There are few things that I take the time to collect, mainly because collecting takes, well, time. I usually don’t have the long-term patience to scour the earth looking for things that I admire. I have, however, finally found an object that fuels my eBay feeding frenzy: WNAX Neighbor Lady recipe booklets.
I had some of the WNAX recipe booklets by chance: they happened to be in a box of books I had purchased at my great aunt’s estate auction in 1996. I used to flip through them now again and be mildly amused by them, but it wasn’t until recently that I realized what a wealth of knowledge and important link to history those recipe books were.
If you’re not from the Midwest, then chances are you have absolutely no idea who the Neighbor Lady is. Imagine, if you will, a time when the radio meant a link to the outside world — the world that rural women and men didn’t always get to see. Compound that isolation with being a stay at home mom raising a houseful of kids, and you can see how the average woman would look forward to her special radio program airing at 3:30 each day. Although I never heard the program live myself, I can only imagine the joy that farmwives in the ’40s and 50s would experience when they had a half hour or so to sit and listen to their Neighbor Lady and jot down the latest recipes. Astonishingly, the program aired from the ’40s until 2005 — a huge accomplishment for any radio personality.
Aside from being famous in and around the WNAX listening area, Wynn Speece also compiled an annual recipe booklet. Then again, it wasn’t just any old recipe booklet; the booklet contained pictures of Speece and her family, along with reader-contributed photos. How thrilling it must have been to see those pictures reprinted in the recipe booklets for Midwesterners everywhere to see! My favorite part, however, is the “Did You Know?” section — a few pages that contained the wealth of housewife wisdom. Needless to say, all those little tidbits of information is pure gold by my standards.
The back of the booklet contained (up until the 60’s, that is) a collection of letters sent in to Wynn from readers all over the Midwest. Particularly fascinating are the letters from the ’40s, where families everywhere were adapting to a life revolving around the war and making do without some things they were used to. The letters make me feel thankful, and a bit ashamed of myself and our society. These women had hope and faith, even when they felt like they had nothing else, and one can sense a spirit of perseverence buried behind those words. They took the time to write to the Neighbor Lady — a woman whom most had never seen in person, yet they wrote to her as if she were their dearest friend. And when the Neighbor Lady asked for favors — cards to be sent to an accident victim or a sick child — the listeners responded with vigor.
I honestly don’t know how long the Neighbor Lady continued to compile her recipe booklet. In truth, today the concept seems antiquated when we have the Internet at our every beck and call. However, those booklets held more than just recipes, helpful hints, and photos from listeners; they held a spirit of community and a promise that at 3:30 each day, housewives everywhere would feel a little less lonely.