Culinary delights and treasures

See that, right there? That’s not just any old copy of The Joy of Cooking. That’s a first edition. Which belonged to Julia Child.

I had the opportunity to tour The Radcliffe Institute’s Schlesinger Library yesterday… partly for work and also just for the thrill of getting to see treasures like this.

Schlesinger is home to one of the world’s greatest collections of cookbooks, consisting of more than 15,000 volumes that span the globe and date back to the 16th century. Child was an ardent supporter of the library, donating he own papers, as well as her cookbook collection consisting of more than 4,000 books. And I thought I had a lot of cookbooks.

Schlesinger Curator Marylene Altieri was on hand to talk to us, as well as Barbara Ketcham Wheaton, honorary curator of the culinary collection. Together, they gave our small group an introduction before showing us a few of their treasures.

I love cookbooks because they tell you so much more than how to make a great meal. French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin famously said, “Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are,” a spirit that I think cookbooks capture so wonderfully. They are the stories of people. The rules they lived by. The resources they had at hand. The ways they coped, and the ways they celebrated.

The book on the top left of the series above is a Kosher cookbook published in Germany in the 1880s; as one might imagine, precious few of them survive today. To the right of that is a Prudence Penny cookbook from World War II, published just as Americans were learning how to adjust to the realities of rationing and food shortages. Below that, La Cocinera Poblana provides insights on how Mexicans lived during the early part of the 20th Century. And on the bottom left is Favorite Dishes, a celebrity cookbook compiled for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Below, is a hand written recipe for “Walnut Catsup” dating back to 1781. Take that Heinz!

Last spring, I wrote about a seminar that Barbara runs most years on how academics can use culinary texts in their research to discern things about class, science and even architecture.  “Food is one of the basic life things that humans have used to make an identity for themselves,” she told me. “Yes, we need it. But we have used it also to create a system of beliefs, nationality, and culture.” (Coincidentally, the application process for the weeklong seminar just opened. You can learn more about it here.)

Not surprisingly, Harvard didn’t originally set out amass a huge culinary collection. The University’s lonely assortment of cookbooks sat largely untouched in Widener Library until the 1960s, when someone made the executive decision that books about cooking belonged across campus at the women’s college. When second wave feminism took off in the 70s, there was renewed interest in building the collection as a means to study social history. Today, scholars from around the world come to the library to do research.

In addition to Child’s papers, Schlesinger is home to the papers of noted culinary writer M.F.K. Fisher, British cookery writerElizabeth David, Mastering the Art of French Cooking co-author Simone Beck, and many records from the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Association… just to name a few. A visit to the vault revealed volume after volume… from Escoffier to Poor Girl Gourmet (no kidding!). The library also recently acquired the menu collection of Lee Orloff, a blogger in France who writes almost exclusively about her hobby- eating in Michelin Starred restaurants. (Yeah, I just bookmarked her blog.) During her decades of dining, Orloff has amassed a collection of more than 1,300 menus from the restaurants she’s patronized, many of them signed by chefs.

Schlesinger Library is open to the public- you do not need an ID to get in. However, as most of their material is vaulted, they recommend that you contact them before you go so they can have your books ready; a catalog is available online. And yes, you can simply request a book in order to find a long-lost recipe.

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7 thoughts on “Culinary delights and treasures

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