Monday, November 12, 2012

The Heritage of Heritage

I was excited to examine this week’s cookbooks, 1900’s Feeding the Professor by the Yale Faculty Wives Guild, and 1910’s What Salem Dames Cooked by the Esther C. Mack Industrial School. Both book topics seemed hyper-specialized and rather bizarre. I have to admit, I was a little disappointed at the lack of theme carried through in these books. I expected detailed descriptions of why this recipe was more suited for academics, and why witches favored that recipe. What I got was serious-minded collections, with content not all that different from your average Joy of Cooking.

Feeding the Professor- what a classic title! Showcasing the era when academia was limited to men, and their wives stayed home and cooked. It also calls out professors as an entirely different breed, one that must be “fed” differently than your average fellow. Unfortunately, the book itself offers little insight to its intent, the choice of title, or why these recipes are particularly appropriate for professors. The only explanation given is, “Some of the housekeepers of New Haven have given up secret recipes held for generations.” In looking through the recipes, I did notice a pattern of internationally focused foods- Dutch Pie Cake, Hungarian Horns, Coffee Bavarian Cream. Perhaps in marketing this as an academic’s cookbook, the wives were catering to a crowd that wanted to be elite and worldly. Interestingly enough, in contrast to the pattern I’ve seen of recipes becoming more and more detailed over time, these recipes have less specific instructions. Maybe these faculty wives were so accomplished and had so little to do that they had absolutely mastered the basics of proper cooking, and assumed others had too. I’ll be attempting the recipe with the intriguing, though somewhat disturbing title, Cakes the Children Cry For.

The title What Salem Dames Cooked left me looking for the kind of witch-focused kitsch associated with Salem today. I hoped the book would show me the origins of that tourist-trapping fictionalization of the most infamous events of Salem’s history. I was a little sad when I found that the cookbook was written as straight, serious history. Though I found no recipes calling for eye of newt, I did find a direct predecessor of this very project! The book includes recipes from three historic cookbooks, The Compleat Cook’s Guide from 1683, The Frugal Housewife or Complete Woman Cook from 1730, and Old Grandmother’s Cookbook from 1800. There is also a section of recipes from women in Salem at the time the book was published. People in turn-of-the-century Salem were evidently interested in seeing how people used to cook, making sure that was not lost. The people of Salem in 1910, were apparently intrigued by trying out historic recipes, just as I am. From this book, I’ll be attempting Maple Creams from the 1900 section of the book.

Both these books, though lacking prefaces that would explain the ideological basis of the themes, show a shifting view of the importance of heritage. The Yale Faculty Wives Guild is interested in creating something that preserves recipes that have been “held for generations,” and the Salem cookbook does the same. And here I am, adding another layer to the already complex history of the culinary landscape. It's exciting to see my predecessors in these books, those who were interested in culinary history and preservation of that heritage long before me.

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