Sunday, June 15, 2014

Analyzing Historic Cookbooks

This past week I attended the "Analyzing Historic Cookbooks" seminar at the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe (now part of Harvard). The Schlesinger Library is a women's studies library and has a wonderful collection of cookbooks (including Julia Child's collection), so was a nice place to hold the workshop. It is one of the few Harvard libraries that is open to the public. We all had to apply to participate in the workshop, and this year 20 people were accepted (including me). Barbara Wheaton, a noted food historian and cookbook expert who is associated with the library, led the workshop.

Most participants came from an academic background, but there was a restaurant owner and a cookbook collector who were not affiliated with a university or college. Interests ran the gamut from viewing cookbooks as literature, using cookbooks to give women a voice, cultural foodways, how cookbooks can make a political statement, role of food in family development, British colonial food history in Asia, presidential dining, gender and power manifested in cookbooks, French cooking, desserts, domesticity on the frontier and in the 19 century, medieval French cooking and Chinese food history, antebellum and African American cookbooks, and cooking schools. I was the only one interested in medicine.
We started with a dinner at Rendezvous in Central Square on Sunday night. The entire meal was delicious and I would definitely like to go back. It was our first introduction to each other and to Barbara.We ate from the Sunday Prix Fixe menu. I meant to take a picture of all the courses, but this is the only one I remembered to take. I had the Boston lettuce salad with cheddar, slice apples and spiced pecans, the braised lamb shoulder with spices, peas and fava beans and potato gnocchi, and the cherry crostada with vanilla bean ice cream and caramel sauce (above). It was all delicious, but the lamb was especially noteworthy.

This is the classroom where we were all week. Barbara (in the red) is making sure everything is set up for the first class. Breakfast pastries, yogurt and drinks were provided daily. A really nice lunch of sandwiches, salad, chips and dessert were also provided daily.
We did a lot of independent work with cookbooks. Over the course of the week, each of us analyzed 5 different cookbooks from a variety of time periods and locales. Here are some of them.
Each day was organized around a central theme: ingredients, technique and workspace, meal planning, publishing and who the cookbook touched. All were relevant in some way to my research on medicinal recipes except the menu planning.

The first day Barbara started out with some questions we should be asking about the daily theme (ingredients) and then we spent the rest of the day in independent work preparing a 4 minute presentation for the next morning. After the morning presentations, she would talk briefly about the questions we should be asking for the next theme and we would spend the afternoon in independent work. We all looked at different cookbooks across the days--there were some repeats, but many were only examined once or twice. There was more independent time than I would have liked, but I did learn a lot from listening to the other presentations and things they noticed or questions they raised about their reading. However, I wish that Barbara had shared more of her knowledge with us in a more structured way. I did make sure to take time to ask her questions that were of interest to me on a 1:1 environment during lunch or the independent work time.

Here we are hard at work. I sat in a different place by different people every day to make the most of networking opportunities.
I also made sure to talk to a lot of the other people and learn about what they were doing, which also gave me ideas about future research projects. There was an interpreter and culinary historian from Plimoth Plantation as well as other people who knew about the time period I was working in that referred me to sources I would not have known about otherwise.

I also found databases and online resources that helped answer some of the questions I had about who compiled the manuscript I am using for my thesis. It's a pretty cool story--but you'll have to wait and read about it in the thesis :)

Barbara is compiling a database in many ways similar to the database I have compiled, but has some different fields. We are going to get together later this summer to compare our databases.

The most useful part of this workshop for me was two-fold: 1) the networking with other people in the class and 2) learning more about what sorts of questions I should be asking the sources I am using in my research. As a bonus, I corrected my mistaken impression that Schlesinger doesn't have early handwritten manuscripts, and found one that is perfect for a future project.

I went out to dinner with some of the people from the class at a really good taco place in Harvard Square. Suzanne (left) is a PhD candidate studying cookbooks and politics in post-war Spain. Maddy is an undergrad studying the New England Kitchen in the 1890s.
Stephanie is a PhD candidate at Exeter in the UK. This was her first time trying tacos--she loved them. She is going to look up a couple of things for me in England when she gets back.
Because parking fills up early at Alewife, I was at Schlesinger by about 8 and the workshop didn't start until 9:30 (doors opened just for us at 9:00). I spent most days reading or chatting with other participants in Radcliffe Yard--it was such a beautiful place to wait.
I am so glad that I went!


Lorin and Marilyn said...

It sounds like it was very worthwhile. I think I'd go just to try the food.

Sue said...

What a fantastic description of the workshop. Thanks for posting this and I'm so glad that I had the chance to meet you.