Out of the frying pan and into the history books

Workers Preparing Food

Two women prepare breakfast with Corn Flakes and milk for campers at Glen Lake Camp in Glen Rose, TX (Archives of the Central Texas Conference, United Methodist Church from The Portal to Texas History)

Food history — it’s a popular research subject these days. A renewed interest in locally grown food and headlines about childhood obesity have, no doubt, contributed to this trending topic.

The latest issue of the journal Public Historian highlights the range of food-related exhibits recently on display in museums and historic sites throughout the country. As the authors note, the history of what we eat and how the food gets to our table is part of many fields: cultural and social history, history of agriculture, and ecology, not to mention the history and psychology behind packaging and advertisements.

Food is such a great example of how history comes in many different formats: objects, documents, books, oral histories. Each requires a different type of analysis and, sometimes, a different search method, depending on collecting institution and online access. A quick Google search demonstrates this point.

Objects may be ordinary for their time but are unique to us today. Most often, they are displayed in physical exhibit spaces. But more often now, they also are online as digitized collections, like the old-fashioned kitchen utensils in the online exhibit “Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook Project” from Michigan State University Library. My favorite is the Raisin Seeder. Thank goodness for seedless grapes!

Documents and pictures can come from many different creators (people, companies, organizations). Often, it is the creator’s name that is the title of the collection. For example, the National Archives’ What’s Cooking Uncle Sam? exhibit includes photos and ephemera (posters, etc.) from different government agencies that show how the U.S. agencies were involved in setting nutrition standards and growing food, particularly during wartime like the famous Victory gardens in World War II.

Books are usually the easiest to search for, if you know where to look. In my hometown of Fort Worth, TX, a browse of “food” related entries in the Cultural District Library Consortium (an online catalog of non-circulating items from some of the city’s prominent cultural institutions) gets 349 hits ranging from art and history to botany and pharmacology, books on medieval cooking and healing to a 2009 report from the United Nations on grasslands and climate change. It also includes cookbooks from the National Cowgirl Museum.

A shelf of cookbooks can tell a history, too.
Photo by author

Cookbooks also can be an important resource. The stories behind the recipes are less likely to be found in a library or archive. But they are equally valuable. They can help to tell the history of a family and a community, like the women whose recipes and interviews fill the pages of Grace & Gumption: The Cookbook, edited by Katie Sherrod (TCU Press, 2010).

Bottom line: that 3 by 5 index card of my grandmother’s famous bread pudding recipe is a historical artifact to be treasured. It also shows how recipes and their ingredients change over time… I cut the amount of sugar and eggs by half.


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