Reading Historic Cookbooks: A Structured Approach 2017

A Seminar Taught by Barbara Ketcham Wheaton
Barbara Ketcham Wheaton. Photo by Joe WheatonBarbara Ketcham Wheaton. Photo by Joe Wheaton

Cookbooks are among the best sources we have for the study of food history, but they are complex documents that yield their secrets only to an attentive and systematic reader. Join scholar, writer, and honorary curator of the library’s culinary collection, Barbara Ketcham Wheaton, for a highly interactive, weeklong seminar in augmenting research skills in culinary history. A maximum of sixteen participants will have the opportunity to work closely with Ms. Wheaton to explore the art of reading cookbooks for meaning.

The seminar will cover such themes as ingredients; the cook’s workplace, techniques, and equipment; meals; cookbooks; and the worlds of the publisher, the writer, the reader, the cook, and the eater. Participants will examine selections from a number of English and American cookbooks ranging in date from the late fourteenth century to about 1910, as well as auxiliary sources such as inventories, architectural books, and archaeological research. No matter what era or geographic region you specialize in, the critical evaluation tools gained through this course will be relevant.

Participants will have the opportunity to view a selection of rare cookbooks from the Schlesinger Library’s culinary collection, and a public services librarian will introduce the facilities available to researchers. Wireless internet access is available at the library, all seminar materials will be in digital format, and participants should bring a laptop.

Frontispiece from Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy, by a Lady (i.e., Hannah Glasse), circa 1790. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library.Frontispiece from Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy, by a Lady (i.e., Hannah Glasse), circa 1790. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library.Wheaton has been conducting culinary history research for 50 years and is honorary curator of the culinary collection in the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, where there are more than 20,000 books on cookery, foodstuffs, and the history of cooking and eating.

Her book Savoring the Past: The French Kitchen and Table from 1300 to 1789 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983) won the Prix Littéraire des Relais Gourmands in 1985. This seminal work has also been published in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Japan.

Wheaton has an AB in art history from Mount Holyoke College and an AM in the same field from Harvard University. Her workshops in reading cookbooks as sources of social history have been attended by food writers, working cooks, historians, and scholars in other fields.

Seminar size: 16 participants

Participation fee: $350. This includes the “Get-acquainted Dinner,” lunches, an introduction to the Schlesinger Library’s extraordinary resources for studying food history, and a variety of original texts, reprints, printouts, and imprints that the instructor will supply for use during the week.

We are now accepting applications for the 2017 seminar. Applications will be accepted through April 18, 2017. Selected applicants will be notified of their acceptance by April 26, 2017.



6 p.m.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

"Get Acquainted Dinner"

9:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m.

Monday, June 5, 2017

"The Ingredients"
This session will examine the geographic origins, seasonality, and cost of foodstuffs within the scope of each cookbook, as well as their sensory qualities, separately and in combination.

9:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

“The Cook’s Workplace, Techniques, and Equipment”
This session will cover the kitchen itself, the equipment used, the management of heat and cold, and the spread of the Industrial Revolution into the domestic sphere.

9:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

"The Meal"
This session will follow the cooked dishes from the kitchen to the eating place, observing food presentation, including carving, the sequencing and serving of the meal, and table etiquette.

9:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

"The Cookbook"
This session will examine manuscript and printed cookbooks, their physical qualities, including indications of post-publication history, the recipes and other matter in them, as well as their language, organization, individual qualities, and their place in the history of publishing.

9:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m.

Friday, June 9, 2017

“The Writer, Reader, Cook, and Eater”
This session will use the books that have been read to understand the physical and inner lives, needs, and skills of the individuals who used the cookbooks and who ate the meals that were shaped by them.


Note: Lunch will be provided from Monday to Friday.