Finding the History of a Culture in Library Cookbook Collections

Libraries across the country have unique cookbook collections that chefs, historians, genealogists, and hungry patrons have to check out.

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.

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.”

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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.”

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.”