Bon Appetite!

Reading Room Display - Cookbooks, September 2013

We have now been open at our new temporary location for a little over one month, and the Reading Room has had a number of visitors from around the country and around the world.  As a new member of the reference staff I am excited to have the opportunity to learn about the Phillips Library collections both through our researchers and the other staff members.  After much discussion with the reference staff it was decided that an exhibit would be a nice addition to our new space.

The Cookbooks Exhibit displays some of the most interesting and attractive cookbooks in the Phillips Library, a collection which holds well over 200 books of recipes, techniques, and advice on food preparation from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries.

Though this is only a small exhibit (comprising a total of twenty-one books from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s), it took a great deal of consideration.  I began cultivating books for inclusion by going through PHILCAT, the Phillips Library catalog, using a variety of search terms, Cookery, Cooking, and Cooking – American, which lead me to hundreds of results.

The majority of the Phillips Library cookbooks are found in the Cookery Collection.  This collection consists of over 80 boxes containing anywhere from one to ten cookbooks.  Knowing that one of the purposes of my exhibition was to bring some color to our temporary home, I looked in each box attempting to pull as many visually attractive cookbook covers as I could find.  I ended up with an exhibit of twenty-one books, which tell the story of America’s culinary history from the 1820s to the 1940s.

The American Frugal Housewife, 12th ed., Lydia Maria ChildWhile many of the cookbooks were chosen based on cover art, there are also examples of some of the most famous authors and works in the long history of cookbook publishing.  Lydia Maria Child, author of The American Frugal Housewife, was the most noted cookbook author of her generation; her works were reprinted dozens of times.  This medium served as a catapult to propel women from the traditionally subservient private sphere into the male-dominated public world of publishing and thus societal influence.  Jan Longone, Curator of American Culinary History at the University of Michigan writes in her book, Feeding America,

Not only were they recognized culinary authorities, but they were also reformers active in all the major social and cultural events of their day: abolition, child welfare, women’s rights, education, suffrage, social welfare, prison reform, poverty, alleviation, immigration, consumer issues, nutrition, medical reforms, labor issues, and contemporary religious and moral questions.  They shared a major concern for the role of women, for their duties and responsibilities, as well as their rights, and for ways that their workload could be lightened and ‘improved.’  They were writers, poets, philosophers, educators, editors and business women.

This influence can be seen through the work of Esther C. Mack whose cookbook, What Salem Dames Cooked, can be seen in the exhibit.  This work was published as an effort to raise funds for the Esther C. Mack Industrial School, whose goal was to train women for employment as seamstresses or dressmakers.  More on the Mack Industrial School can be found here.

The Gentleman's Companion, Charles Henry Baker, 1946Women were not the only authors of cookbooks, however.  In my search I also discovered The Gentleman’s Companion by Charles Henry Baker, published in 1946.  This work comprises two volumes entitled Being an Exotic Cookery Book, or, Around the World with Knife, Fork and Spoon and Being an Exotic Drinking Book, or, Around the World with Jigger, Beaker and Flask.   Just as women were pushing the envelope of acceptable public sphere behavior through cookbooks, so were men interested in demonstrating their worth in the private sphere.

The industry of cookbook publishing has evolved and expanded in the years since Lydia Maria Child and her contemporaries, but their efforts have continued to pave the way for women looking to contribute to national discussions about gender for generations.  Though I may have chosen this particular selection of books for their face-value, like their authors, you can’t judge a (cook)book by its cover.

For those who are unable to visit the Phillips Library to view the exhibit, please visit the University of Michigan’s Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook Project which has digitized a collection of seventy-six influential cookbooks.

The American Frugal Housewife, 1833, pages 67-68

Lydia Maria Child’s Apple Pie recipe, from “The American Frugal Housewife,” 1833

When you make apple pies, stew your apples very little indeed; just strike them through, to make them tender.  Some people do not stew them at all, but cut them up in very thin slices, and lay them in the crust.  Pies made in this way may retain more of the spirit of the apple; but I do not think the seasoning mixes in as well.  Put in sugar to your taste; it is impossible to make a precise rule, because apples vary so much in acidity.  A very little salt, and a small piece of butter in each pie, makes them richer.  Cloves and cinnamon are both suitable spice.  Lemon-brandy and rose-water are both excellent.  A wine-glass full of each is sufficient for three or four pies.  If your apples lack spirit, grate in a whole lemon.

3 thoughts on “Bon Appetite!

  1. I really enjoyed this blog entry. It’s informative and entertaining. I’d love to see the exhibit and I look forward to future blog entries from Catie Robertson.

  2. How fitting that an art museum research facility celebrates the culinary arts. The ephemeral arts such as music, dance and cookery are often overlooked in the material world.

    Kudos to Ms. Robertson for pointing out that this group of 21 volumes also demonstrate American history, binding aesthetics, women’s studies and publishing history. Thanks also for the reminder that the arts are gender neutral. The ability to make that many observations and connections from such a small sample demonstrates the mental agility expected of a librarian.

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