The (Near) Magic of Digital Access to Manuscript Cookbooks

By Stephen Schmidt

MCS LOGO 2C FNLA conference panel on American cheese-making has just wrapped up, and someone in the audience stands and asks a question: “Can anyone tell me when in the nineteenth-century American recipes for chowder began to call for milk?” The question is not a total non sequitur because milk figured in the panel discussion (of course) and one of the panelists happens to be a writer of American cookbooks. Still, there is no reason to suppose that any of the panelists would have an answer to this question, and apparently none do. After a brief interval of blank staring and paper shuffling, one of the panelists suggests, “Perhaps you should look in nineteenth-century manuscript cookbooks.”

I have been witness to many exchanges like this over the past twenty-five years. Among culinary historians, cookbook authors, and food writers, manuscript cookbooks are widely viewed as holy-grail-level documents, bearing vital information that can be found nowhere else, including in printed cookbooks. And on some topics, including chowder, manuscript cookbooks are indeed illuminating.

But, in truth, few people actually use these documents, even those who, like our hypothetical panelist, send others in pursuit of them. Researchers often do not live near a library that has manuscript cookbooks. Or their library may have a trove of these documents but may not have catalogued them. Or their library may have cataloged its manuscript cookbooks so perfunctorily or erroneously—after all, library cataloguers are not culinary historians, so these documents are opaque to them—that a researcher must wade through stacks of irrelevant material before hitting pay dirt. In the end, most researchers don’t bother.

Page from “Gemel Book of Recipes : manuscript, circa 1660-1700,” New York Academy of Medicine. Curse on bottom of page: Jean Gembel [Gemel] her book / I wish she may be drouned yt steals it from her.
Page from “Gemel Book of Recipes : manuscript, circa 1660-1700,” New York Academy of Medicine. Curse on bottom of page: Jean Gembel [Gemel] her book / I wish she may be drouned yt steals it from her.
One historic site curator told me that, in her ten years on the job, not a single person had even inquired about the site’s collection of ten manuscript cookbooks, much less asked to see one of them. Hers was the usual Catch-22. On the one hand, the WorldCat record of the site’s manuscripts was incomplete and vague, almost indecipherable: it would entice no one. On the other, why should the curator expend precious time and effort fixing the record when no one seems to be interested in the books?

The Manuscript Cookbooks Survey was created to facilitate access to manuscript cookbooks and thereby increase their use. Its core feature is a database that—someday—will contain all (okay, most) of the pre-1865 English language manuscript cookbooks held by U. S. libraries, historical sites and societies, and other public institutions. Users can search the database either by holding institution or by the time of composition and the place of origin of manuscripts. (Many English-language manuscripts in U. S. repositories are English, not American.)

When users click on a manuscript that, to judge from its title, seems to be in their field of interest, they are brought to a page that provides a summary of the manuscript and a link to the library online catalog record (assuming there is one). With any luck, the manuscript will be viewable online—if it is, this is indicated on the search page—and the library record will provide a link to a digital version.

Obviously, this initiative is only possible digitally, but digital can’t do everything. If our database is to work optimally, the titles we assign to manuscripts must be descriptive and our summaries of manuscripts must be not only descriptive, but also accurate and–ideally–a pleasure to read.

However, we can only read those manuscripts that either are held in New York City (where we are based) or are viewable online—and obviously, due to time and budget constraints, we can only read a very few of these. For the most part, we must cobble our titles and summaries from library catalog records. And so we run again into the wall that digital was supposed to breach: the library records are sketchy or nonexistent.

A particular bugaboo is proving to be the many cookbooks buried in family papers, which, if they appear in library records at all (and many do not), are typically listed simply as “cookbook” or “receipt book,” with no author, no date, and certainly no summary given. Sometimes we can query the library for help. But sometimes, unfortunately, querying is not realistic, as in the case of a collection that I recently encountered, which comprised an astonishing 19,200 items in forty-nine boxes. The record listed “recipe books” among these items, but I doubt that anyone will ever see them, since the record did not include a finding aid.

In the end, I do not doubt the value of our project. For one thing, I am learning that we can solve many thorny cataloguing problems simply by becoming more nimble quick-readers of manuscripts and more skilled cataloguers. (Big surprise—there is a learning curve!) Still, I have adjusted expectations. Digital capability is heady. It allows us to count zillions of things, see similarities among these things, find relatedness between all these things; it allows us to create nifty categories and tidily organize these zillions of things in them. But digital cannot generate the things themselves, at least not all of them. This is so obvious a truism that we don’t even say it. And yet, amid our excitement, we sometimes forget.


One Reply to “The (Near) Magic of Digital Access to Manuscript Cookbooks”

  1. This sounds like a wonderful project! I work at an academic special collections in Virginia which focuses on, among other topics, culinary history. We are planning (and beginning) to digitize our manuscript receipt books (currently ranging from late 17th-mid 20th century,) which we hope will help with the barriers to access and encourage use of them in historical research.

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