Recipe for a Culinary Archive: An Illustrated Essay
Historians are finally coming to realize that diet, the production of and commerce in foodstuffs, and cookery are not only important but are actually defining characteristics of a nation’s culture.
Early in the 1980s, at one of the first Oxford University symposia on food, I was asked to speak on the subjects of American culinary history and the history of American cookbooks. As the founder and proprietor of Ann Arbor’s Wine and Food Library, America’s oldest antiquarian bookshop devoted solely to the culinary arts, I must have seemed like a logical choice for this kind of presentation. But whatever this sophisticated and international audience thought about my bona fides as a food historian, they were somewhat incredulous that I could speak on topics as odd as American culinary history and American cookbooks. They said America had no cuisine or culinary history to speak of; all we ate were hamburgers and fries, with ketchup! Having spent more than a year preparing for the lecture, I knew they were wrong. I came home determined to learn more about American culinary history and to share what I learned.
Enter John Dann, who was then director of the Clements Library for American history at the University of Michigan. John had been a client of my bookshop and obviously shared my passion for this aspect of American history. From the beginning, John agreed with my very broad definition of American culinary history as everything that influenced or influences America and everything that America influenced or influences in culinary matters. Shortly after I returned from Oxford, John asked if my husband, Professor Dan Longone, and I would present an exhibition of our culinary books at the Clements Library. Motivated, perhaps, by the same prejudices that characterized my audience at Oxford, we first planned to show European works, many of them beautifully bound and illustrated. But we realized that since Clements was an Americana library, we ought to show our American imprints. It was a momentous decision, as it turned out. We were surprised and dismayed to learn that no one had ever mounted such an exhibition accompanied by a scholarly catalogue. Ours would be the first. In 1984, Dan and I co-curated our first Clements exhibition, “American Cookbooks and Wine Books,” and co-authored the accompanying monograph. This first marked the start of our richly satisfying collaboration with the Clements Library.
By the mid-1980s, the Clements had a very small but select collection of culinary material. Over the next decade and a half, as volunteers at the library, we began to see a larger, more coherent collection emerge. We were happy to be part of the process! After all, Dan and I had spent much of our adult lives creating collections of books on food and wine intended to define the American culinary experience. In 2000, I accepted the pioneering position of Curator of American Culinary History with the mandate from John Dann to develop an unequalled research collection.
Tenure at the Clements proved to be quite an education. Dan and I soon realized that the meshing of the Clements holdings with our own collections would create the kind of archive that would fulfill John’s mandate and our vision; thus we donated our collections to the library. Over the years, many bookshop clients generously donated their collections as well. Dedicated volunteers, old friends and new, helped this project in other ways. Together, they have donated about 50,000 hours in the last ten years and, along with the Clements staff, have developed new methods of descriptive cataloging. Staff and volunteers now examine and catalogue not only the culinary archive but all of the rich Americana holdings in all divisions (books, manuscripts, maps, graphics) for their culinary content.
The Spring-Summer 2005 issue of The Quarto, the semi-annual newsletter sent to members of the Clements Library Associates, was devoted to the First Biennial Symposium on American Culinary History: Dedication of the Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive and Inauguration of the Longone Center for American Culinary Research. Announcing the JBLCA, John Dann summed up the academic importance of culinary history:
Fifty years ago or more, wars were generally seen to be won or lost on the basis of military strategy or battlefield heroics. Today, historians are as likely to emphasize deficiencies in supply lines or perhaps disease caused by malnutrition … Historians are finally coming to realize that diet, the production of and commerce in foodstuffs, and cookery are not only important but are actually defining characteristics of a nation’s culture.
In 2010 the University of Michigan expressed its plans to establish culinary history as a scholarly research specialty.
This brief history of one archive, the JBLCA, is part of a larger story about the vitality and visibility of food studies. Culinary history classes and programs are increasingly reaching more students at all levels as well as interested amateurs throughout the United States and elsewhere. This would not be possible without the growth of culinary archives, which have preserved the historic literature in the field. Some are small, regional collections or are limited to a specific subject, but there are now a goodly number of broad and large archives available to the researcher. Significant institutional holdings now exist throughout the country, from New England to the West Coast, where they fuel new directions in diverse academic fields.
The range and diversity of the images below speak not only to the state of the field but also to the strength of the JBLCA; selecting highlights for this issue of Common-place was very difficult. Each image was chosen to represent many others in our holdings. The archive is notable for containing not only most of the essential “high spots” in the field, but for strong holdings for related areas of interdisciplinary study. It contains about 25,000 items, about one-third of which are cookbooks. The archive is a work in progress and not all of our holdings are yet cataloged. But cataloging continues apace and we add to the total every week.
Please click on any thumbnail below to view images.
This article originally appeared in issue 11.3 (April, 2011).
Jan Longone, curator of American culinary history at the Clements Library, University of Michigan, and proprietor of the Wine and Food Library, an antiquarian bookstore, is a member of the editorial board or contributor to the Oxford Companion to Food, the Oxford Encyclopedia ofFood and Drink in America, The Quarto, Gastronomica, and the University of California series Studies in Food and Culture. In 2000, she received the Food Arts Silver Spoon Award in recognition of her scholarly determination to preserve and honor American culinary literature and her many other contributions to food history.
Ink covers much of the wood work, various parts have been gouged by nails or other sharp tools, the bar handle has been smoothed by the hands of many journeymen printers, and overall the press has the worn but proud look of an old veteran.
The gravestone surely served as a memorial for Desire Tripp and her family, but, as I came to learn in the course of my research, it also served as a site of local memory for individuals who never knew the family personally.
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