A perfect picnic: Junior League cookbook style


Molly and Greg Myers enjoy a picnic at the Raleigh Rose Garden.

by Andrea Wiegl

photographs by Juli Leonard

Summer is a time for backyard cook-outs, July Fourth picnics, and patio parties. It’s also when Southern cooks turn to their go-to sources for party food. If that’s a cookbook, it is likely a dog-eared, stained, spiral-bound gem compiled by neighbors, church friends or peers. That’s what makes community cookbooks so enduringly popular – they’re filled with fail-safe, crowd-pleasing recipes, tweaked, tested and finally gathered, often for a good cause.

And so, when we decided to offer a few recipes for summer celebrations, we turned to the organization that created what is likely Raleigh’s definitive community cookbook: the Junior League of Raleigh.

Raleigh’s Junior League has published two cookbooks: You’re Invited, in 1998, and You’re Invited Back, in 2010. With that new edition in hand, we asked some of the women who put it together to select a handful of recipes perfect for a summertime feast. They came up with easy cheese biscuits, eggs stuffed with almond bacon cheese, mini roast beef party sandwiches, asparagus with lime sauce, pineapple iced tea, and for dessert, “Raleigh’s Best Ever Cookies,” monster-size peanut butter oatmeal treats packed with chocolate chips and M&Ms.

These are among the most popular of the latest cookbook’s 200 recipes, chosen after extensive testing from more than 2,000 submitted by the league’s 1,800 members. In fact, the cheese biscuits and the cookies were so popular in the league’s first cookbook that the editors decided to repeat them in the second.

These recipes illustrate the kind of collaborative, comprehensive and ultimately useful compilation that Junior Leagues and other groups have put together in communities all over the country since the Civil War. Created to raise money for churches, schools and various causes, the books’ iconic status has as much to do with the food they document as the good works they support.


A taste of the past

“To me, it’s women’s history, it’s community history, as well as cookbook history,” said Barbara Haber, a culinary historian who worked at Harvard University and successfully lobbied the Library of Congress to create a category for community and charitable cookbooks.

“These cookbooks can be a history of America on a community level,” Haber says. “Plus, you get to learn what was important to people.” The first community cookbook in the country was The Poetical Cookbook, by Maria J. Moss, published in 1864 to benefit injured Union soldiers. Like that first example, the beneficiaries of these cookbooks and the causes that inspire them have always been important to the folks who put them together. The Raleigh Junior League cookbooks have helped raise money for a number of the league’s causes, including the Boys & Girls Clubs of North Carolina and SAFEChild, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing child abuse.

In the process, the books also document a culinary moment in time. “You get a snapshot of what these people were eating in that place and in that year,” says Liz Williams, executive director of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans.

Meg Tate Ergenzinger, the Junior League of Raleigh’s cookbook development co-chair, makes it clear that their local three-year effort is a perfect example of this longstanding tradition. “It’s a little piece of Raleigh anywhere you go.”

It’s also the cream of the crop. Because in the community cookbook world, the Junior Leagues are the professional athletes. Two-thirds of the 64 cookbooks inducted in Tabasco’s Cookbook Hall of Fame as part of its now-defunct community cookbook awards were produced by Junior Leagues from Portland, Ore. to Pine Bluff, Ark.

The heavyweights of the genre are two cookbooks produced by Junior Leagues in the South. That doesn’t surprise Williams. “Cooking and entertaining are important aspects of being a Southern woman, no, a Southern lady,” Williams said.

Charleston Receipts, published in 1950, is the oldest Junior League cookbook still in print, with more than 30 printings. It has raised $1 million for various causes. The champion, though, is Baton Rouge’s River Road Recipes, which has sold 1.7 million copies since it was published in 1959.

Junior League cookbooks have grown up since those two were first published. Their humble spiral-bound beauty has been replaced with a more modern, coffee table aesthetic. Their hand-drawn images have given way to photographs of professionally styled food. Each recipe is no longer attributed to the contributor, referred to as Mrs. (her husband’s name). Now, all the contributors are listed by their own names on several pages in the back of the book, which emphasizes the community aspect of the thing.

It’s just one way today’s Junior League cookbooks still reflect the era and community in which they are produced. For Ergenzinger, You’re Invited Back has become not only her go-to cookbook but also her go-to present for weddings, graduations and hostess gifts.  “People always seem to enjoy it,” she says.    


Recipes from the Junior League of Raleigh’s cookbook
You’re Invited Back

Almond bacon cheese in eggsAlmond bacon cheese in eggs are an easy finger food for picnics.

8 ounces orange Cheddar cheese, shredded

8 ounces white Cheddar cheese, shredded

1 cup chopped green onions, green and white parts

1 pound bacon, crisp-cooked and crumbled

1 cup toasted slivered almonds

1 cup or less mayonnaise

1 dozen hard-boiled eggs, shelled, cut in half, yolks removed


Combine cheeses, green onions, bacon and almonds in a bowl. Add mayonnaise gradually, mixing until desired consistency is reached. Add about a tablespoon to the interior of each egg half. Chill eggs for 2 hours or longer.

Note: Almond bacon cheese also can be served with crackers, on baked potatoes or hamburgers.

Yield: 24 eggs

Roast beef party sandwiches are an easy finger food for picnics.

Mini Roast Beef
Party Sandwiches

2 (24-count) packages party rolls

½ cup whole grain mustard

12 ounces thinly sliced deli roast beef, chopped

8 ounces Harvarti cheese, thinly sliced

2/3 cup peach preserves


Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Cut each entire package of rolls into halves horizontally; do not separate the rolls. Spread mustard on the cut sides of the bottom halves and layer with roast beef and cheese. Spread  preserves on the cut sides of the top halves of rolls, and place over filling. Wrap with foil. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until heated through. Cut into individual servings.

Yield: 12 servings


Pineapple iced tea is a nice beverage addition for a spring picnic.Pineapple Iced Tea 

16 cups (1 gallon) water

2 ½ cups sugar

4 family-size tea bags

1 (46-ounce) can unsweetened pineapple juice

1 cup fresh lemon juice


Combine water and sugar in a large saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar completely. Remove from the heat and add the tea bags; let steep for 10 minutes. Remove tea bags and let stand for 10 minutes. Stir in the pineapple juice and lemon juice. Serve over ice.

Note: You can purchase a gallon of water for ease of measurement and for a container in which to store the tea.

Yield: 10 servings


Quick and Incredible Cheese Biscuits 

2 cups (8 ounces) shredded sharp Cheddar cheese

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, melted

1 cup sour cream

2 cups self-rising flour


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Mix cheese and butter in a bowl; cool for 2 minutes. Add sour cream and mix well. Stir in flour. Spoon mixture into greased miniature muffin cups. Bake for 18 to 22 minutes or until golden brown.

Note: You can mix ½ teaspoon garlic powder or ½ teaspoon cayenne powder with the flour. Or you can combine the butter and sour cream with a mixture of the flour and 2 teaspoons dried dill seeds; after baking, brush the biscuits with 2 tablespoons melted butter and sprinkle with 1 teaspoon dried dill weed.

Yield: 40 biscuits


Asparagus with Lime Sauce Fresh asparagus with lime sauce is a lovely addition to a spring picnic.

3 pounds fresh asparagus

2 cups mayonnaise

2 cups sour cream

1/3 cup fresh lime juice

1 ½ tablespoons grated lime zest

2 teaspoons horseradish

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon salt

Additional grated lime zest for garnish


Trim asparagus to serve as a finger food. Steam for 3 to 5 minutes or just until tender; drain and place in cold water to stop the cooking process. Wrap in paper towels and chill in refrigerator until serving time.

Combine mayonnaise, sour cream, lime juice, 1 ½ tablespoons lime zest, the horseradish, Dijon mustard and salt in a bowl; mix well. Chill in refrigerator for 8 hours or longer.

Serve the chilled asparagus with the lime sauce. Garnish with additional lime zest.

Yield: 20 servings. 


Raleigh’s Best-Ever Cookies 

2 cups chunky peanut butter (about 18 ounces)

1 cup granulated sugar

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons packed brown sugarRaleigh’s best-ever cookies are packed for the picnic.

3 eggs

½ cup (1 stick) butter, softened

2 teaspoons baking soda

¾ teaspoon light corn syrup

¼ teaspoon vanilla extract

¼ teaspoon salt

4½ cups rolled oats

1 (10-ounce) package candy-coated milk chocolate pieces

1 cup (6 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine peanut butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar, eggs, butter, baking soda, corn syrup, vanilla and salt in a mixing bowl and mix well. Mix in oats. Stir in candy and chocolate chips.

Drop by heaping tablespoonfuls 2 inches apart onto greased cookie sheets. Place on center oven rack and bake for 10 to 12 minutes, or until golden brown. Cool on cookie sheets for 5 minutes. Remove to a wire rack to cool completely.

Note: These cookies are so loaded with ingredients that they need to be made monster size.

Yield: 4 dozen cookies