Sunday, January 6, 2013

What's cooking for the new semester?

There's nothing quite like returning from the winter holidays still preoccupied by culinary endeavors!  This term, I'm providing historical recipes to students (via our LMS) in a vague attempt to introduce a practical element of American social history.  What people ate, what they considered important enough to write down and publish, and suggestions for serving food comprise keys to a lived history that can address everything from agricultural scarcity/abundance, class, and eventually (at least by the early 1800s) the great American tradition of advertising food stuffs.  Well, there's that...and then there's the fact that some students may simply enjoy cooking, and it could provide a unique way to engage with the past.

If one lives in a large metropolitan area, replete with fabulous libraries, historical recipes might not be so hard to find.  A quick search of the New York Public Library, for example, turned up several sources like the Whitney Cookery Collection, spanning the years 1400 - 1895.  

Most of us, however, would find it difficult to physically locate ourselves in those libraries, patiently locating, retrieving, and digitizing recipes to share as we march through the survey.

There are several online sources, if you are so inclined!  

The Library of Congress is a great place to start.  There are larger PDF files like:

Some schools, like Duke and the University of Michigan, have digitized parts of their rare book collection.  These libraries include gems like:

Or, there are American oddities like the recipe for the U.S. Senate's Navy Bean Soup.  Trust me, it's really delicious.  

As with most obsessive internet searches, I've learned I'm not too unique in this endeavor.  Several internet collections exist ("Not By Bread Alone"), television shows (PBS' "A Taste of History"), and too-many-to-count blogs that focus on regional delicacies (like UL's Robert Carriker and his famed boudin site).

The wealth of resources, however, means that one still could spend hours finding a good recipe to represent a certain time/event - but that's always half of the fun!  


  1. Great (and usually overlooked) topic, Nina - especially given our "foodie" culture these days. Another great resource is Michigan State's "Feeding America" project, which is the a very large repository of digitized historic cookbooks housed in the MSU museum - as well as a display of cooking implements w/descriptions, and a pretty extensive glossary of unfamiliar terms. Check it out:

  2. Ha! I just saw a show on the 101 best fast foods (or some such topic) on H2--History Channel #2--and the most interesting parts (for me) involved the history of the rise of certain foods--French Fries come about because restaurants need to fill up their patrons during World War II meat rations, and after many failed alternatives, it turns out people loved salted fried potatoes. At about this point in the show, I was thinking exactly along the same lines you were: food is history. The book _Eating History_ was popular around our house too.

  3. This is wonderful! I work with a lot of local CSA groups to do recipe development for their weekly produce collections - would be really fun to recreate some of the historical dishes using local produce from the same area. Thanks for putting this all together.
    And to Kevin (above) my favorite part of the food network and travel channels are when they discuss the history of the foods and places they are visiting. Funny that's what you picked up on too - rather than the fast food itself.