Cookbooks to Treasure: Culinary Rarities from the Schlesinger Library
Ubiquitous, utilitarian, underappreciated, the cookbook is among the most prolifically published how-to manuals in history. Cooking our food seems to be the engine of human progress, credited with enlarging brains, increasing fertility, encouraging settled living, and freeing humanity for pursuits beyond mere survival. For centuries, cookbooks have schooled their readers in techniques essential to the flourishing of the species. It is no wonder that humble recipe collections morphed into symbols of status, beauty, wisdom, and creativity.
As the examples in this exhibition show, ornate and valuable cookbooks have been produced since the early days of printing. Yet even very humble cookbooks acquire outsized importance when they document lost ways of life. From Renaissance medical manuals expounding the health and mood-influencing qualities of foods, to the first cookbooks by women, to lavish French court banquet table-setting instructions, to the hand-illustrated recipes of Inupiaqs living on the permafrost, the books in this exhibition capture essential traits of their eras and open windows into understanding the people who produced and used them. Some books here are luxury items; others are chipped and worn vessels of memory, community, and lived experience. All are treasures, for they have survived to tell us their stories and to enrich our understanding of lives lived before ours.