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What's Cooking?

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

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."

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.

Baton Rouge had been the first Junior League to publish its own cookbook, the compendium of bacon-dripping Southern and Cajun dishes that is River Road Recipes. The 262-page book contains 650 recipes and is in its seventieth printing. After Baton Rouge, another 82 of the 296 Junior Leagues around the world tried publishing cookbooks, using a fundraising formula that church groups and other civic organizations had employed for decades. But Denver's book became the surprise hit.

"We didn't think, 'Oh, we're going to do this fabulous cookbook, and it's going to be huge,'" remembers Wendy Trigg, the Denver group's vice president in 1976. "We were just looking for something that would not take up a lot of the members' time. And when someone suggested a cookbook, we stopped for a minute to think about it. But there were a few problems. Number one, we weren't sure of the interest level people would have for a cookbook from Denver and whether it would sell. And number two, we weren't cooks."

But members didn't let either problem keep them from giving it a try, and they formed a nineteen-woman committee to take on the job. And it was a job: In 1976, most League members were full-time moms, and the cookbook became their introduction to work outside the home. "Back then, only 25 out of the 400 members worked beyond taking care of their families," says Debbie Hoellen, current president of the Junior League of Denver. "They were either mothers or occupied themselves with volunteer activities. Today we have about 2,100 members, and only a small percentage, about 5 or 6 percent, don't work at least part-time in addition to raising kids."

The food world was different in the mid-'70s, too. Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking was still turning the country on to fancy food made easy, with 1.25 million copies sold since it had first appeared in 1961; Child and James Beard had just endorsed the first Cuisinart food processor. "This machine has changed my life, and I can no longer live without it," wrote Beard in his nationally syndicated column.

In 1974, Red Lobster was hailed as "the king of restaurant chains" by the New York Times when the seafood emporium opened its 100th outpost, in Omaha (by the end of 1977, it had opened its 200th). That same year, Cincinnati surgeon Henry Jay Heimlich introduced his anti-choking maneuver to prevent what he called "cafe coronaries." In 1976, New York's "21" Club was ordered by a court ruling to hire its first waitress, in response to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU against the eight top restaurants in New York City, including Four Seasons and Lutèce, all of which believed "women were not as suited to formal service as men."

A month later, New York magazine food critic Gael Greene's novel Blue Skies, No Candy appeared, in which she tried "to describe female sexual response...in exactly the way I would write restaurant reviews: let you know how it feels and smells and tastes and sounds." Sales of both Procter and Gamble's newly introduced Puritan Oil (using "heart-healthy canola" as its base) and Dexatrim One-a-Day diet pills exceeded their companies' sales expectations by several hundred percent.

In addition to Child's French Cooking, the best-selling cookbooks in 1976 included Raymond Solokov's The Saucier's Apprentice: A Modern Guide to Classic French Sauces for the Home; Paul Bocuse's French Cooking; Craig Claiborne's Favorites from the New York Times; and The Confident Cook: Basic Recipes and How to Build on Them, by Cordon Bleu Cooking School graduate Irene Chalmers.

"Back then, the idea of using fresh ingredients was just not a big deal yet, and international ingredients were so exotic, only people in New York and San Francisco could get them," says Jaydee Boat, who chaired the Colorado Cache cookbook committee. "But there was also this growing awareness that a whole new food world was opening up, and women wanted to cook with all of this exciting new stuff. And so we argued over whether people would use a microwave section, and there was a lot of discussion over whether we should include Mexican food. The one thing we all unanimously agreed on was that there should be no recipes that called for Campbell's soup."

The committee issued a call to League members for recipes, and nearly 3,000 recipes poured in. After that came the laborious process of elimination, a two-year ordeal that ultimately involved almost a hundred volunteers. The committee started by throwing out all of the recipes that called for Campbell's soup. "That virtually cut the thing in half," Boat laughs. "Then we were able to get serious." Getting serious involved breaking the committee into fifteen testing groups by dish type, including soups, brunch, fish and game, vegetables, breads, desserts and "potpourri," a catch-all section that would eventually contain recipes for hand lotion and fresh curry powder.

Each group held testing parties, to which members would bring one or two dishes made from submitted recipes, "usually with our kids in tow, and we'd put them all down for a nap," Trigg recalls. Recipes that received a rating of "2" or higher at those parties were then tested at yet another get-together. "A '1' rating meant the dish was fabulous and was for sure going to be in the book," remembers Boat, "while a '2' meant it was good, a '3' average and a '4' meant 'skip it.'" The recipes that made that second cut were tested one last time by the head of each group, so that all of the recipes that made it into the book had been triple-tested.

"My testing group gained a total of 157 pounds," Boat says. "I remember doing thirteen brownie recipes in one afternoon. I gained ten pounds myself, and some of the women had never exercised a day in their lives, but they had to start because of Cache." Their families were also called into duty as the thousands of recipes were slowly whittled down to 700. "My three-year-old daughter, Jill, got so used to rating everything she ate," Boat recalls, "that one night she said, 'Oh, Mommy, this is so good -- this is a 1!' And I looked over at her plate to see what it was so I could write it down, and it turned out to be plain rice with butter."

Some recipes proved harder to judge than others. The Coach House Black Bean Soup, for example, was loved by half of the testers and hated by the other half; after seven tastings, it wound up in the book. A recipe that called for 27 ingredients and cost $16 per serving did not. "Remember, the people testing these recipes had to pay for the food themselves, and an awful lot of food got thrown out," says Boat. "There's a reason why Cache is filled with thrifty, straightforward recipes -- those are the things we wanted to cook for ourselves."

Although they were dishes that fit in with the times, they've held up surprisingly well. "I still make so many things, mostly the easier things," says Trigg, who admits that cooking isn't her favorite activity. "Like Skier's Sausage. I make it every Christmas. It's one of those things where no matter how much of it you make, there's never any left over."

Boat nods in agreement. "That's one of the best. Sausage and apples, how can you beat it?" she asks. "I also love this carrot recipe, Apricot Glazed Carrots, that's so good your kids will devour it. Oh, and Garbanzo Bean Soup, that's great for tailgating. And I think anything from the appetizers and brunch sections is superb."

Each section features helpful hints, cooking tips from Junior League members under headings that refer to regions of Colorado, such as Hints From Roaring Fork: "To make colorful onion rings to garnish salads, let them soak in pickled beets or beet juice." Hints From La Junta, which prefaces the fish-and-game section, admonishes cooks to "always be appreciative to the hunter or fisherman. A sportsman is very concerned with the final presentation of his provisions." Some advice is more practical: "Rice will be fluffier and drier if a slice of dry bread is put on top of it after cooking and draining," the book advises. And while the hollandaise and béarnaise recipes aren't exactly classic, they'll do in a pinch.

Other recipes are flavored with Colorado history, such as Salad by Committee, the favorite of a group that always held a picnic in the cemetery above Central City before the annual fashion show there. A few are from well-known Denverites, including a handful of recipes from Katie Stapleton, daughter-in-law of former Denver mayor Ben Stapleton and one of the best-known Junior Leaguers. Her involvement "gave the book a lot of credibility," Boat remembers. For the most part, though, the committee decided against using people's names with their recipes. "We had to make so many changes in some of them that we decided it was better to leave names off," explains Boat. "We made up for it by putting a list of all of the contributors at the end of the book."

Louise Steinhauer served as the book's official editor, and artist Ann Douden contributed detailed drawings of Colorado as illustrations (she credits Cache with helping her find an audience for her artwork). The book was printed at A.B. Hirschfeld Press, headed by the husband of Arlene Hirschfeld, a Junior League member involved with the project.

Cache's first printing of 10,000 copies, released in September 1978, sold out in two weeks. The second edition came out that December and sold out five months later.

The Junior League of Denver is now on its third edition and 29th printing of Cache, which has raised $2.3 million for the organization. Along the way, the group changed printers and format, with the flimsy plastic binding giving way to a perfect-bound volume. The only other change has been the price: In 1978, the book cost $8.95; today, it's $15.95.

Why Cache took off so fast and went so much further than other Leagues' cookbooks is still a mystery. "In the case of Colorado Cache, you have an item that had a market in place. And obviously, a very strong market, it turns out," says Steve Fisher, curator for special collections at the University of Denver, which holds the third largest cookbook collection in the country. "This is just a thought, but Colorado has had such an image of being a natural, kind of New Age place, if you will, that just the title and the look of the book evoked that image."

The Colorado mystique surely contributed to the book's popularity, as did the hard work of League members. "We all had to buy a case of books," Trigg says. "And so many of the members really took this to heart as a project, and every time they would travel somewhere, they'd take some copies of the book and ask gift shops where they were vacationing to sell the book for them. And then we'd get orders after the gift shops would sell out."

"We certainly didn't do it knowing it was going to be this popular," says Boat, whose recipe-testing daughter is now a Junior League member. (So is Trigg's daughter-in-law.) "If we had, we might have asked for more money for the book." She laughs and adds: "But we had a certain sense of pride in the final product. Maybe that, combined with the fact that it was a Colorado cookbook at a time when people were intrigued with Colorado but didn't know that much about it, plus the Junior League's reputation for cookbooks in other parts of the country, is what made it so successful."

After the runaway success of Cache, it was easy to sell the next decade's League members on another cookbook. Crème de Colorado came out in 1987; eight years later, the group published Colorado Collage. Crème has since sold a total of 535,000 copies, while Collage is at 240,000. "It's not hard to imagine that they'll both eventually hit a million copies," says Hoellen, the current League president. "It just won't be as fast as Cache."

Both Crème and Collage were done in a larger format, with better paper stock and professional photographs (John Fielder snapped the outdoor scenes for Crème), and they reflected a more sophisticated approach to home cooking across the country. While Crème didn't include a section on microwave cooking, it did add HealthMark recipes; Collage went the extra step by combining recipes throughout the book into meal plans.

The three cookbooks, combined, have earned the Junior League of Denver $5.4 million for its community-oriented programs, such as the nonprofit Kids Connect Curriculum that teaches early childhood development at area elementary schools and runs a site at the Children's Museum, as well as Damen House, a family-enrichment program for single-parent families, and SafeHouse, a battered-women's shelter. But the cookbook projects had another benefit: They brought members closer together.

"The women I worked with on Cache are still some of my best buddies," says Trigg, who is close enough to Boat that they can walk into each other's homes without knocking. "Most of the gals who came over to my house the other night were from Junior League. I went to East High School, and everyone there joined. Thirty years later, we still hang out together, and we still make the recipes from Cache and bring them to each other's kids' showers and birthdays. There are just so many recipes in there that you can use for any occasion."


The Denver Chocolate Sheet Cake is widely regarded as the most popular recipe in Colorado Cache, a notion borne out by the number of requests that the Junior League of Denver gets for reprints. The second most popular is probably the Mandarin Salad, although members disagree on that. Some think it's the Garden of the Gods Sublime Salad, with its rich crabmeat dressing -- "Note: Expensive! Serve to the most wonderful people you know. They are worth it and so is this salad," the recipe cautions. And some think it's the Spaghetti Pie, a mixture of cooked noodles, sausage and sour cream.

Still others point to Roast Beef Perfection, undoubtedly the simplest recipe in the book, with one ingredient ("1 standing rib roast, any size") and the kind of instructions that make Tatyana Golyansky giggle with delight. The Russian native, who came to the United States twenty years ago and Denver three years after that, has a rule for recipes. "If I'm going to cook a recipe, it has to have this many ingredients," she says, holding her thumb and forefinger about an inch and a half apart. Then she narrows the gap by half an inch. "And that many instructions. That's why I love Cache so much."

Golyansky is the operations manager of C&C Publications, the League's cookbook division, but her primary duty is dealing with all things Cache-related. "Since it's the most popular cookbook of the three we've done, there are a lot of responsibilities that need to be taken care of," she says. "When I signed on, I had no idea how many people out there knew about this book. Cache is a very popular book for newlyweds, so I like being part of that. And it's really good for people who move to Colorado from other parts of the country, because all of the recipes have been tested for high-altitude cooking."

Inquiries regarding Cache have come from as far away as Australia, and the reasons for the calls have been as diverse as the recipes in the book. "I just got a call from a woman in California whose daughter is doing a project on Colorado at school," Golyansky says. "She needed to bring in some food that was common in Colorado, so I sent her some recipes that would work." Other people call because they're having a problem with a recipe and need help. "Usually, they just haven't read it properly," she explains.

"Sometimes, they need to know where to get the ingredients," Golyansky continues. "One woman couldn't find a certain kind of cheese. I knew exactly where to tell her it was in King Soopers." She makes it her business to know. "I hate it when someone calls and says, 'Can I substitute...?'" she says. "Here's my answer: No, please don't!" Still, a couple of recipes call for ingredients that no longer exist. "I had a manicurist call because she wanted to make the homemade hand lotion," Golyansky remembers. "It calls for Bay Rum, which I definitely originally thought must be something you could get drunk on. But it turns out that it's a kind of men's shaving cream that we can't find anywhere."

Many calls come from people desperate to find a copy of the book. "Every time this cooking club in Chicago meets, which is twice a month, we get orders," she says. "And we get a lot of requests from Canada. Sometimes, people in other parts of the country, like Boston or something, run into it in a gift shop, and they take it home and love it. Then they call me and ask me to ship them a dozen so they can give them away as gifts."

One woman who received it as a gift at her bridal shower wanted to get it for her own daughter's bridal shower: "I nearly cry every time I think about that one," Golansky says. Another woman has a son in the military in Florida who keeps calling Mom to get the recipes he grew up with; she asked Golyansky to send him a copy. A man who bought a second home in the mountains wanted a second set of all three books because he got tired of carrying them back and forth between kitchens. The wackiest story, though, might belong to the woman who lost her copy of Cache in her divorce settlement. "I can't figure that one out," Golyansky says. "Maybe it was a gift from his side of the family?"

A much easier question concerns Golansky's favorite Cache recipe. "The avocado-crab dip," she says, with no hesitation. "It's the one I always make from that book."

The Junior League of Denver is now working on its fourth cookbook, the most elaborate yet, scheduled for publication by the 2002 holiday season. For this volume, the League is accepting recipe submissions from the public -- instructions are available on the Web at jld.org -- and will hold a contest to find the right title. "We decided it was time to get even more professional," says Hoellen. "So we're going with a professional company that will pull it all together for us." That company, Family Recipes Press out of Nashville, Tennessee, will work with the new cookbook's committee -- now forty women strong -- to make such improvements as cross-referencing ingredients and hiring a food stylist for photos.

Like the other League cookbooks, this one will have its own voice and will reflect the contemporary food culture. "This time we're looking to add a vegetarian section," says co-editor Wendy Zerr; she and Alissa Crowley are in the process of sorting through the recipes that have already begun to pour in. "We also want to incorporate some different kinds of noodles, since noodles of every kind are big right now. There will be some fusion, too, and we're asking some restaurants to contribute, as well," Zerr adds. "I think if I had to pick this cookbook's trend, though, it would be classics with a twist."


Dottie Leddy plans to get the new book, even though she's sure it won't be as good as Colorado Cache. "Well, I have to get the new one to keep up with my collection, but it's hard to believe that I'd ever use it as much as the First One," she says.

She has copies of Crème de Colorado and Colorado Collage, too, but prefers the down-home simplicity of Cache. "I have them all," she says. "But I say, why make some frou-frou artichoke soufflés when you can make some squares quicker?"

Friends have given her newer, cleaner copies of Cache, but she gave all but one of them away; it sits, pristinely white, binding intact, on a wicker bookcase in the hallway next to the kitchen. "This is like a part of me," Leddy says of her tattered copy of Cache. "I know it like the back of my hand."

Leddy's son, the one in the photo that bookmarks the cookbook, is sending her to Greece this summer for her 65th birthday, and one of the first things she packed was Colorado Cache -- in her carry-on bag, to be safe. "I'm going to be there for more than a month," Leddy says. "I'm staying at the house of a friend of a friend, and I'm sure I'm going to be cooking. They'll cook Greek for me; I'll cook Coloradan for them. I wonder if I should take a copy over as a gift?"