunch.

Former Greenfield Mayor Berry Hurley and his wife, Margie, spotted her at the restaurant and conversed some time with her. They gave her two copies of the 1976 Greenfield Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) cookbook as a gift before she kissed them goodbye and left with the group of Secret Service agents accompanying her.