This site began with a 2011 conversation between Szilvia-Szmuk Tanenbaum, a retired university librarian, and Stephen Schmidt, a food professional and culinary historian. Steve happened to be reading, online, a nineteenth-century manuscript cookbook compiled by the New York Lefferts family, now in the possession of the Brooklyn Historical Society. He thought the book of great interest but lamented that few culinary historians were likely to study it. Manuscript cookbooks have a reputation of being extremely difficult to locate in libraries and other repositories. Thus, even though the Lefferts cookbook was in plain sight, few would be likely to look for it. Szilvia was astonished to hear this, but over the next week, as she attempted to access manuscript cookbooks in online catalogs, she realized that Steve was right. She had only partial success finding manuscript cookbooks at public and academic libraries, even less at historical sites and societies. What could be done about this?
As a librarian drawn to compiling bibliographies, Szilvia started to think about creating an online database of all manuscript cookbooks held in U.S. public institutions, which would be freely available to all researchers. Steve was drawn to this idea, but being very familiar with food-related websites, he thought that the database would reach a wider audience if it were embedded in a comprehensive website that included a blog on historical cooking, modern adaptations of historical recipes, and a glossary of historical culinary terms. Recently, we have added a separate database of kitchen artifacts in use at the time the cookbooks in our database were written. And thus we have created the Manuscript Cookbooks Survey that you now see before you.
Szilvia and Steve are both Manhattanites, where, luckily, the local public, academic, and research libraries are rich in manuscript cookbooks. They began their search for materials at the New York Academy of Medicine (which, surprising to many, possesses an enormous collection of printed and manuscript cookbooks), and then proceeded to the New York Public Library, the New-York Historical Society, and the Fales Special Collections Library at New York University’s Bobst Library. Farther afield, they visited the Lilly Library at the University of Indiana (Bloomington) and the Clements Library in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and, while in Ann Arbor, they viewed the extraordinary collection of manuscript cookbooks compiled by Janice Bluestein Longone, which has now found a home in Michigan’s Hatcher Library. Steve quickly learned that the surest way to locate an institution’s manuscript cookbooks was to talk with the librarian in charge of the collection—which Szilvia already knew, of course!
As Szilvia and Steve sifted through potential materials for the survey, they began to define its parameters. They decided that the survey would include only English-language books held in U.S. public institutions. The books would have to contain a substantial body of culinary recipes—as opposed to recipes for household products and home remedies, which comprise the bulk of many handwritten recipe books, even some that are cataloged by libraries as “cookbooks.” Finally, the survey would include only books begun by the year 1865, the effective end point of the long transition from hearth cooking to stove cooking—and from America’s original English-based cuisine to a more multicultural, distinctively American cuisine. Another compelling reason to end the survey at 1865 is that books composed after 1870 would likely be written on paper made primarily of wood pulp. Wood pulp makes for brittle paper and conservation nightmares—to be avoided at all costs.
As Szilvia learned more about the nature of manuscript cookbooks, it became clearer to her why these materials are so difficult to locate in library catalogs. All manuscripts pose difficulties for those who would catalog them or compile them in databases, but manuscript cookbooks are especially challenging. Manuscript cookbooks rarely have titles, their author or authors are usually unknown, and their recipes tend to be much the same as those found in many other books written at the same general time. Thus titling manuscript cookbooks in a manner that makes them individually identifiable and distinguishable from all others is a struggle. Even inscriptions (which are rare) sometimes prove of limited help, for it is often the case that the person who signed and dated the book actually wrote only a portion of its recipes. If it is hard to title these books, it is even harder to describe them. Many were compiled piecemeal by multiple authors, sometimes over a span of many decades, and so their recipes resist being dated or classified by type. Indeed, more than a few “manuscript cookbooks” are not even cookbooks per se but rather diaries, commonplace books, account books, or penmanship exercise books in which one or more persons have written recipes.
In compiling our database, we try to come up with titles specific to individual manuscripts, and we convey as much information about manuscripts as we have, based both on the institution records and our own research. We would like our descriptions to be even fuller, but unfortunately many manuscript cookbooks are not available online for us to read, and we do not have the resources to read all of them anyway. Perhaps once we have gotten most of the U.S. holdings into our database we will be able to give more attention to manuscripts whose descriptions have been slighted. As more and more manuscripts are digitized or transcribed, it may even be possible, someday, to index these volumes at the recipe level.
In addition to Szilvia and Steve, our team now includes William Keogan and Alyse Hennig. A university reference librarian, Bill has a special talent for finding manuscript cookbook collections hidden in library catalogs and then zeroing in on relevant items in those collections. He also has a knack for keeping track of email communications with libraries. Alyse, an archivist by training, is adept at converting library records into entries for our database, a challenging task that involves both writing and research skills.
We would like to think that our team reaches still further, encompassing also the many librarians who manage manuscript collections throughout the country, some of whom Szilvia is privileged to know personally through her membership in the Grolier Club and by attendance at the University of Virginia’s Rare Book School. We are extremely gratified by the enthusiastic responses to our website that we have received from librarians, not only in this country but also in Canada and Britain. We are grateful to them for spreading word about our site both to their colleagues, who may have materials of their own to share, and to researchers who may find our site helpful. In the end, of course, our aims and those of the librarians who manage manuscript cookbook collections are the same: to bring these fascinating but often overlooked materials to the attention of the widest possible audience.