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Serving Up Food Collections

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(The following story, written by Library culinary specialist Alison Kelly, is featured in the November/December 2015 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine, LCM. You can read the issue in its entirety here.)

Painter Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom from Want,” Office of War Information poster, 1943. Prints and Photographs Division.
Painter Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom from Want,” Office of War Information poster, 1943. Prints and Photographs Division.

The Nation’s Library offers a veritable feat of food-related collections.

Whether you’re researching what was served at the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving or tracing the history of genetically modified foods, you can find it in the Library of Congress.

The topic of food—interdisciplinary in nature and woven into many aspects of our lives—is well-represented in the Library’s extensive collections of cookbooks, scholarly works, journals, pamphlets, posters and bibliographies on food history. Researchers can also consult the Library’s primary-source materials— from anonymous diaries to presidential papers.

Cookbooks are an invaluable resource for food history. They offer clues about markets, agriculture, nutrition, regional and cultural differences, immigration, technological change and more. Some of the world’s outstanding cookbooks and other works on gastronomy—from the 15th through the 19th centuries—came to the Library in the early 1940s when Arvill Wayne Bitting donated the 4,346-volume collection assembled by his wife, Katherine Golden Bitting (1868-1937), a food chemist for the Department of Agriculture and the American Canners Association. The Library’s cookbook collections range from Maestro Martino’s handwritten 15th-century manuscript (“Libro de arte coquinaria”) in the Bitting collection to contemporary full-color works like “Modernist Cuisine” (2011) and “Cambridge World History of Food” (2014).

Advertising poster for butter, Donald Brun, 1951. Prints and Photographs Division.
Advertising poster for butter, Donald Brun, 1951. Prints and Photographs Division.

American cooking is a special strength of the Library’s collections. Titles include “American Cookery” (1796) by Amelia Simmons. Considered to be the first truly American cookbook, the volume is notable for recipes that included native American ingredients such as molasses, pumpkin and cornmeal. Simmons’ “Pompkin Pudding” baked in a crust is the basis for the American classic, pumpkin pie.

Numerous influential American cookbooks followed—from Lydia Maria Francis Child’s “The Frugal Housewife” (1829) to Irma Rombauer’s “Joy of Cooking,” published in 1931 and followed by six editions.

Many of the Library’s cookbooks have regional focus, with specialized recipes from New England, the American Southwest, the Great Lakes and, of course, the South. An example is one of the first published works on cooking by an African-American author, “What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking, Soups, Pickles, Preserves, etc.” (1881) by Abby Fisher.

Many regional cookbooks have been used to raise funds for local schools, churches or women’s clubs. The community cookbooks comprise a portion of the Library’s food holdings.

Wartime cookbooks could be their own genre. “The Confederate Receipt Book: a compilation of over one hundred receipts adapted to the times” (Richmond, 1863), was the only cookbook published in the South during the Civil War. Cookbooks published during the first and second World Wars encouraged homemakers to do their part in contributing to the war effort on the home front by stretching their budget with recipes such as mock sausage.

"The Groom Boils and Stews,” Brick Gordon, 1947. General Collections.
“The Groom Boils and Stews,” Brick Gordon, 1947. General Collections.

Many cookbooks focus on a specific food or food group: “100 Ways to Cook Fish” (1901), “The Delectable Egg” (1968), “Leafy Greens” (2012). Others cover a method or technique such as baking, grilling, stewing or use of slow cookers. Some are aimed at a particular audience, for example, cookbooks for children, newlyweds, campers and tailgaters. Cookbooks also can represent a certain time or place, such as World’s Fair recipes, pre-Prohibition cocktails, or recipes from the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. Ethnic cookbooks—Jewish, Italian, Hispanic—also figure prominently in the Library’s collections.

Like cookbooks, women’s magazines are an excellent source for recipes and food culture. The General Collections hold extensive runs of 19th- and 20th-century women’s magazines, as well as trade journals and scholarly journals on food-related topics.

The reference collections in the Science and Business Reading Room hold biographies of cooks and chefs, encyclopedias, handbooks and food histories. Researchers can refer to more than a dozen food-related bibliographies, from “The History of Household Technology,” “Beer and Brewing” and “Food Preservation” to “American Barbecue: History and Geography.” A resource guide to “Presidential Food” lists resources for the study of food in the White House.

Housed in the Manuscript Division, the papers of Thomas Jefferson reveal his culinary interests, no doubt developed while he served as minister to France, 1784-1787. He returned with French recipes ranging from pigs’ feet to vanilla ice cream. An avid inventor, Jefferson was fascinated by the workings of the pasta machines he saw in Italy.

Correspondence from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to his cook, Henrietta Nesbitt. Manuscript Division.
Correspondence from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to his cook, Henrietta Nesbitt. Manuscript Division.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s palate was not satisfied during his White House years. The personal papers of his housekeeper, Henrietta Nesbitt, include official correspondence containing sternly worded suggestions for improving the meals. In one missive, he admonished, “I do not want any more [sweetbreads] until further notice.”

Another source for food history is a 1930s documentary project known as “America Eats,” the last project undertaken by the Federal Writers’ Project, a New Deal program under the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Writers and folklorists gathered stories and photographers documented America’s diverse regional foodways. In 2000, the Library’s American Folklife Center led a similar project to document regional customs and festivals—often involving food. These “Local Legacies” are housed in the Library.

Veterans History Project collections include interviews and correspondence concerning what the members of the military—from World War I to the present—ate while deployed and what they especially liked in packages from home. (Canned peaches are a well-documented favorite military ration). Other oral history collections, such as the StoryCorps collection, also contain significant discussions about food.

Fried pies are the centerpiece of a family reunion in North Carolina. Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Prints and Photographs Division.
Fried pies are the centerpiece of a family reunion in North Carolina. Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Prints and Photographs Division.

The WPA’s Federal Art Project produced hundreds of colorful posters between 1936 and 1943, which are housed in the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division. Many of these have food consumption and preservation as their theme. Similarly, posters from World War I include colorful lithographic prints related to food conservation from the U.S. Food Administration. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Office photographs, which preserved a pictorial record of American life between 1935 and 1944, include many images related to food. More modern food-related photographs can be found in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, which documents America, 1980-2005.

From the Library’s sheet-music collections to folksongs recorded by the Library’s folklorists, researchers can study food in song at the Library. Many music works center on picnics. Some, like “Picnic in the Sky,” from the 1915 show “Alone at Last” can be heard on the National Jukebox, the Library’s online collection of historical recordings, 1901-1925.

Television and radio broadcasts in the Library’s broadcast and recorded sound collections are also an excellent resource for studying product advertising over the past century. In 2000, the Library received a donation of the Coca-Cola Company’s entire collection of historic television commercials dating to 1950. The national and international advertisements reveal much about world cultures—and their eating and drinking habits— over the past five decades.

Over the past decade, many culinary experts have spoken at the Library on topics ranging from Somali, Turkish, Egyptian and Pan-African cuisine to the fortune cookie. Many notable chefs have spoken at the Library’s National Book Festival. These presentations can be viewed on the Library’s website or its YouTube channel.

Comments (2)

  1. We’re betting the Library at Alexandria had nothing on you all! Can’t wait for our first DC visiting in spring. See you then.

  2. Inspired me to look into fried pies…

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