Academic journal article Michigan Historical Review

"Stirring Constantly": 150 Years of Michigan Cookbooks

Academic journal article Michigan Historical Review

"Stirring Constantly": 150 Years of Michigan Cookbooks

Article excerpt

   We may live without poetry, music and art,
   We may live without conscience, and live without heart;
   We may live without friends," we may live without books;
   But civilized man cannot live without cooks.
   He may live without books,--what is knowledge but grieving?
   He may live without hope,--what is hope but deceiving?
   He may live without love,--what is passion but pining?
   But where is the man that can live without dining?

--Owen Meredith (1)

In 2004 the Clarke Historical Library at Central Michigan University received a substantial donation of Michigan-related cookbooks from Maureen Hathaway. As the director of the Clarke, I was pleased for several reasons. First, although the library has always included a fair number of cookbooks in its holdings, the Maureen Hathaway Culinary Archive more than doubled the Clarke's collection. Second, this augmentation of the library's assets occurred at a time when scholarly opinion about cookbooks was changing dramatically, from almost complete neglect by serious scholars to an understanding of how cookbooks could be useful to those pursuing research in social history, which may mean that more people will wish to visit the library to consult the archive. Third, this gift has allowed the Clarke to create an exhibit in its exhibition galleries that showcases several of the collection's cookbooks. And fourth, it has prompted this article, which will touch on the ways in which many scholars now view cookbooks, briefly discuss the science and technology of cooking and cookbooks, examine three types of cookbooks published in Michigan, and consider ethnic cookbooks and regional cooking as well as gender roles in cooking. Several recipes from volumes in the archive are also included.

In recent years, scholars have begun to see cookbooks as windows that allow them to view social history that would otherwise be difficult to see. For example, documenting the ways in which immigrant communities and the larger American majority remain distinctive or blend together is a task that requires multiple types of information. Community fundraising cookbooks allow a scholar to document how the taste for "foreign" dishes such as tacos crept into middle America, in what parts of the nation change first occurred, how the ethnic community may or may not have remained true to its culinary traditions, and the subtle mix of "ethnic" versus "American" ingredients and preparation techniques, all of which indicate change in both the immigrant and the broader American communities. Of course, this is only one example of how research into cooking and cookbooks can help researchers document change, and many other approaches are possible.

In Michigan the ways in which cooks cook have been influenced by published cookbooks since the mid-nineteenth century. Today we expect that the cookbooks published in the state, no matter how remote the corner in which they appear, will have a wide range of recipes from around the nation and perhaps the world. This was not always the case, as even general-purpose cookbooks in earlier times usually represented a single culinary tradition, whereas today a single-tradition book generally advertises itself as a guide to a particular specialty. Thus cookbooks from the past serve as guides to specific culinary habits in the time, place, and community that published them or for which they were published. By looking at what we find in cookbooks, we can often infer a great deal about the social, nutritional, and cultural lives of families and communities in the past.

Cookbooks, as we understand them today, were invented in the nineteenth century. Although the first cookbook written by an American was published in 1796, the volume would not be useful, or even understandable, to a cook today. Basic technology that is taken for granted by cooks today--things as elementary as a cooking stove, for example--had not yet been invented. …

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