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Women from the 1920s around a kitchen table.
Greenwich Village Follies cooking class. Bain News Service, Prints and Photographs Division. (Source: Flickr Commons project, 2022 and New York Times, December 14, 1924), https://www.loc.gov/item/2014717921/.

How To Collect Family Recipes: Inspiration From The Library’s Cookbook Collection

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During the holiday season, many of us are thinking about recipes, especially if we’ll be attending or hosting large gatherings for friends and family. The Library of Congress’s large and varied cookbook collection includes items to appeal to all tastes and is a good place to look for some new ideas. From old recipes to regional ones and much more, there’s something for everyone. It’s fun to dig through and see what turns up, and what inspiration you can find for dishes or projects of your own. A recent search made me think that creating a collection of favorite recipes to share with relatives and holiday guests would be a good idea. If your family would like to do something similar, read on for some suggestions for how to go about it.

One gem in the collections that inspired my budding cookbook project is “Favorite Food of Famous Folk”. This digitized compilation of recipes was published in 1900 as a fundraiser by the Ladies of the Guild of St James’ Parish Church in Pewee Valley, Kentucky. The recipes and commentary provide an interesting snapshot of the early 20th century. The book’s introduction (from page 13) sets the scene. The quiet and retiring group is low in spirits and in funds but galvanized by a newcomer so energetic and persuasive that if she “had been a man, she would have been a promoter”. Many of the contributors are no longer particularly famous folk, but some names still resonate, and several are represented in the wider Library collections.

An illustration from the recipe book "Favorite Food of Famous Folk".
An illustration from the recipe book “Favorite Food of Famous Folk”.

Unsurprisingly for a church guild fundraiser, religious figures feature prominently. The first contribution from the Archbishop of Canterbury, England, doesn’t make either his personal taste— or British cooking— sound very appetizing. He simply states “My favorite dish is “Plain Boiled Neck of Mutton” without any sauce (page 21).  The Bishop of Connecticut’s poetic recipe for Johnny Cake (pp 40-42) is far more entertaining and appealing. A rather nasty-sounding oatmeal gruel came from the Bishop of Rhode Island, who humblebragged about being “indifferent to earthly things” (page 44).

Several celebrities claimed to have no knowledge of cooking but sent in ideas all the same. Artist and author Francis Hopkinson Smith (who also constructed the foundation of the Statue of Liberty) “never cooked anything in my life” but suggested iced cucumber on a hot day (page 74). Suffragist Susan B. Anthony sent in a very terse proposal (page 86); presumably she had other things on her mind than cooking.

A recipe from the book "Favorite Food of Famous Folk"
Susan B. Anthony’s “best recipe”.

Some submissions give a good sense of the mindsets of contributors. Even if we’ve never heard of a Mrs. Lyman Abbott today, we can empathize with her weary observation that she has “for forty years furnished three meals a day” with very little time off (page 60). Author Frances Hodgson Burnett apologizes for losing a favorite recipe (page 66), then recreates directions for Yorkshire tea cakes on the next page in a most appalling attempt at Yorkshire dialect. As I was born in Yorkshire, I can attest to both the deliciousness of tea cakes and how awful her version of the accent is, but fans of “The Secret Garden”  might be interested that she was trying her hand at it several years before she wrote the novel.

Two men featured in past Library exhibitions provided recipes. Writer and social reformer Jacob Riis, showcased here, offers his wife’s recipe for stuffed cabbage (pp 38-39). Artist Charles Dana Gibson, whose Gibson Girl creation personified the “new woman” of late 19th and early 20th century America, sent in a fancy variation of scrambled eggs (page 33).

A recipe in the "Favorite Foods of Famous Folk" book.
A not particularly helpful contribution from poet and editor Richard Watson Gilder.

If you’re looking for a family holiday activity, why not create your own “Favorite Food” recipe collection? You could certainly reach out to “famous folk” – modern communication methods make that much easier now than in 1900 – but it’d be just as much fun to collect recipes from family, friends, or members of any team or group. As holidays and family celebrations often provide more opportunities to see friends and relatives from different generations, they are an ideal time to ask for contributions.  Creating a homemade book of family recipes might be a great gift idea for the holiday season, and a way to preserve and access family history. Or, like the ladies of St. James’, you can create a recipe book as a fundraising or publicity tool for an organization or cause you support.

A recipe from the book "Favorite Food of Famous Folk".
“Cold Pink” appears twice, (pp 45-47). This recipe includes cold turkey and cranberries, so is an ideal dish to try out with Thanksgiving leftovers.

There are many tips for creating a custom cookbook available online, or you can simply go old school and use a scrapbook format. Here are a few things to bear in mind as you collect content for a recipe book:

  • To collect your recipes, canvass family members for ideas, or just assemble personal favorites, either from individuals, or a wider group like the Famous Folk contributors.
  • If you’re going through an old collection of recipes on index cards, take pictures of them. That way you can include Great-Grandma’s handwritten original alongside an accessible, typed version. You might find recipes jotted down on all kinds of scrap paper, like the Rosa Parks pancake recipe below recorded on the back of an envelope.
  • Consider trying a recipe out before you include it, just in case anything needs tweaking. Old recipes, or those that haven’t ever been written down don’t always meet modern expectations when it comes to measurements or cooking temperatures.
  • If there are any accompanying family anecdotes or comments, add those as well. A cook’s asides about a recipe are just the sort of personal details that will add personality and trigger memories — bad as well as good. My recipe books are full of scribbled notes, usually “good”, “bake for longer”, or as one brief comment simply says, “disgusting”.
  • There are many ways to categorize recipes – by type of dish, by date or generation, or by contributor. Whichever you choose, consider adding an index to make it easier to find what you want.
Rosa Parks' pancake recipe
Rosa Parks’ handwritten recipe for featherlite pancakes, an intriguing way to access history. From the Rosa Parks Papers, Manuscript Division.

In 2016, the Library hosted author and food historian Valerie J. Frey for a talk about her book “Preserving Family Recipes: How to Save and Celebrate Your Food Traditions”. She discusses the importance of saving family history through food traditions and gives advice on how to do it. Her talk starts at 3:28 minutes into the video.

Timestamps:

  • 4:53 – family recipes as memory keepers, and a way to access family history with kids
  • 6:46 – the emotional value of family recipes
  • 8:39 – writing in your cookbooks leaves an information trail for others
  • 10:02 – the historic value and social history of family recipes
  • 16:15 – every recipe has a story
  • 31: 32 – ideal formats for rewriting and recording recipes
  • 36:40 – add photos and stories to capture an entire “family foodway”
A recipe for toasted marshmallows
A novel way to toast marshmallows.

More Resources

Check out these collection items to find out more about cookbooks at the Library:

  • How many cookbooks are in the Library of Congress? Find the answer to that question here, along with links to some of the different collections and to a recent Library publication featuring food and recipes.
  • This blog post discusses Latin American and Hispanic cookbooks at the Library.
  • Read the incredible story of how a Library staff member unknowingly purchased her grandmother’s recipe book for the collections.
  • Digitized early charity and community cookbooks from across the country are historically fascinating and a great inspiration for creating your own crowdsourced version.
  • “The Stag Cookbook”, Written for Men by Men” is another celebrity recipe collection, published in 1922. Contributors include Harry Houdini, Charlie Chaplin, and Warren Harding.

Whatever recipes you create or share over the coming weeks with friends and family, we hope you enjoy them all. Happy Holidays!

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