Finding the History of a Culture in Library Cookbook Collections

Finding the History of a Culture in Library Cookbook Collections

Library Cookbook Collections

Of course, libraries have books of all kinds. But you may not be aware that there are many libraries across the U.S., mostly university libraries, that have special collections involving cookbooks. They can range from generalized collections to specialized archives, including New York Public Library’s Dorot Jewish Division that has more than 2,500 Jewish cookbooks, to the University of Alabama’s David Walker Lupton African American Cookbook Collection, to the University of Iowa’s Szathmary Culinary Manuscripts & Cookbook Collection, which contains a wide variety of cooking-related publications. Many of these collections are available to the general public, not just faculty and staff.

To gain an understanding of why these types of collections are valuable, and why they matter to people outside the university setting, I talked with Kristen Nyitray, director of special collections and university archives at Stony Brook University on Long Island, and with Megan Kocher, science librarian at the University of Minnesota. Nyitray oversees the Jacqueline M. Newman Chinese Cookbook Collection, and Kocher works with the Doris S. Kirschner Cookbook Collection.

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Themed collection

The Chinese cookbook collection was assembled by Dr. Newman, who was a professor and scholar of Chinese American history and cuisine. Dr. Newman donated the books over time, and currently, the collection holds nearly 5,000 titles. But Nyitray cautioned that “titles” can be misleading: “For example, her journal Flavor and Fortune is considered one title. But there are several issues within that title. We have full runs of different magazines and whatnot. There are certainly more volumes than titles.”

Although the collection has the word “cookbook” in the title, the overall archive contains more than books. “We have CDs, DVDs, film strips,” said Nyitray. “She donated these hand-carved mooncake molds, a noodle maker, chopsticks. There are artifacts in the collection, and images of different foods and herbs and plants and things of that nature. Then we have some other lighter items. In the 1970s the famed chef Martin Yan alluded to the pet rock by putting out a pet wok. It’s really very cute. It’s a miniature wok with a tiny little cookbook. Students love to see it because they’re so interested in this little wok. But they don’t know what a pet rock was!”

Many items in the Newman collection are the only known extant edition, or one-of-a-kind items, which made cataloging them more onerous than usual. “We created these records from scratch. And Dr. Newman, for many, most of the books, she actually provided an abstract or an annotation. In the catalog record, we integrated her notes. Sometimes it’ll indicate some interesting fact about the author, or does the book not have recipes? Is it more about etiquette? You’re not going to get that in a typical record for library books. We did this enhanced level of cataloging.”

General collection

At the University of Minnesota’s Magrath Library, the Doris S. Kirschner Cookbook Collection started with a donation from Kirschner, who was an alum of what was then the School of Home Economics, now known as the Department of Food Science and Nutrition. “She was a lifelong cookbook collector, starting when she was 17,” said Kocher. “She also had an interest in travel and international cuisine, and she kept a kosher kitchen. She had a really broad array of interests food-wise.”

In the 1990s, she decided to donate her collection to the university. The initial donation was comprised of about 1,500 volumes, but it came with an endowment for the library to continue collecting cookbooks as well as bring in speakers and do events. “Part of the stipulation with the money is that we keep adding to it,” said Kocher. “Every year we get the new James Beard award winners. We also get local cookbooks. And there have been lots of donations over time as well that have added to it. Just a few years ago, we acquired Beatrice Ojakangas’ collection as part of that as well. That was a huge addition that almost doubled our collection. Between various donations, the new books we purchase and Beatrice Ojakangas’ collection, we’re approaching 6,000 cookbooks.”

The collection runs the gamut from community cookbooks to corporate cookbooks from local companies like General Mills. It also includes a book put out by a gas company that had a home economics department as well as numerous Jell-o pamphlets.

Who uses these collections?

Perhaps surprisingly, Kocher noted that the university’s Food Science and Nutrition Department doesn’t represent a large section of users. “They’re more about nutrition and food science, but occasionally there’s a class on sociocultural aspects of food. What that class is researching histories of foods of things, I often direct them to the cookbook collection and say, ‘Look, you can track the history of a recipe, or see how it was talked about in these different ways.’ More often I get researchers from other departments, especially history and gender studies. I’ve had people who are writing cookbooks and researching recipes and people looking for historical advertisements, because a lot of them, especially the community cookbooks, have advertisements. And then you have people who are really interested in food and cooking and just want to find lots of recipes or an older recipe.”

Nyitray said that while people interested in the collection come on-site to view materials, she also receives research requests from all over the world. “I get a lot of calls from people who are looking for illustrations or the cover art, and I could take a photograph and share that as well. We try to accommodate people who can’t visit. Of course, for copyright reasons, we’re not able to do entire books, but some people are studying a particular ingredient, and they need the recipe, and we can certainly facilitate. Sometimes people are studying the first instance of a word being used or a particular ingredient, or what is authentic versus what is adapted for the American home, so there are a lot of different disciplines and types of research that are done using these cookbooks.”

Kocher noted that during the pandemic, access to the Kirschner collection is limited to university faculty and students, but she looks forward to the post-pandemic world, when it can be open to the public again. “We normally get lots of community visitors,” she said, “And I really love that.” Some of the collection has been digitized, but copyright constraints mean that only older materials can be put online.