San Francisco Church Cookbook—Community Cookbook


U.S. culture at large generally regards mourning as a personal act. Food plays a role: a lunch buffet following a funeral, or gifts of lasagna or Bundt cakes from friends and neighbors to those left grieving. But how to process loss on such a massive scale? Is there a way that food can help to honor large numbers of those who’ve died—like the 6 million around the world who’ve fallen to COVID—in some project of shared remembering?

In the early 1990s, when San Francisco was an epicenter of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and medical treatment for the disease was in its early stages, one local faith community was able to do just that with a cookbook. Titled Those People at That Church, the self-published collection of recipes from San Francisco’s St. Francis Lutheran Church appeared in November 1994.

In many ways, it’s a classic U.S. community cookbook: a wide-ranging collection produced by committee, featuring group-sourced recipes to raise funds for a cause. For Those People at That Church, the cause was a faith community navigating a troubled relationship to its national body, performing ministry in the Castro, a mostly queer neighborhood struggling with AIDS and its devastation.

According to Juli McLoone, a curator in the Special Collections Research Center at the University of Michigan Library, the first U.S. charity cookbook appeared in Philadelphia in 1864, to raise money to upgrade living conditions for Union soldiers fighting in the Civil War. The late 19th century saw a blossoming of charity cookbooks, primarily among Protestant congregations, though in the early 20th century the diversity of faith communities publishing such collections began to spread.

Wayne Strei grew up immersed in Protestant church cookbooks in rural Wisconsin, near Green Bay. His mother was an avid collector of cookbooks. “She read them like novels,” Strei says, “and church cookbooks were ubiquitous around here.”

Strei moved out West in the late 1980s, to chase a master’s degree in nonprofit management from the University of San Francisco at a time when AIDS was ravaging the city. One by one, Strei’s friends and acquaintances got sick and died. The tally was overwhelming. “I stopped counting those I knew who’d died when I hit 100,” Strei says, “and that happened early on.”

Photo by John Birdsall

The death that hit the hardest came in February 1987: That of a Milwaukee friend named John Hanson, who’d likewise moved to San Francisco. Hanson’s mother flew out from Wisconsin to arrange the funeral. She found a small Lutheran church at the edge of the Castro that agreed to perform the funeral (some churches at the time refused to host memorials for those who’d died from AIDS). Strei gave the eulogy. It was his first time in St. Francis, a slender 1906 brick edifice with Gothic windows and a wood-shingled steeple—graceful, albeit modest. It needed help.

“I remember looking down at the carpet,” Strei says, “and thinking, ‘This is shabby.’ Little did I know, the next year I’d be in charge of fundraising.” Strei says he needed someplace to process all the losses in his life, and St. Francis was queer-affirming. Strei had grown up in the conservative Missouri Synod of Lutheranism, in a time of heavily prescriptive gender roles and extreme intolerance of LGBTQ people. “I don’t exist in that church,” Strei says, referencing his sexuality. Much like women, he recalls, “in the eyes of that church, we’re there to make the funeral luncheons.”

In 1990, St. Francis ordained two openly queer women as pastors, in defiance of the laws of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The Castro church was suspended from the mainline denomination, and later expelled. St. Francis, however, kept right on ministering to its AIDS-ravaged community. That’s when Strei conceived of producing the kind of charity cookbook he’d grown up with, to help the beleaguered church keep doing its work. The name—Those People at That Church, with emphasis on the word that—spoke to its national notoriety as the rebellious queer church.

“In the midst of the AIDS epidemic,” the book explains, they “believed there was a pressing need for an affirming ministry among gay and lesbian people who had been alienated by the church’s homophobic teachings and practices.”

“I don’t know why some people are gay and other people are not,” Iris Vaughan, a 51-year-old straight St. Francis parishioner, writes in Those People at That Church. “But I do believe that the most important thing in life is love in all its forms.”

Pages from “Those People That Church”

Photo by John Birdsall

Pages from “Those People That Church”

Photo by John Birdsall

At the core of the book is a familiar collection of community cookbook recipes: Recipes for potluck buffets, brunches, and church suppers: sauerkraut-potato casserole, tamale pie, and a Midwestern hot dish with a gay twist, called Hot Dish Speciale (the contributor, Parker Nolen, writes that it’s “guaranteed to get you a date if you’re single”). But Strei also solicited recipes from San Francisco restaurant chefs, especially queer ones like Elka Gilmore and Jeremiah Tower.

Strei expanded the possibilities of the community cookbook by weaving brief stories and testaments by church members on the power of faith, or community, or reassurance that the deaths resulting from AIDS have a meaning larger than tragedy. Strei got the idea for the marginalia from the 1989 book by Bonnie Stewart Mickelson, Mrs. Chard’s Almanac Cookbook: Hollyhocks & Radishes, only instead of bucolic vignettes of farm life in Michigan, St. Francis Lutheran’s vignettes are about dealing with loss.

There’s the woman grateful to be able to watch her brother die “without fear,” because of ministry from a queer pastor; the homeless kid—thrown out for being gay—who died “still unreconciled with his parents,” with nobody to publicly mourn him but the St. Francis congregation. Those People at That Church is a collection of recipes that suggests how cooking crab quiche can be an act of honoring the dead.

All of this makes Those People at That Church something more like a queer community cookbook for San Francisco at large. To me, Those People at That Church has the shape of the first stones laid in the foundation of some bigger structure of queer food, something the current generation of LGBTQ chefs in the U.S. is working to raise.

Before COVID, it existed on my bookshelf as a piece of history, a survivor from the first decade of the HIV/AIDS crisis. Today, Those People at That Church wields the power of a living document, a model for adapting the community cookbook—a tool of the past—to make sense of present challenges. The cookbook a handful of St. Francis parishioners made in 1994 has fresh urgency, but its imperative never faded. It commands us, the living, to pursue joy, to embrace it without guilt. It tells us to use food—our ability to cook, and find pleasure in eating—as a way of telling stories about those who’ve passed.

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