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Looking Beyond the Recipes: An Academic Approach to Reading Cookbooks

Barbara Ketcham Wheaton leads “Reading Historic Cookbooks: A Structured Approach” at Radcliffe Institute’s Schlesinger Library.

Barbara Ketcham Wheaton

July 16, 2013—Barbara Ketcham Wheaton, honorary curator of the culinary collection at Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library, led a week-long seminar, “Reading Historic Cookbooks: A Structured Approach,” at the Schlesinger from June 2 through 7. Sixteen participants from as far away as Australia and Germany attended the seminar, which used Schlesinger’s robust collection of cookbooks to analyze ingredients, preparation, utensils and even language.

Laura Richardson, a retired journalist from Wyoming, found out about the course as she was conducting her research for a book on the history of the layer cake at a local library. “One of the most thrilling aspects of being here is being in the same room with so many international cookbook readers and writers,” she said.

Wheaton began exploring cookbooks more than 50 years ago in Widener Library. She took a particular interest in medieval French cookbooks. She continued studying the topic when her husband’s research took her to Paris for two years,  and Wheaton has since authored or edited four books—one of which, Savoring the Past: The French Kitchen and Table from 1300 to 1789, won the Prix Littéraire des Relais Gourmands in 1985.

Wheaton has taught seminars on reading cookbooks through a scholarly lens in Los Angeles, New York and Toronto; later this year, she will teach in Dublin, Ireland. The Schlesinger workshop centered on examining selections from a number of English and American cookbooks.

“I showed them some of the library’s 18th- and 19th-century books, but the texts we read were a mixture of modern facsimiles and printouts from online sources,” she said. “More modern texts are better able to withstand use by excited readers.” Each day, participants were tasked with analyzing a particular text for a specified element of its content or composition. Then participants presented their findings for five minutes the following day—all showing passion for what they had discovered.

“When I first started leading these seminars, they catered to food writers and members of the public who showed a general interest,” Wheaton said. More recently, though, participants have been predominantly scholars and academics.

Besides having the opportunity to learn from Wheaton and the other participants in the seminar, Richardson was particularly impressed by Schlesinger’s collection.  “I was amazed,” she said. “I wanted to spend the night here.”