You long for the recipe for the cold lemon souffle your mother once made from that totem to the 1970’s, printed long before food blogging was a verb, The Vegetarian Epicure. You wouldn’t mind browsing through the book again, but not enough to purchase a used copy from Amazon; you really just want that lemon souffle, a cold, tower of fluff, sharp with citrus that could be made in advance…
For that, and any other culinary research – an 18th c. walnut catchup? the history of vegetarianism? – I send you to the stacks of the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, in which, among its 100,000 volumes tracing the history of women in America, are 20,000 cookbooks and cooking related materials. Stars within that collection are the papers of M.F.K. Fisher, the Joy of Cooking’s Rombauer Beck team, and everything Julia Child, from her cookbook collection to television scripts to private letters.
De Conservanda Bona Valetudine, “to conserve good health,” published in Antwerp, 1562, is in the Schlesinger Library, as is the oldest American cookbook: American Cookery, or the art of dressing viands, fish, poultry, and vegetables, and the best modes of making pastes, puffs, pies, tarts, puddings, custards, and preserves, and all kinds of cakes, from the imperial plum to plain cake: Adapted to this country, and all grades of life. by Amelia Simmons, “an American orphan,”.
The latter was the first cookbook written by a colonial American, using American ingredients like cornmeal, the first use of the words “cookie” and “slaw.” Marylene Altieri, curator of books and printed material at the Schlesinger Library, and my guide for an afternoon, suggested that colonial housewives had, until this point, still been assembling grunts from British cookbooks they’d carried across the Atlantic. The Historic American Cookbook Project of Michigan State University thus called American Cookery, “in its own way, a second Declaration of American Independence.”
The Schlesinger people understand the treasure of social history written in the pages of a cookbook; that’s why the culinary collection exists. Here’s a Schlesinger cookbook whose title and publishing history tells a breathtaking story: What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking, written by former slave Mrs. Abby Fisher, published in 1881 by the women’s cooperative printing press, San Francisco.
These books and The Vegetarian Epicure are in The Schlesinger Library for anyone to examine; the library is free and open to the public. (The library advises to call ahead if there is a specific text that interests you, only because much of the collection is housed in the Harvard Depository forty miles away; the kind librarians just want to be sure your book is on the premises when you visit.)
Interested in the first chafing dish cookbook, published in 1898? – Altieri says the subject was appealing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when fortunes were declining and aristocratic women were cutting back on kitchen staff, thus “preparing” food themselves table-side. Altieri adds that as women began to join the work force, and live in “bedsits,” a rented room and shared bath, they began to cook single meals for themselves with chafing dishes. Like so much here, this vessel has social meaning far beyond warming Swedish meatballs for a crowd.
Indeed, a prominent example of a good social history told through cookbooks is the culinary collection at the Schlesinger Library itself. Founded in 1943 with the donation of the Maud Wood Parks suffragist papers, the Schlesinger Library began with the women’s rights movement at its center.
Soon the library shelves swelled with the works of not only Susan B. Anthony and Amelia Earhart, but of Betty Friedan, NOW, The Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, who produced Our Bodies Ourselves, even Shere Hite’s work on sexuality. Today the library boasts “the finest collection of resources for research on the history of women in America.”
In 1960 there really was no culinary collection yet. That year Harvard College offered the Schlesinger Library its first cookbooks: 1500 historic texts long forgotten four stories beneath the Widener Library, along with the books on mortuary science and premature burial. The Schlesinger people’s reflexive reaction was, Altieri says, eyes twinkling, “No way. We don’t want your cookbooks! We just got out of the kitchen!”
Later came a great cookbook donation by the Gourmet Magazine food writing couple Samuel and Narcissa Chamberlain. Still, according to Altieri, the key to repositioning academia’s staunchly planted opposition to the stove was in the 1970‘s when, at the urging of her friend and editor Avis De Voto, Julia Child donated her papers to the library. In the late 1970’s, she promised to gradually release to the Schlesinger her collection of 5,000 cookbooks, many old and rare.
We can thank Julia Child for many things, but it was the donation of her papers that brought esteem to the culinary arts, thus launching the immense resource for an art form celebrated by each of us everyday, saying everything about who we have been and who we are.
Honoring Julia Child’s 100th birthday, The Schlesinger Library will host a symposium this September, “Siting Julia,” in which distinguished speakers will discuss three venues important to the cookbook author and television host: Post World War II France, Cambridge and national television. The symposium will be free and open to the public, but advance registration, starting August 15th, will be required.
The following is my adaptation of the Walnut Catchup recipe from The Ladies handmaid, or A compleat system of cookery on the principles of elegance and frugality, by Mrs. Sarah Phillips, London, 1758, from the Schlesinger Library Culinary Collection, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University. Here is the original recipe, photo credit: Marylene Altieri.
According to that other great resource, Wikipedia, British sailors in the early 18th century discovered a pickled fish and spice condiment in Malaysia, originally from China, called kê-chiap in the Amoy dialect. The condiment traveled back to England, where it became many recipes in which vinegar seems to have been the only constant.
Because of the vinegar and spices, even made with walnuts this tastes surprisingly like a ketchup-y condiment. Spread on a baguette with fresh cucumber, radishes, and homemade paneer cheese, walnut ketchup made a hefty, spicy sandwich, nuanced in a modern way. Still, this is as true now as it probably was in the 18th century: cold chicken or meats would be improved to the point of special with a side of walnut catchup.
After I return to the library I promise that lemon souffle recipe.
Walnut Catchup adapted from a recipe from Sarah Phillips in 1758
makes approximately 5 cups
1 1/2 pounds walnuts
2 tablespoons chopped shallot
4 tablespoons sea salt
6 ounces apple cider vinegar
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon mace
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
2 cups water
In a glass jar, mix together the first four ingredients. Let stand for one week, turning regularly to mix.
Press mixture through a food mill or puree in a food processor. Add the remaining ingredients, put all in a large saucepan and simmer for a half-hour. Cool, and put into jars. The mixture should keep well refrigerated for up to two weeks, but store in sterilized, processed jars or freeze for a longer time.