Finding women's history in cookbooks

BOSTON — BOSTON -- Thirty years ago, a small collection of home-economics books stored in the basement of Harvard's Widener Library was retrieved by Barbara Solomon, then director of Radcliffe's Women's Archives. The books, offering women advice on efficient cleaning and laundry, taking care of children and invalids, and eating sensibly, were well-rounded books on domesticity.

Ms. Solomon found them stacked beside volumes on mortuary science. The scene was splendid, said one food historian recently: As scholarly work, domesticity and food were nearly, but not quite, dead disciplines.


Today all that has changed. Those home-economics books and 9,000 more books on cooking, added in the last few decades, are valuable indicators of American domestic life. The collection is housed in Radcliffe's Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America (formerly Women's Archives), a social history library of 40,000 volumes whose culinary collection accounts for about 20 percent of its resources.

"Barbara Solomon understood that there was women's history in those books," said Schlesinger's curator, Barbara Haber. Indeed, the collection is considered a rich resource for scholars studying the daily pattern of women's lives. Dissertation students come to pore through them, chefs use them for inspiration at the stove, and researchers cull from them a vivid picture of family life in America.


Last month, Cambridge resident Julia Child, long an ardent supporter of the Schlesinger's culinary collection, donated 2,000 volumes. Around the same time, the Schlesinger collected a donation of 450 volumes from the Simon/Lowenstein group of books made available when the American Institute of Wine and Food bought them from a collector and donated them to the library. The additions make Schlesinger one of the best culinary libraries in the country.

When the initial home-economics books arrived from Widener, Schlesinger curators insisted that the books were useful resource material, as important as the library's other books and papers of women in America. But it took time for scholars to appreciate the value of reading recipes. The women's movement that began in the 1960s was outspoken against women's roles in the household and didn't further the cookbook cause.

"Domesticity was seen as oppressive to women, and cooking was a silly, simplistic notion," said Ms. Haber. " 'The greater world was women's arena,' they said. 'We've been kept in the kitchen too long.' " Now, said Ms. Haber, a new generation of scholars has come along. "They don't have to make the same political point," she said. "They can look at this terrific array of material and see what it said about food and by extension about society."

So valuable has the collection become that, on Nov. 11, the Schlesinger Library held a forum to celebrate it. The goal was to establish Radcliffe Culinary Friends, people in the various food professions -- chefs, writers, purveyors, nutritionists and scholars -- who understood the importance of the historical cookbooks.

With nearly 400 in attendance at Agassiz Theatre, adjacent to the Schlesinger Library, the event was a milestone for food historians and an exhilarating day for Radcliffe. The study of cooking through history, of learning about ordinary women through the food they prepared, said the speakers, had finally been accepted as a viable academic pursuit.

"Food is central to women's lives," writer Nancy Harmon Jenkins told the audience. "But it hasn't been easy for people studying women to accept this idea. Women's lives are incomprehensible and incoherent without the study of food."

Traditionally, said Ms. Haber, the study of women's history has encompassed all the histories, all the fiction and nonfiction available, all the court records, even early household inventories. What could a scholar draw from a cookbook?

One example she points to is "The American Frugal Housewife" (1832) by Lydia Maria Child. Child's husband, said Ms. Haber, was a man who wouldn't support his family. Lydia Child earned the family's income by writing about women being responsive to hard-working husbands, not wasting their money, and asking their husbands for permission to buy certain things.


"She had to pretend that she was the helpmate because most other women of the time were," said Haber. "Yet she was the sole support of the family."

Cookbooks tell of the most ordinary things, and collectively the details reveal a lot about routines, said Barbara Wheaton, honorary curator of the Schlesinger culinary collection. "In Amelia Simmons' 'American Cookery' published in 1796," she said, "Simmons begins by telling you how to do your gardening. An 18th century cook isn't just trotting down to market. There may not be a market. You collect the things you've grown."

Many cookbooks portray women as subservient, cooking to please husbands, occupying themselves with the myriad details luncheons. And by today's standards, much of the food -- even in the books written 30 years ago -- seems dated and quaint. But it's all relative, said Barbara Kafka, best-selling cookbook author and a staunch supporter of the Schlesinger collection.

Reading cookbooks, she said, is a way to discover what time meals were served, how much people ate, what they ate, what the school hours were, how long men worked and when they took a break, the changes in food production and in family living styles.

"Food is the largest activity of humankind," said Ms. Kafka. "It's the reason man invented tools, and it's never been properly examined."

As for what future historians will make of today's cookbooks, which may give the impression that a decade of American women have served radicchio and endive with walnut oil for dinner every night, Ms. Kafka said that, unfortunately, "Culinary people aren't collectors of utility, but of sensationalism." Recipe books in general ignore daily food and make-do food, she said.


Ms. Haber goes to community and charity cookbooks -- the spiral-bound books put together by churches and organizations -- for a truer picture.

"I look at them as historical documents." she said. "Cookbooks are the only publishing that some groups do. Women are community builders, their organizations are the real pegs of our society."