In an unprecedented effort to document the essence of American culinary history, Peter Berg of Michigan State University has curated a monumental project that preserves historical American cookbooks in an online format, making the extensive collection accessible to a world-wide audience. We have had the privilege to interview Peter Berg on his vision and the work that has made the project a reality.
Suggested Recipes:Could you tell us about the Feeding America project and the inspiration behind this important undertaking?
Bean and Grain Recipes
Early American Graham Cracker Cake
MSU has been collecting cookbooks and food related materials as a special collection for over a half-century. The collection began as a result of two important collections of cookbooks that were donated by professors in the College of Home Economics. It has since grown to a collection of over 7,000 cookbooks, including many rare cookbooks not held widely anywhere in the world. To use the collection, however, required people finding the time and resources to visit us in East Lansing. We were justifiably proud of our collection, but wished that it could be more accessible to those who wanted to use its vast resources. As a result we decided to investigate the possibility of digitizing some of the most important cookbooks in American history to make them available for use freely on the Internet.
We take MSU’s “land grant” philosophy seriously, so we are constantly trying to find ways to make our special collections more useful and accessible to as many people as possible. Thanks to funding from the Institute for Museums and Library Services we began the task to make our dream a reality. We first decided that besides scanned images of important American cookbooks, we wanted to introduce people to the history of American cookery and the individuals who wrote the cookbooks.
I was good friends and had worked for years with Jan Longone, the eminent food historian, so I invited her to join me on the grant. Jan and I selected the 76 cookbooks that we felt represented the variety and history of American cookery. Jan also provided a history of each cookbook and an introductory essay on American cookbook history. Anne Marie Rachman was hired to research and write biographies of the authors, and I developed the glossary of terms since we knew that some of the words would have no meaning to readers today.
Finally, we partnered with the MSU Museum, which has an outstanding collection of historic cooking utensils, which were digitally photographed by their staff and then described by Yvonne Lockwood. I think a great deal of the success of the project was due to the fact that we provided a lot of scholarly yet highly accessible information to help explain the evolution of American cookery and food, and its importance in our history. We had really good people working on the project and their expertise and commitment to its success is evident throughout.
The earliest American cookbook in the collection is Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery, published in 1798. What does the book reflect about the culinary interests and culture of this early era in American history?
Whenever I think about or see “Amelia’s cookbook,” I think less about its importance as the first true American cookbooks, as I do about how she described herself as “an American orphan” on the title page. It is a telling description of life two hundred years ago when high mortality rates, especially among women, left many children motherless, thus depriving them of the wisdom and guidance to make their way in the world. Thanks to ‘Amelia,’ motherless young girls now had a resource from which they could learn to cook, arguably the most important responsibility of young women next to bearing children. As a historian, I think this is but one example of how cookbooks are rich historical texts just waiting to be mined for unique and often telling evidence about lives lived many years ago.
How has the American cookbook evolved over the years?
I have been impressed with the number and the variety of cookbooks that are being published. Even in these hard economic times the cookbooks seem to keep coming and thankfully we have a number of generous donors who keep us up to date on the latest cookbooks. Otherwise we could not keep up.
Which titles in the collection stand out most?
I am becoming more and more enchanted with community cookbooks. We collect lots of Michigan “church/charity” cookbooks, which provide a “grass roots” look at American cooking and food developments over the past 150 years. You can learn a lot looking at these cookbooks. My dream for the next big digital project is “Michigan Eats” which will digitize and make accessible these cookbooks with Michigan imprints. We have already started digitizing of pre-1923 Michigan cookbooks and have about 40 available. I just need to build a web site that helps users access the collection.
A couple of years ago we received a magnificent collection of culinary ephemera dating back to the late nineteenth century. We are now slowly digitizing items and adding all kinds of metadata to make them searchable. Besides food history there is advertising, corporate, graphic, and printing history that will prove valuable for years to come. Only a few places collect culinary ephemera with as much enthusiasm as we do and we also will digitize our materials. Again, what’s the point of having these great collections if people cannot use them? Thanks to the wonders of modern digital technology it’s now possible so let’s move forward.
With your expertise on the evolution of the American kitchen, what do you see as the future of American cookery?
I am probably not the right person to ask. I am a librarian and I see it as my job to build collections, preserve them, and make them accessible to people who want use them. I am dedicated to building fine cookery and food related collections here at MSU and I have been lucky to have the support of lots of people. My greatest wish is that someone who does want to write on the evolution of the American kitchen will benefit by using the resources provided by Feeding America or others that I have worked to build preserve and catalog.
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