Your Cookbook Scribbles Are Part of Culinary History

Ever scribbled a substitution in the margins of a cookbook? That page is technically now a manuscript, which is the main ingredient of a culinary history.

Culinary history focuses on how food is prepared, whereas food history encompasses everything from how food is grown to how it’s served. Annotated cookbooks, recipe cards, and all other forms of recipe documentation are a culinary historian’s tools to construct a coherent narrative about what we eat and how it’s made.

To create an archive of regional manuscripts, the Culinary Historians of Northern Illinois has begun collecting and uploading manuscripts in the past year from the likes of you and me. The archive is planned to be available online at the end of next year, so everyone has the tools to create histories about local cooking.

“Food is the core of our existence,” Bruce Kraig says, “Food and how it’s made is the driving force behind our identities.” Kraig is the vice president of the Culinary Historians of Northern Illinois and published food historian. He has made a career out of studying food ways, and he’s learned to see the history of food as intimately intertwined with our personal histories and national identities.

“Take for example when Jewish immigrants first started moving to Naperville. We can look at how traditional recipes change to see what ‘Jewishness’ became in a protestant town.” Kraig points out how the recipe changes also reflect how food ways in the US were local; the lack of industrialization of agriculture and mass production of production lines demanded a short supply chain where immigrants had to make do with local ingredients.h

But how accurate are annotated recipes in showing how people really cooked? I know a bud who can literally make three things: chicken soup, cucumber salad, and steak. These are all things he can prepare without a recipe, and he refuses to look at one to learn how to make new dishes. When you live in the heart of Chicago and have enough disposable income, there’s really no need to cook. Or take myself, who bakes with the mindset that recipes are more of a guideline. The result is that my muffins never rise right. Digressions aside, how “authentic” can recipes be?

I can hear Kraig shake his head over the phone when I ask him. “Authenticity is a loaded word,” Kraig sighs, “the general rule of thumb is that 70% of community cookbook recipes come from the back of a box.” A little archival digging here and there and one could cross reference to ensure a recipe truly came from a specific time period, but there’s no good way in determining whether or not recipes were strictly followed; “There’s no way to capture what people do unless it’s an oral history. You have to assume that the recipe is pretty close to what they’re making,” says Kraig.

Once you trust your sources, you can create your own histories. The Cookery Manuscript Project is a systematic way to collect local recipes, so that anyone can use them to learn how local eating has changed. This is integral to constructing family histories, but also learning more about the perspectives of women in the past. Often, it was mothers who prepared dinner, and examining the recipes they used offers a lens into their most personal habits. Whether or not you’re constructing a feminist or family history, the Cookery Manuscript Project is a simply great way to get your hands on tried-and-true recipes.

The Culinary Historians of Northern Illinois hope to have recipes uploaded for easy access by the end of 2018. Before that happens, though, they need more submissions from the likes of you and me. Submit your family recipes here and your recipes are historical documents that are only a step away from being archived.

Sherry Zhong
Sherry Zhong
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