Pros: Delicious flavors; more than 500 recipes; useful information
Cons: Recipe inconsistencies; missing details; recipe problems
Rating: 3 out of 5
First posted 3/16/2005
Review book courtesy of Adams Media
I was looking forward to reviewing Elaine Robinson’s “The Church Potluck Supper Cookbook.” Unfortunately, while the basic flavors and ideas are good ones, the recipes themselves suffer from a few problems.
Nothing that we made from this cookbook was terrible; there was nothing that made me think the author was in any way a poor cook with bad ideas (or picked up her recipes indiscriminately). In fact, the basic flavors tended to be quite good. It’s just that there are a number of details missing from the recipes, not to mention ratios that just seemed off somehow, and similar things. It also seemed that many of these dishes were a little low-volume; when I think potluck supper, I tend to think of larger amounts of food. One scalloped tomato dish we made provided four not-oversized servings.
There were some recipes I wanted to try that I actually couldn’t. Imagine a recipe, if you will, that calls simply for a cup of “salad dressing” as one of its components. We’re not talking about a salad here, where any kind of dressing will do. This is a broccoli “pudding.” Using ranch, Italian, oil and vinegar, raspberry vinaigrette, or blue cheese is going to make a huge difference–probably the difference between something edible and something not. I’m guessing that Miracle Whip is probably what she meant, but she wanted to avoid using the brand name; in that case she could have said “salad dressing or mayonnaise”, which would have gotten the message across.
One of my pet peeves in a cookbook is inconsistency in the level of detail and type of notation. For example, if you have a cookbook where some herbs are mentioned as being dried and ground and others aren’t (but also aren’t specified as fresh), you can never be entirely sure whether those herbs are meant to be used fresh or dried–and there’ll be a big difference in the result. This cookbook contains a number of such inconsistencies. For example, a corn casserole calls for a 15 oz. can of cream-style corn, but a “small” can of regular corn. In my experience 15 oz. cans are the smallest I’ve seen, but since the recipe used different notation does that mean it’s supposed to be a smaller size? One recipe calls for “1 can mushroom soup.” Given cooking traditions this probably means a can of condensed cream of mushroom soup. But two recipes later we see “1 cup condensed cream of celery soup.” Now we have to wonder whether the mushroom soup really meant “condensed cream of” after all. Any inconsistency in notation may imply a difference in usage–once those differences creep in, you can never be entirely sure what a recipe is calling for. It’s very frustrating. These inconsistencies are probably due to the fact that the author collected these recipes from all over the place, but you’d think she would have at least tried the recipes and corrected such inconsistencies before printing them.
We tried a turkey dressing from this book that had a wonderful flavor to it. It was simple, and used basic poultry seasoning, bread, butter, eggs, stock, and so on. However, the consensus among all of the people who tried it was that the recipe should have used at least half again as much bread and possibly twice as much (both the consistency and the intensity of the flavors were off). The “crispee bars deluxe” (from a bar cookie recipe) were delicious, but two people found them too sweet and said they had too much chocolate, and I was right on the border–and I have a pretty high tolerance for sweet stuff. The aforementioned scalloped tomatoes were probably the best of the food we tried, but the recipe really didn’t make all that much.
Other than the inconsistencies that confuse things, these are simple, easy recipes. I found them easy to make by myself even when I was also busy with other things, and they didn’t take up much time. They’re simple enough that they tend to come two or three to a page. Layout is clear–there isn’t much to mess up in that area when you’re using such short and easy recipes!
There are no photos to go with the recipes, but when you’re talking about things like casseroles and bar cookies, this isn’t all that big a deal.
One of the more useful aspects of this book is the information on organizing such things as bake sales, potluck suppers, and church picnics. Most of it is simple, fairly obvious stuff (things like having serving spoons for each dish), but then again these are the details that it’s easy to forget in the heat of things, particularly if you’re new to this kind of work, so I’m glad they were included. I think someone who’s already spent time organizing these kinds of things won’t find much new, but someone who hasn’t done it before will be glad of the help.
All in all I like the quality of the food in this book, but I find the recipes a bit frustrating. If you feel comfortable enough in the kitchen that you think you’ll be able to figure out some of the confusions and you don’t mind mucking with the recipes then I’d say you should go ahead and use this cookbook, particularly if you’d find the informational material handy. However, I’d recommend making any recipe from this book for your own use before you make it for a public gathering, so you have the opportunity to fix any flavor imbalances or ingredient confusions.