Cookbooks and Cuisine in the United States

After growing up attending potluck dinners at family reunions and helping my mom recreate recipes from the annual church cookbook, the community and personal relationships surrounding food has always a memorable and influential part of my upbringing. When I was in middle school, I remember receiving my first cookbook from my aunt. She had filled the recipe cards with some of her favorite recipes as well as some dishes that her parents and grandparents taught her. On the back of each recipe, she wrote about these family connections to the dishes or brief anecdotes about making the food for various events. She also included several pages of blank cards for me to contribute new recipes.

In addition to my aunt’s gifted cookbook, my family has accumulated several cookbooks over time, ranging from commercially printed volumes full of recipes from professional chefs, to culturally specific recipes, to the annual church cookbook crowdsourced for fundraising purposes. Looking through the volumes, some of the cookbooks contain a fascinating range of anecdotes, cultural histories, and community histories accompanying some of the recipes. Others give sparse, direct language for creating the dishes. Due to variety of approaches for sharing recipes, I began to wonder about the development of cookbooks over time, which led me to the Michigan State University Libraries’ Feeding America Project.

Landing page for the Feeding America Project at MSU Libraries

The Feeding America Project, was a digitization project made possible through a 2001 IMLS National Leadership grant. The project researchers carefully selected 75 books out of nearly 7,000 volumes of cookbooks held in the MSU Libraries’ Cookery and Food Collection to represent the history of cookbooks in America. The selected cookbooks cover various themes and include publications from 1798 to 1922. In order to give a broad overview of the cookbooks found in the United States, the digitized collection includes cookbooks published for a variety of audiences and cultural regions (both nationally and internationally). In addition to scanning each page of the selected books, project participants transcribed each of the selected cookbooks by undergraduate teams of typists and proofread. As a result, the full text transcriptions of each of the digitized volumes are easily accessible.

For my print project, I am interested in analyzing the cookbooks found in Michigan State University’s Feeding America online collection. I think it would be interesting to see how the language used in the cookbooks changes over time and/or based on the theme of the cookbooks. Since the cookbooks are tagged by subject, I think it would be particularly interesting to analyze the way that Asian and Middle Eastern cuisine is represented. With the transcription text available for each cookbook, I could input each of the books into Voyant and analyze the texts thought distant reading, similar to Cameron Blevins’ topic modeling of Martha Ballard’s diary.

Example of one of the cookbooks in the collection. This book was published in 1914.

If this scope of Asian and Middle Eastern cuisine becomes too narrow to draw analysis from the texts, I could incorporate other cookbooks found in the collection to draw additional comparisons. I think it would also be interesting to see if I could analyze differences between the cookbooks representing Asian and Middle Eastern cuisine and the cookbooks representing regions of the United States. Through either method, I am curious to see if the language used in the cookbooks can reveal additional historical context to foodways and food culture in the United States.

2 Replies to “Cookbooks and Cuisine in the United States”

  1. This is an interesting topic! I’ve recently gotten interested in historical cooking thanks to a Youtube channel called Tasting History, and it’s always neat to see how people in the past did things. Feeding America looks like a great source to use and analyze. Maybe you can trace the origins of iconic foods like French fries and burgers by seeing when they start to appear in these cookbooks? I am very curious about how Asian cuisine is represented, and Voyant seems like a good way to analyze that. You might be able to see when various immigrant groups became more influential by how their cuisine appears in these books, to.

  2. Cookbooks are a fantastic form of primary source and this is a really thoughtful concept for a project. Starting with the set of texts from MSU is a great jumping off point and I think the focus on Asian and Middle Eastern cuisine is a great focal point to run with.

    If you do decide to do this project, I think one of the main questions/issues to iron out is the primary method for your analysis. My initial sense is that it might be interesting to think about doing some searches and reviews of the MSU corpus of cookbooks to identify various terms and ingredients for Asian and Middle eastern dishes and then think about taking those terms and looking for them and trends related to them over time in Google-n gram. A think that is really interesting about cookbooks is that they both carry information about the dishes themselves but also about changes over time in the kinds of ingredients that are being used.

    As another related context to think about/explore, the Curating Menus project and the related NYPL’s collection of transcribed menus over time are both really interesting sets of sources and reflections on studying text about food that could be relevant.

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