Harvard's Cookbooks Speak of Our History

Food for Thought
Gloucester Times
August 8, 2012
By Heather Atwood

You long for the recipe for the cold lemon souffle your mother once made from that totem to the 1970s, printed long before food blogging was a verb, "The Vegetarian Epicure." You wouldn't mind browsing through the book again, but not enough to purchase a used copy; you really just want that lemon souffle, a cold, tower of fluff, sharp with citrus that could be made in advance ...

For that, and any other culinary research — an 18th century walnut catchup? the complete history of vegetarianism by James C. Whitten? — I send you to the stacks of the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, in which, among its 100,000 volumes tracing the history of women in America, are 20,000 cookbooks and cooking related materials. Stars within that collection are the papers of M.F.K. Fisher, the Rombauer Beck team of "Joy of Cooking," and everything Julia Child, from her cookbook collection to television scripts to private letters.

The oldest British cookbook, "De Conservanda Bona Valetudine," "to conserve good health," published in Antwerp, 1562, is in the Schlesinger Library, as is the oldest American cookbook: "American Cookery, or the art of dressing viands, fish, poultry, and vegetables, and the best modes of making pastes, puffs, pies, tarts, puddings, custards, and preserves, and all kinds of cakes, from the imperial plum to plain cake: Adapted to this country, and all grades of life," by Amelia Simmons, "an American orphan," Hartford: Printed for Simeon Butler, Northampton, 1798.

The latter was the first cookbook written by a colonial American, using American ingredients such as cornmeal, and marking the first use of the words "cookie" and "slaw." Marylene Altieri, the library's curator of books and printed material and my guide for an afternoon, suggested that colonial housewives had, until this point, still been assembling grunts from British cookbooks they'd carried across the Atlantic. The Historic American Cookbook Project of Michigan State University thus called "American Cookery," "in its own way, a second Declaration of American Independence."

The Schlesinger people understand the treasure of social history written in the pages of a cookbook; that's why the culinary collection exists. Here's a Schlesinger cookbook whose title and publishing history tells a breathtaking story: "What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking," written by former slave Mrs. Abby Fisher, published in 1881 by the Women's Cooperative Printing Press, San Francisco.

These books and "The Vegetarian Epicure" are in The Schlesinger Library for anyone to examine; the library is free to the public. (The library advises to call ahead if there is a specific text that interests you, only because much of the collection is housed in the Harvard depository 40 miles away; the kind librarians just want to be sure your book is on the premises when you visit.)

Interested in the first chafing dish cookbook, published in 1898? Altieri says the subject was appealing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when fortunes were declining and aristocratic women were cutting back on kitchen staff, thus "preparing" food themselves tableside. Altieri adds that as women began to join the work force and live in "bedsits," a rented room and shared bath, they began to cook single meals for themselves with chafing dishes. Like so much here, this vessel has social meaning far beyond warming Swedish meatballs for a crowd.

Indeed, a prominent example of a good social history told through cookbooks is the culinary collection at the Schlesinger Library itself. Founded in 1943 with the donation of the Maud Parks Woods suffragette papers, the Schlesinger Library began with the women's rights movement at its center.

Soon the library shelves swelled with the works of not only Susan B. Anthony and Amelia Earhart, but of Betty Friedan, NOW, The Boston Women's Health Book Collective, who produced "Our Bodies Ourselves," even Shere Hite's work on sexuality. Today the library boasts "the finest collection of resources for research on the history of women in America."

But, in 1960 there really was no culinary collection yet. That year Harvard College offered the Schlesinger Library it first cookbooks: 1,500 historic texts long forgotten four stories beneath The Widener Library, along with the books on mortuary science and premature burial. The Schlesinger people's reflexive reaction was, Altieri says, eyes twinkling, "No way. We don't want your cookbooks! We just got out of the kitchen!" Later came a great cookbook donation by the Gourmet Magazine food writing couple Samuel and Narcissa Chamberlain.

Still, according to Altieri, the key to repositioning academia's staunchly planted opposition to the stove was in the 1970s when, at the urging of her friend and editor Avis De Voto, Julia Child donated 5,000 volumes of cookbooks, "many old and rare," to the Schlesinger. We can thank Julia Child for many things, but it was the donation of her cookbook collection that brought esteem to the culinary arts, thus launching the immense resource for an art form celebrated by each of us everyday, saying everything about who we have been and who we are.

The following is my adaptation of the Walnut Catchup recipe from "The Ladies handmaid, or A compleat system of cooker on the principles of elegance and frugality, by Mrs. Sarah Phillips," London, 1758, from the Schlesinger Library Culinary Collection7.

According to that other great resource, Wikipedia, British sailors in the early 18th century discovered a pickled fish and spice condiment in Malaysia, originally from China, called kê-chiap in the Amoy dialect. The condiment traveled back to England, where it became many recipes in which vinegar seems to have been the only constant.

After I return to the library I promise that lemon souffle recipe.

Walnut Catchup

Adapted from a recipe from Sarah Phillips in 1758


11/2 pounds walnuts

2 tablespoons chopped shallot

4 tablespoons sea salt

6 ounces apple cider vinegar

20 anchovies

1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon mace

1/2 teaspoon white pepper


In a glass jar, mix together the first four ingredients. Let stand for one week, turning regularly to mix.

Press mixture through a food mill or puree in a food processor. Add the remaining ingredients, put all in a large saucepan and simmer for an hour. Cool, and put into jars.

The mixture should keep well refrigerated for up to two weeks, but store in sterilized, processed jars or freeze for a longer time.


Food for Thought runs weekly in the Times' Taste of the Times section and is written by Heather Atwood, an author and mother from Rockport. 

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