First Monday Library Chat: New York Academy of Medicine

Welcome back to the First Monday Library Chat! Today we’re featuring The New York Academy of Medicine Library, one of the largest medical library collections in the United States. The majority of volumes in their Rare Book and Historical Collections date from the 15th through 18th centuries, and the collections also contain 85-90% of medical books printed in the US between the late 17th and early 19th centuries. The library serves both scholars and the general public. Today I’m chatting with Anne Garner, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts.

Could you give us an overview of the print and manuscript historical recipe books in NYAM’s collection? Can you offer any search tips for finding them in your catalog?

At the heart of our culinary holdings is the Collection of Books on Foods and Cookery, presented to NYAM by Margaret Barclay Wilson in 1929. Wilson was professor of physiology and honorary librarian at Hunter College; she also advised the city of New York on food economy during wartime.

The Wilson collection includes about 10,000 items, including the Apicius manuscript (see below), menus and pamphlets that demonstrate the way cookery changed over time, and a large collection of printed books, beginning in the 16th century. Included here are works by Scappi, Platina, and Carême as well as many other milestones in culinary printing.  Especially exciting are the wide variety of everyday cookbooks we own that show what daily cooking was like in a range of households, across the world. Using our collections, you can also trace the changes that occur when people have access to new innovations—refrigeration, for example, or the gas range.

9th-century manuscript De re culininaria (sometimes De re coquinaria), attributed to Apicius
9th-century manuscript De re culininaria (sometimes De re coquinaria), attributed to Apicius

We have strong collections related to diet regimens and cooking for health, as well as cookbooks published during wartime when resources were scarce. More general texts on home economics and household management include much on cooking. Books on farming, viticulture and beer-making round out our strong print holdings.

The centerpiece of our food manuscripts is Apicius’ De re culinaria, one of two existing copies of an early Roman cookbook mixed with medical recipes, agronomical observations, and house-keeping advice. Our copy was penned at the monastery at Fulda (Germany) around 830 AD.

NYAM holds some significant early modern manuscript recipe books. Can you tell us more about these and give a couple of highlights?

Our library holds 36 manuscript receipt books, dating from the late 17th through the 19th century. The bulk of the manuscripts are German and English. The remaining manuscripts are American, Austrian, French, and Dutch. One of my favorites is the Choise Receipt book from 1680, which includes recipes for fruit preserves, baked goods, mead and beer, as well as hearty pudding and meat dishes. You’ll also find here a recipe ensuring a quick childbirth–central ingredient, baked eel livers!–as well as many other medical recipes. A tantalizing recipe for a “gam of cherries” is notable because the OED dates the earliest usage of “jam,” in any form, to 1736, almost sixty years after the date of this manuscript.

Index of late 17th-century manuscript “Choise Receipts”
Index of late 17th-century manuscript “Choise Receipts”

Elizabeth Duncombe’s manuscript offers recipes from a later period (1791). Food historian Stephen Schmidt has cooked several of these recipes, with delectable results! Highlights include a fish sauce more French than English in spirit (akin to today’s beurre blanc), and recipes for pigeon, hedgehog and potted mushrooms. References to milking and to cows suggest that this was the cookbook of a farm household, and not a city residence.

Could you tell us a bit more about the Pine Tree Manuscript Receipt Book Project?

The 36 early modern manuscripts described above were all in need of both conservation and cataloguing. All items needed basic stabilization and dry cleaning; in some cases, the bindings needed to be replaced with historically and structurally suitable materials. All can now be used by the public without worry of further damage. They’ve also been catalogued, and can be found by searching online here.

Both the conservation work and the cataloguing was funded by the Pine Tree Foundation, overseen by Szilvia Szmuk-Tanenbaum. Szilvia is a bibliophile and a culinary enthusiast, and has been wonderfully generous to us.

I heard that “Food” is NYAM’s 2015 programming theme. Do tell us more! How will recipes be included?

We’re thrilled that our 2015 programming will focus on the history of food and food systems, working with historian and writer Evelyn Kim. Throughout the year there will be food-related events, culminating in our October Festival where we will offer a mixture of talks, demonstrations, and workshops, with noted chefs and writers. In April, we will also be participating in the Food Book Fair in Brooklyn. We will be drawing on our historical cookery collection for insights into changing ideas about food and health, nutrition, diets and more. Watch our blog for images, recipes and details of lectures and workshops to come.

NYAM’s Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health (which includes the Library) hosts the blog Books, Health, and History. Could you give us an overview of some blog posts that were related to historical recipes?

Food historian Stephen Schmidt did a wonderful post for us on a recipe for bread crumb gingerbread. The recipe can be found in a manuscript cookbook from the early 18th century but is adapted from a much older recipe for a contemporary audience. Schmidt writes about the evolution of gingerbread as a stomach settler in the 17th-century to its 18th-century incarnation as a sweet dessert cake, made with molasses. Our manuscript offers recipes for both the old and the new gingerbread. Schmidt speculates that the old was probably made at Christmastime, the new, in everyday cooking.

Another highlight includes a blog featuring a staff member’s photo-documented chronicle of  her experiences making Mother Eve’s Pudding, featured in this recipe book, and a post on the recipe itself, which is cleverly—and sometimes cryptically—told in verse. Other highlights include posts offering recipes for an authentic 1914 Thanksgiving dinner and on a pamphlet, the “Canape Parade,” featuring a procession of winsome vegetables.

Mothers Eve Pudding
A recipe in verse for Mother Eve’s Pudding, late 18th-century

Thanks, Anne, for chatting with me! NYAM’s Library is open by appointment Tuesday through Friday from 10AM – 4:45PM. Please email the library at library@nyam.org for more information and to schedule an appointment.


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