Special Series on Cookbook Literature/Historiography: Cookbooks as scholarly resources

This post is the first in our new series providing a literature review of cookbook scholarship.

Cookbooks as scholarly resources
That cookbooks are valuable scholarly resources has already been established. Food studies scholar Marion Nestle argues, “recipes are gateways to understanding how people ate and thought about foodways in the past” (2012: 9). However, cookbooks provide information beyond food itself; historical cookbooks give insight into personal life.  Culinary historian Barbara Ketcham Wheaton has emphasized this pointin her article “Finding Real Life in Cookbooks” (1998). She underscores how scholars can use cookbooks to learn about what ingredients were available, the kinds of technologies that people of the past used in their households, and better understand gendered work roles. In “Cookbooks as Primary Sources for Writing History,” culinary historian, Elizabeth Driver demonstrates the importance of cookbooks to understanding food culture more generally (2009), a point echoed by cookbook scholar, Nathalie Cooke in “Canada’s Food History Through Cookbooks”(2012). Barbara Haber, former head archivist of the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America of the Radcliff Institute of Harvard University, when responding to questions about why the Schlesinger has always collected cookbooks, notes that “behind the question there is usually the assumption that a library that chronicles the progress of women’s rights ought not also to be collecting books that are a testament to women’s traditional role in the kitchen, thought by many feminists to be the epitome of patriarchal oppression” (2005: 65). Haber argues that although women’s relationship to food and the kitchen has been fraught with tension, it is still an important part of women’s history. Cookbooks are great source material to understand women’s relationship to the history of food, social history, archeology, folklore, history of agriculture, aquaculture, industry, education, medicine, and publishing from women’s perspectives. 
Scholars have answered the call of Cooke, Driver, Haber, Ketcham-Wheaton, and Nestle to build methodologies, which integrate a serious inclusion of cookbooks as source material. Researcher, Kathryn Haupt, shows how women’s cookbooks articulate the writers’ desire “to effect meaningful change from within the circumscribed space of the kitchen” (2012). Folklore scholar, Diane Tye, emphasizes the memories woven within a cookbook’s recipes in Baking as Biography(2010). Researchers such as Sherrie A. Inness in Secret Ingredients: Race, Gender, and Class at theDinner Table  (2006), Mary Drake McFeely in Can She Bake A Cherry Pie? AmericanWomen and the Kitchen in the Twentieth Century  (2001), Jessamyn Neuhaus in Manly Meals and Mom’s Home Cooking: Cookbooks and Gender in Modern America(2003), Laura Schenone in A Thousand Years Over A HotStove: A History of American Women Told Through Food, Recipes, and Remembrances  (2003), Laura Shapiro in Perfection Salad: Women and Food at the Turn of the Century (2001), Megan J. Elias in Food on the Page Cookbooks and American Culture, and Janet Theophano in Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives Through the Cookbooks They Wrote (2002) all utilize cookbooks as the primary source material to understand women’s lives and gender roles. American studies scholar, Hélène Le Dantec-Lowry, commenting on Theophano’s work, notes that much of the scholarship that relies on cookbooks as source material ends up focusing on the experiences of straight, white, middle class women’s experiences (2008). 

by Dr. Alex Ketchum