Lynn Coble remembers the moment she found it. It was a hot day, and she was rummaging through a box at a flea market in Alamance County. She pulled the little book out of a pile of leaflets (the kind of cookbook you don’t see anymore). She glanced at the faded brown cover and read across the bottom of it, “Asheboro Street Baptist Church, Greensboro, N.C.”
Lynn smiled — that was the church her granny grew up in. If the story ended here, that would have been enough. Lynn, who lives with her husband and son in Randolph County, collects community cookbooks. She’s been collecting them since she was a teenager, when her grandmother who was raising her died and Lynn started cooking for her grandfather and herself.
“After a little while, Paw said to me, ‘I don’t know about you, but I’m getting kind of tired of McDonald’s,’” Lynn says. So she started looking for recipes, and that led to cookbooks.
Today, almost 40 years later, her collection numbers more than 6,500 — her teenage son, T.J., stopped counting at that number when he and his mom organized all the books recently. And those are just the books she’s kept. To support her hobby, Lynn, who many know only as the Cookbook Lady, sells and trades books. If she finds she has duplicates (or triplicates), she’ll cull them from the volumes that fill bookshelves and boxes.
But she’ll never sell the Asheboro Street Baptist Church cookbook. As she flipped through the first few pages that day at the flea market, she discovered a church directory. And there, under the Vs, she saw Granny’s name — Miss Elizabeth Vowell of Bellevue Street. The book was published in 1926; Granny would have been 16 years old.
“It was better than finding gold,” Lynn says, pressing her hand to her chest. “I felt for a minute that she was there with me.”
When you lose someone as important as Granny was to her at such a young age, it leaves a hole, a space not easily filled.
“If I could have her back for one day,” she says, “just to let her know how much I appreciate what she did for me … ”
Lynn’s grandparents took her in when she was small. And they loved her and raised her. As she walks among her books, occasionally pulling one from a shelf and sharing the story of where it came from or why this one or that one is special, Lynn often says, “I’m just sentimental.”
One time a book dealer offered to buy her entire collection, which includes first editions and books so old the directions don’t refer to temperatures but use terms like “low fire.” She told the dealer no. Not because his offer wasn’t reasonable, but because he couldn’t possibly offer enough.
Most of Lynn’s collection is made up of church and community cookbooks, all from Southern towns, most from North Carolina. She has thousands of them, their red, green, blue, and white plastic spines running the lengths of her shelves.
“Yes, I probably have a thousand of the same pound cake recipe,” Lynn says. “But every cookbook is different. Every recipe is in there for a reason. To me, they’re meaningful because they meant something to the person who put them in there.”
She thinks of Granny. And she points to a black-and-white photo that she took of her grandmother, in the kitchen, not long before she died. And she knows why these old cookbooks are so important to her.
“It goes back to this lady right here.”
Diane Summerville is the senior editor at Our State Magazine.