What's Cooking?

Denver's Junior League has the recipe for lasting success.

The cookbook looks more like a scrapbook than something a person would refer to for information -- much less precise, instructional information. Pieces of torn paper and yellowed newspaper clippings stick out from all sides, and a thin veneer of sugar, shiny and browned, coats much of the back. Both covers literally hang by a thread, a frayed reminder of the time that Dottie Leddy tried to sew the cookbook's binding back together after the plastic tines had cracked. That was almost twenty years ago, during the first decade she owned the book, before she finally gave up and wrapped a fat, blue rubber band around the whole thing.

"I bought this cookbook after reading about it in the paper, right after it was first published," Leddy says. She offers a plate of cookies, homemade chocolate-chip ones, and gracefully slides into a chair at the kitchen table that overlooks her next-door neighbor's award-winning rosebushes. "She gardens," Leddy notes, nodding toward the bushes. "I cook. I live to cook."

Proof that, at the very least, Leddy likes to read about cooking comes from the hundreds of cookbooks jammed into a half-dozen ceiling-high bookcases and twice as many shelves spread through her tiny home. Cookbooks line the kitchen counters; they're piled up on the living-room coffee table. "I think I have about a thousand, maybe more," she says. "I'm one of those people who reads them like novels. Each one has that one recipe I couldn't do without."

Jaydee Boat tested many recipes on her daughter, Jill, now a Junior League member herself.
Anthony Camera
Jaydee Boat tested many recipes on her daughter, Jill, now a Junior League member herself.

There's only one cookbook she couldn't do without, though. She thinks it's the best cookbook ever printed. "It's the cookbook I sent to all my nieces and nephews when they got married," says Leddy. "I've sent it to every friend except Judy, because she hates to cook, but I made her look at mine, anyway. I don't know if there's anyone I know that I haven't given it to. Do you have it?"

Who doesn't? By this past spring, over a million people throughout the world owned a copy of Colorado Cache, first published by the Junior League of Denver in 1978. The cookbook, known to League members and in-the-know cooking aficionados simply and reverentially as the First One, recently sold its millionth copy, making it second in Junior League cookbook sales to Baton Rouge's 1959 River Road Recipes, which has sold 1.2 million copies. In the publishing world, selling more than a million cookbooks is big. By comparison, Joy of Cooking, first published in 1931, has sold more than 2.6 million through numerous editions and revisions -- but Joy has 47 years on Cache.

"Oh, I like it better than the Joy of Cooking," Leddy says, pulling down her copy of Joy, which still has its complete cover and not a scrap of paper sticking out of it. "There's nothing like the Denver Chocolate Sheet Cake in the Joy of Cooking, I can tell you that. And the Skier's Delight Date Cake, now that sounds like something you'd serve in Aspen to the ski instructor you were sweet on, don't you think?"

Many of the recipes in Leddy's copy of Cache have notes written next to them, scribbles impossible for anyone but the writer to decipher. "This one says: 'Add extra Tabasco for Benjie, about a quarter teaspoon,'" she translates. "These artichoke squares are to die for, and you can put them in the fridge and eat them for breakfast, cold, the next day." She flips through a few worn, food-stained pages. "Oh, the Fresh Mushroom Soup," she sighs. "It's heavenly. Look, I wrote a note here to remind me that I like it with hot ham-and-cheese sandwiches."

She comes to a page with an old photo as a bookmark, and she smiles. "This is my son Benjie," she says, pointing to a guy with bad David Cassidy hair standing next to a young lady with bad Farrah Fawcett hair at the top of Mount Evans. "And that's Cathy, his wife. I gave her the cookbook when they got married. She's a wonderful cook. She makes that sheet cake on Benjie's birthday sometimes."

Leddy regrets never having tried to join the Junior League, although a friend almost talked her into it. "That was back when you had to have a sponsor, and it was like a society thing," she recalls. "A lot of my friends were in it, but I don't think I had the stuff for the group that was running it forty or fifty years ago. I was divorced, a single mother with Benjie, and I worked as a secretary, which just wasn't done back then. I didn't go to get my hair done or my nails or anything. I heard that, later, the Junior League got to be like the Catholics: They had to change some of the rules, because otherwise, no one wanted to join."

But she could still buy the book.

Back in 1976, the Junior League of Denver was struggling not to find members, but to come up with new fundraising ideas. Founded in 1918, a decade after the Junior League of New York debuted, the Denver outpost had been funding its programs for children and families with events like Daisy Day at Elitch's -- a day at the amusement park that ended with a formal dinner-dance -- and a bridge marathon, as well as a thrift-store operation. But those didn't bring in enough cash for the organization to rest easy, and so League members began brainstorming.

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