Special Series Guest Post: Structure and Joy: On Reading Historic Cookbooks

Today's guest post by Emily J.H. Contois speaks to the importance of cookbooks for researchers. She discusses insights gained from the workshop of culinary historian, Barbara Ketcham Wheaton. This post is part of our special series: Conceptualizing Cookbooks. 

In my current project—The Dudification of Diet—I am working with a corpus of “dude food” cookbooks for men published since 2000. These texts pose fascinating (and troubling) questions about the relationship between food, cooking, and gender—and how this relationship is communicated in cookbooks through recipes, paratext, and design.

Even before I began this research, I’d thought a lot about cookbooks and written about them often on my blog, which I’ve maintained since July 2012 as a space for my food studies research and to share academic resources. I’ve written about microwave cookbooks and blender cookbooks, prolific cookbook authors and academic conferences about cookbooks. I’ve also reflected about how and why I teach with cookbooks. Still, I wanted to learn more, so last year I applied to the Reading Historic Cookbooks: A Structured Approach seminar at the Schlesinger Library in the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University—a women’s and food history treasure trove. Its collection includes 25,000 cookbooks, 4,500 culinary pamphlets, and the papers of famed food figures like Julia Child, Elizabeth David, and M.F.K. Fisher.

In the seminar last summer, I had the pleasure of learning from Barbara Ketcham Wheaton, an eighty-six-year-old expert of culinary history and databases (for more on her database!) with a literal twinkle in her eye, who has taught the seminar since 2009. I also learned from a baker’s dozen of seminar participants from around the world: professors, graduate students, bakers, historians, and cookbook enthusiasts. Together, we studied digital copies of hundreds of cookbooks from the 1390s to the 1920s. From the start Wheaton urged us, “Listen to these cookbooks, to what they’re saying and how they’re saying it. They are real voices.”
A small selection of the English and American
cookbooks from the 1390s-1920s studied during the seminar.
Cookbooks speak of more than what people ate or how they cooked in a particular time and place. Even as we began studying at the micro-level of ingredients, Wheaton remarked, “We’re looking at small details, but they tell big stories.”

Cookbooks tell us about joy and sorrow, feasting and fasting, the spectacular and the quotidian. These are stories of nature and humanity; tales of seasonality, locality, and geography; and accounts of trade routes and global relationships. These are histories and transformations of religion, philosophy, medicine, and technology; of literature and literacy, markets and marketing.

Cookbooks also reveal much about identities and politics, including the role and rights of women. During the early centuries of cookbooks, men wrote these texts for other men, most often the managers of court and estate kitchens, not for cooks themselves and certainly not housewives. The audience, tone, style, and content of cookbooks changed over time, along with women’s evolving social roles.

Acknowledging their vital position in history writ large and long, how does one read a historic cookbook?

The Structured Approach

Having conducted culinary research for more than fifty years, Barbara Ketcham Wheaton developed her “structured approach” when researching her book, Savoring the Past: The French Kitchen and Table from 1300 to 1789 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983) and in her efforts to develop a comprehensive database of cookbooks from around the globe. For her, a structured approach is about teasing apart the strands within a cookbook and developing a process of classification. This strategy endeavors to see the whole, rather than just compose lists of ingredients and techniques.

Within the scope of the seminar, Wheaton broke down a cookbook, spending a day each on:
  • ingredients
  • the kitchen and everything in it
  • the meal and menus
  • the cookbook as a book and publication
  • the cookbook as a socio-cultural object
As we began examining the ingredients within our day’s assigned cookbook, Wheaton prompted us to consider a robust series of questions: What ingredients appear regularly, and more rarely? How often would they have been available at the time of publication considering seasonality, life cycles, and trade routes? How would the ingredients have been procured: grown within the household, purchased at a market, bartered or traded for? What ingredients and flavors are combined together? What spices are used—and where would they have come from; how expensive might they have been? What were the ingredients’ sensory and nutritional properties? What would it be like to cook with them? To eat them? What ingredients don’t appear? What do these absences tell us?

When we considered the kitchen, we catalogued everything in it. Drawing from details in our cookbooks, we pieced together the kitchen’s size, location, and organization, as well as its equipment, appliances, tools, and furnishings. We took note of their materials like cast iron, copper, wood, tin, aluminum, linen, and paper. We paid attention to what fuel sources were used and how a cook attended to cooking temperatures and times.

While teasing out these details usually requires closely reading a cookbook line by line, page by page, I got to analyze Alexis Soyer’s The Modern Housewife or Ménagère, published in London in 1851, which clearly listed in great detail a perhaps aspirational (and decidedly promotional) batterie de cuisine:


The batterie de cuisine outlined in The Modern Housewife, 1851
Moving on from kitchens, we read cookbooks for how they devised menus and meals. We considered examples for how to live on very little (such as Lydia Maria Child’s The American Frugal Housewife, 1835, 16th edition), as well as how to spend it all and eat lavishly, like the menu of a feast for Richard II in 1387 that called for 1,100 eggs, as well as the slaughter and preparation of 2,500 live animals.

As we analyzed cookbooks as objects of publication, we examined their size, shape, design, paper, and processes for printing, binding, transport, and sale.

Lastly, we pondered cookbooks as social and cultural documents, ones that link actors that Wheaton poetically described as “the writer, reader, cook, and eater.” Wheaton encouraged us to explore: Who wrote cookbooks, why, and for whom? Who published and sold cookbooks, and at what cost? Who owned these cookbooks, and what would it have been like to cook from them?

Thinking on Historic Cookbooks

While our approach to studying cookbooks was well structured, the seminar itself also included a lovely amount of unstructured time, a week spent around a table with a group of experts, available to answer any number of questions like: What is a bustard? (A big bird, sort of like a turkey.) A pippin? (A type of apple). Or a breame? (A freshwater fish.) Especially with such unfamiliar ingredients and dishes, Wheaton reminded us that recipes, such as those from the fifteenth century, were not written for us and must be judged on their own terms.

Reading for silences is also an important task, as what is left out from a cookbook often reveals details that were so commonly known they needn’t be recorded. At the same time, reading historic cookbooks results in many presentist giggles over apple-less apple pies, cakes that call for thirty eggs and fifteen egg whites, batters to be vigorously beaten for two or three hours (#armsofsteel), and vegetables to be boiled for a full hour, if they’re included on the menu at all.

Although Wheaton developed her structured approach for studying the cookbooks of the past, I find it a marvelously useful technique for interpreting more contemporary texts, yes, including ones written for American dudes in recent years.


Emily J.H. Contois is Assistant Professor of Media Studies at the University of Tulsa. Her research explores the connections between food, the body, health, and identities in the everyday American experience and popular culture and has been published in Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies, Fat Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Body Weight and Society, and Feminist Media Studies, among others. She received her PhD in American Studies from Brown University and holds three master’s degrees: an MA in American Studies from Brown University, an MLA in Gastronomy from Boston University, and an MPH focused in Public Health Nutrition from University of California, Berkeley. She writes for Nursing Clio, blogs at emilycontois.com, and can be found on social media at @emilycontois.

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