by Barbara Rotger
Like family bibles and favorite children’s books, cookbooks are often singled out in the home for special treatment. They are kept separately from other books, passed down from generation to generation, with each caretaker inscribing his or her own name within it. However, unlike other treasured volumes, users regularly mark these texts with their own corrections or commentary, adding whole new sections or boldly crossing out recipes that have proved unsuccessful. Years of heavy use are reflected in repairs, occasionally made by professional binders, but more frequently accomplished with tape or needle and thread, providing a tangible link between the craft of cooking and other household crafts.
Don Lindgren, proprietor of Rabelais Fine Books on Food & Drink, made these points in his lecture “The Anatomy of a Cookbook: The Useful Object and Its Users.” This was the first talk in this year’s Jacques Pepin Lectures Series, offered by Boston University’s Programs in Food and Wine. Lindgren emphasized use of the term “object” rather than “text” in his title, noting that there are many aspects of cookbooks that scholars can learn from that beyond lists of ingredients and instructions for their preparation.
Referencing the methodology that historian Barbara Ketcham Wheaton presents in her seminar on Reading Historic Cookbooks, Lindgren encouraged the audience to look for details such as the number of ingredients a cookbook calls for, the source of those ingredients, and the kind of environment they might reflect. Scholars should also consider evidence of the range of equipment in use and the people involved in preparing food – from heads of households planning menus, cooks who prepared them, and the merchants, foragers and farmers who supplied the ingredients.
Lindgren pointed out the importance of considering the motivations of the publisher or author. Cookbooks do not just exist as a vehicle to share recipes; authors may seek to gain publicity for themselves, raise funds for a cause, or support advertisers. The use of pseudonyms is common in cookbook publishing. Lindgren illustrated this point with an example, noting that a volume published by the “Society of New York Gentlemen” sold far more copies after the author’s name was changed to the fictitious “Priscilla Homespun”.
In another example of cookbook sleuthing, Lindgren showed how a bookseller’s ticket, affixed to the inside of a collection of cocktail recipes that was published in 1862, shed light on another historical moment. This slip of paper, pasted inside the cover of the book, indicated that the volume was sold in a shop in Havana that was in business from 1873 to 1877, providing evidence that contradicts the conventional wisdom of when cocktail culture developed on the island of Cuba.
After his talk, participants were invited to examine a number of cookbooks from Lindgren’s shop. Many took home a catalog and went home inspired to consider the “useful objects” on their own kitchen shelves in a new light.