Favorite Recipes: Social Networks in the Pages of a Regional Community Cookbook

By Rachel A. Snell

Members of the Mount Desert chapter may have attended the ceremonial induction of officers at the neighboring Tremont chapter, as depicted in this undated photograph. Courtesy Southwest Harbor Public Library

In the late 1920s, members of the Mount Desert Chapter No. 20 of the Order of the Eastern Star compiled a cookbook of favorite recipes. During the peak of associational life, from the late-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, the Order of the Eastern Star was one of a number of social organizations that shaped civic life and sociability on Mount Desert Island.[i]The recipes collected by the members of this chapter provide windows into the lives of early-twentieth-century women, both within and outside of domestic spaces. A previous post explored the representation of globalized food systems within the compiled recipes, this post will examine social networks within Mount Desert. The Order of the Eastern Star, like other women’s organizations of the early twentieth century, strengthened the social bonds between rural Maine women. The recipes for salads and cakes, which would be appropriate for an informal ladies’ luncheon or tea, suggest the significance of social gatherings to the members of the Mount Desert Chapter and complement the histories we have of this chapter. Additionally, the text of the cookbook can be used as a map and as a spatial analysis of the collected recipes, which reveal the continued importance of familial ties and residential proximity in the lives of rural women of the early twentieth century.

This map, created using census and directory data, provides a spatial analysis of the compilers of Favorite Recipes. A full map of the Island can be viewed here.

Cookbook collections such as Favorite Recipes shift our focus from considering women’s experiences in time, to considering their experiences across physical space. Research into historical and genealogical records permit this cookbook to be mapped, allowing women’s networks to be presented visually, and thereby provide an image of social culture on Mount Desert Island during the period in which these recipes were collected. Of the forty-one women and two men who submitted recipes to the cookbook, thirty-three individuals can be definitively identified and mapped through Census Records and local directories. The map reveals that the majority of the recipe compilers, and likely the majority of the members of the Mount Desert Chapter, resided in Somesville. A few lived further afield in Pretty Marsh, Sound, and Northeast Harbor, but the majority appear to have resided within easy commuting distance to the Masonic Lodge.

This undated photograph shows the two and one-half story Somesville Masonic Hall built in the early 1890s. Courtesy of the Mount Desert Island Historical Society

The clustering of recipe contributors in Somesville affirms the intentions of the founders of the Mount Desert Chapter. According to an undated “Brief History” of the chapter from 1894-1920, “the ladies of Somesville, desirous of enjoying more frequent opportunities of meeting together, held a number of meetings during the fall and winter of 1894, taking preliminary action toward the organization of a chapter of the Order of Eastern Star.”[ii]The creation of the Mount Desert Chapter provided the women of Somesville and surrounding villages with an opportunity to meet regularly at the Masonic Lodge and to attend to chapter business, as well as a chance to socialize outside of domestic spaces and obligations.

Recipes for cake frostings and fillings from Favorite Recipe with a splatter suggesting these recipes were used by the cookbook owner. Courtesy of the Mount Desert Island Historical Society

The recipes themselves also suggest the importance of this social function. While there is no lack of substantial family fare, recipes for cakes, cookies, salads, and other delicacies that may have formed the menu for a ladies’ luncheon or an afternoon tea are well represented in Favorite Recipes. It is quite possible that these recipes provided the foundation for the menus of suppers served at officer appointments and at regular chapter meetings. Newspaper accounts of the Mount Desert Chapter’s activities frequently note the quality of the spread, such as the comment that “delicious refreshments were served at the close of the chapter” meeting in January of 1932.[iii]In this sense, it is a recipe book perfectly suited to the women of the chapter and their increasingly organized network of friends, family, and neighbors. Recipes suitable for quick, hearty, and wholesome family meals and for impressing guests, or fellow attendees of a neighborhood potluck, comingle within the cookbook.

This post is excerpted from “Favorite Recipes: Relationships Past and Present in the Pages of a Regional Cookbook” published in Chebacco, the magazine of the Mount Desert Island Historical Society. The full article is available here.

[i]William J. Skocpol, “Fraternal Organization on Mount Desert Island,” Chebacco 9 (2008), 36-59.

[ii]A Brief History of Mount Desert Chapter #20, O.E.S., 1894-1920, 1, Mount Desert Island Historical Society.

[iii]“Somesville,” Bar Harbor Record(Jan. 27, 1932): 7.

Needhams: Global Connections in a Regional Cookbook

By Rachel Snell

According to an undated history of the Mount Desert Chapter of O.E.S., “a committee consisting of Sisters Helen Fernald, Ada Leland and Lillian Somes” was created in 1930 to “solicit recipes and to compile and publish a cookbook.” Their efforts produced the edition of Favorite Recipes analyzed in this article. This was the chapter’s second attempt at a cookbook. An earlier collection of recipes, also titled Favorite Recipes, appeared in 1903. Both editions and a 1980s reprint of the 1903 cookbook are available in the collections of the Mount Desert Island Historical Society.

In the late 1920s, members of the Mount Desert Chapter No. 20 of the Order of the Eastern Star compiled a cookbook of favorite recipes. During the peak of associational life (late-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century), the Order of the Eastern Star was one of a number of social organizations that shaped civic life and sociability on Mount Desert Island.[i]

The recipes collected preserve the transition to an industrialized food system with ingredients representing local resources, nationally available commercial brands, and global networks comingling within the pages, sometimes even the same recipe. In the eyes of the outside world, Maine food culture revolves around local produce such as lobster, blueberries, or maple syrup. But this collection reveals the importance of global connections in the diets of early-twentieth-century Mainers.

A sense of local foodways emerges from the pages of this collection of recipes. Homey recipes like Brown Bread, Yankee Bean Soup, Halibut Loaf, and Mustard Pickles, provided the foundation for simple family suppers. Recipes for puddings, doughnuts, cookies, cakes, and pies that homemakers baked on Saturdays satisfied sweet tooths and served company throughout the coming week.

Among the staples of nineteenth-century foodways that appear in Favorite Recipes, a new type of cooking is also apparent. The influence of national, commercial brands is unmistakable in the ingredient lists. Approximately forty percent of the recipes contained within the book reference a commercialized name-brand product, such as Dunham’s Coconut, Karo Syrup, Dot Chocolate, or Quaker Oats, or ingredients that were made available by technological advances and national transportation networks. This included various canned products, tropical fruits, marshmallows, puffed rice, and peanut butter.

Among the sweets in the cookbook are Needhams, a chocolate-covered coconut candy. These are an oft-cited example of Maine ingenuity—the recipe calls for three small potatoes—and yet, ironically, their inclusion in the recipe book is perhaps an indication of a growing reliance on mass-produced food and global influences. It is half a package of shredded coconut that provides their iconic taste.

Recipe for Needhams, Favorite Recipes (c. 1930). Mount Desert Island Historical Society.

Despite their association with Maine, few outside the Pine Tree State are familiar with the confection. Yet, Needhams are symbolic of globalized food systems. The sugar, coconut, and chocolate that dominate the taste of a Needham (the potato is a tasteless filler ingredient) are all, of course, imported. Each of these essential baking ingredients became more accessible over the course of the nineteenth-century, even in Downeast Maine, due to advancements in cultivation, processing, transportation–and the exploitation of enslaved laborers. The candy’s namesake, Rev. George C. Needham, further represented the interconnected world of the nineteenth century.

Rev. George C. Needham. New England Historical Society.

Born in Ireland in 1840, at the age of ten Needham joined an English ship bound for South America. In his recounting, he was abused and abandoned by his shipmates he narrowly escaped becoming dinner for a band of cannibal Indians. After his escape, Needham journeyed back to England. As a young man, he was an itinerant evangelical preacher in England and Ireland. Immigrating to the United States in the late 1860s, Needham spent the rest of his life traveling the eastern United States, inclusing Maine, predicting the imminent second coming of Jesus Christ. After his sudden death in 1902, his obituary appeared in numerous eastern newspapers evidencing his influence and the extent of his travels.

Needhams, a chocolate-covered coconut candy. New England Historical Society.

The recipe for Needhams is just one example of the global connections in Favorite Recipes. Indeed, the cookbook paints a portrait of a community and its connections to the world by preserving a record of the food items available within a rural municipality along the Maine coast. Favorite Recipes offers a window into the eating habits of the early twentieth-century inhabitants of Mount Desert, Maine at a critical juncture when local and homemade eating habits slowly gave way to nationalized, globalized, and commercialized food choices.

For more information on Favorite Recipes or other materials related to the history of the Mount Desert Island region, visit the Mount Desert Island Historical Society.

[i] William J. Skocpol, “Fraternal Organization on Mount Desert Island,” Chebacco 9 (2008), 36-59.

A Sampling of Food-Related Panels at the 2017 Berkshire Conference

By Rachel A. Snell

Held at Hoftra University June 1-4, the 17th Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, Genders, and Sexualities contained a number of panels of interest to food studies scholars. As those who study food are well-acquainted, food and food writing offer a richly rewarding lens for studying the past. Therefore, it is unsurprising that the conference theme, “Difficult Conversations: Thinking and Talking About Women, Genders, and Sexualities Inside and Outside the Academy,” generated several papers and on entire panel devoted to exploring the connections between food and gender.

“Native New Yorker,” Pura Cruz 2006.

My own research interests naturally gravitated me toward a handful of food-related panels at this year’s Big Berks, but this is by no means an exhaustive review. The full conference program can be accessed here.

On Thursday afternoon, two papers exploring home economics lead me to a panel titled, “Bloomers, Domestic Violence, and Home Economics: Print Sources and the Politics of Gender” and chaired by Carol Ruth Berkin. While all four papers were excellent, food scholars, particularly those interested in the home economics movement, will want to note the following two papers:

Food, Empowerment, and Iowa: Exploring Mrs. Welch’s Cookbook

Mrs. Welch’s Cookbook (Des Moines: 1884).

Jaycie Vos, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill/Special Collections Coordinator and University Archivist, University of Northern Iowa @jaycie_v

Jaycie Vos’s paper provided a close-reading of Mrs. Welch’s Cookbook (Des Moines: 1884). Written by the head of the Domestic Economy Department at Iowa Agricultural College (later Iowa State University), Mary B. Welch, the cookbook was a compilation of recipes used for instruction in the department. Vos argues the cookbook and Welch’s career presented food preparation as a source of empowerment for women.

The Porosity of Public and Private in Ellen Richards’s Home Economics

Serenity Sutherland, University of Rochester @serenitys37

In her examination of the career of Ellen Richards, the pioneering founder of the Home Economics movement and the first female student and instructor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sutherland contrasted the development of scientific housekeeping with earlier moral domesticity. Her concentration on Richards allowed Sutherland to explore ideas of individuality and the overlap of public and private in the Home Economics movement.

Friday morning’s “Repast and Present: Food History Inside and Outside the Academy” organized by the Recipe Project’s own Amanda Herbert not only explored food as an engagement tool in the study of the past, it was also the opening event for a virtual conference exploring the question, “What is a recipe?” A video of the panel is available on the Recipe Project’s Facebook page, therefore, I will provide brief notes on each speaker.

Public and Professional Dimensions of Creative Food History Programs

Amanda B. Moniz, Smithsonian Institution @AmandaMoniz1 

Moniz discussed her development of historical cooking classes and the accessibility of food history.

Cooking Class: Women, Domestic Science, and Higher Education since the Progressive Era

Tandra Taylor, St. Louis University

Through a focus on Progressive-era domestic science education opportunities for African-American women, Taylor argued that cooking class was actually cooking class (i.e.: status).

A Recipe for Teaching (and Learning) Atlantic World History: Food and the Columbian Exchange

Zara Anishanslin, University of Delaware @ZaraAnishanslin

Anishanslin shared her techniques for bringing food into the classroom, describing this effort as a more uplifting aspect of Atlantic history (creation rather than destruction). Those who teach the early American history survey or Atlantic history courses will be interested in her assignment to select and study a recipe that would not exist without the Columbian Exchange.

Food for the People: How Food History is Changing the Conversation at the National Museum of American History

Paula Johnson, National Museum of American History

Julia Child’s kitchen on display at the Museum of American History – http://americanhistory.si.edu/food/julia-childs-kitchen

Johnson discussed food-related initiatives at the National Museum of American History including exhibits and live cooking demonstrations that combine food and history. Mark your calendars for this year’s Smithsonian Food History Weekend, October 26-28.

Cooking on the Internet: Historical Recipes and Public Scholarships

Marissa Nicosia, Pennsylvania State University – Abington College @Nicosia_Marissa 

Nicosia’s joint-project with Alyssa Connell transcribes, contextualizes, and updates early modern recipes for modern kitchens while sharing them on a blog titled, Cooking in the Archives. Nicosia discussed the insights that stemmed from this work and the importance of actually preparing recipes as part of the research process.

My review of food history at the Big Berks concludes with a panel exploring the politics of women’s businesses that included four fascinating and innovative presentations, but it was Maria McGrath’s history of Bloodroot Restaurant that connects with the subject of this post.

Living Feminist: The Liberation and Limits of Separatist Business and Radical Lesbian Ethics at the Bloodroot Restaurant

Maria McGrath, Bucks County Community College

Dining Space, Bloodroot Restaurant – www.bloodroot.com

In this paper, McGrath examined the founding of Bloodroot Restaurant in Bridgeport, CT, a feminist and collective restaurant and bookstore, in 1977. She explored the role of food in the pursuit of feminist and counter-cultural ideologies.

As a first-time Big Berks attendee, I was blown away by the quality and variety of presentations and the uniquely supportive atmosphere. I’m looking forward to more food history at the 2020 meeting!

Note: In the interest of self-promotion, I would be remiss to not mention I also presented, during the Digital Humanities Spotlight, on mapping cookbooks to reveal women’s networks. An early version of that work is available here.

Recipes as Sources for Women’s Lives: Student Reflections on Food, Feminism, and Femininity

By Rachel A. Snell

In the summer of 2016, Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Maine approached me with the opportunity to teach a course exploring women and food. I eagerly accepted, since opportunities to teach connected to your research don’t come around every day. My dream course, titled, “Food, Femininity, and Feminism in American Culture from Amelia Simmons to Martha Stewart,” considered the ways in which the production and consumption of food fundamentally shaped concepts of femininity and feminism in American culture from the period of the American Revolution to the present.

Since the course was listed as both a History and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies course, these majors were well-represented among the students taking the course. However, the topic of food attracted a number of social scientists, education majors, and even a Biology major who all confided they otherwise would not have considered signing up for a history or a women’s studies course.

An intriguing 1925 Maine publication that was the starting point for several student projects.

Throughout the course, students were asked to develop the skills to read a recipe not just as a set of instructions for a culinary process but as sources for women’s lives. Although they initially approached the assignments with some skepticism, in their end-of-semester reflections many divulged that “before this class, I had never looked at recipe further than how it would get me to a completely finished baked product;” through in-class exercises and weekly recipe analysis presentations students came to appreciate recipes as “stories and little snapshots of a woman’s life” and “a reflection of the time in which [they were] written.”

Mildred “Brownie” Schrumpf, Maine food expert, author, and home economist.

Over the course of the semester, students developed independent research projects that used recipes to explore major course themes. The research project was purposefully open-ended, to allow students to draw on their personal and academic backgrounds to demonstrate the breadth of recipes as sources for historical research. The one limiting factor placed on students’ projects was a requirement to make substantive use of materials from the Mildred “Brownie” Schrumpf Papers, a collection of recipes, newspaper columns, cookbooks, and personal correspondence collected by Maine culinary authority, Brownie Schrumpf. The final products demonstrated the students’ research creativity, as they used recipes to exploring topics ranging from:

  • An analysis of chocolate chip cookie recipes from six different time periods to explore changing ingredients and tastes.
  • Combining The State of Maine Cookbook produced by the Democratic Women of Maine in 1925 with genealogical and archival research to create a personal and culinary portrait of selected participants.
  • Analyzing 1940s cookbooks to better understand housework and cookery as patriotic service.
  • A nutritional analysis of several mid-twentieth century recipes compared to similar recipes published on social media within the past year to contextualize the Center for Disease Control’s data on rising obesity rates in Maine.
  • A historical survey of labor-saving devices in the kitchen, focusing on the development of refrigeration from ice boxes to modern appliances and the transformation of American diets and culture as a result.
  • A geographic analysis of community cookbooks published throughout Maine to explore the regional variance in the identification of “Maine” food (lobster, potatoes, blueberries, etc.).
Collage of cookbook covers from the Schrumf Collection.

In course reflections, students addressed how their perception of a recipe had changed through course instruction and their research process. When asked to define a recipe, students described their shifting attitudes toward recipes and the discovery of recipes as historical sources:

“What I have learned is that a recipe can provide an image of the identity of women during a certain time period. We often do not get to hear about the perspective of women in history, so cookbooks help fill in the gaps of what it meant to be a woman during certain eras.” (Mara Hintz, Secondary Education)

“From the earliest cookbooks we looked at to the more modern ones, it was evident to me that recipes are often more than just directions for how to prepare food. In fact, recipes seem to tell their own story. They hint at relationships, economic status, available resources, and the roles of domestic women and how those roles changed over the years.” (Naomi Holzhauer, Biology)

“What I also learned from this class is how the power of a recipe can empower a movement in spreading a message, raising funds for the cause, or show a way of life that doesn’t have to be solely about homemaking . . . It is more than just a way to share good meal ideas. A recipe is a way to share culture, promote independence, and when used in the right way, used to further the conversation and culture shift regarding women’s roles in society.” (Sarah Nichols, Secondary Education)

“The dictionary’s definition of a recipe is as follows: ‘a set of instructions for preparing a particular dish, including a list of ingredients required.’ I find that what this definition fails to capture the essence of recipes. It fails to acknowledge that recipes are so much more than just mere instructions and ingredients. Collectively, recipes give us insight into different parts of history. How people lived, what they had available, what their homes and families were like, how society functioned, among many more things. Recipes often times have deeper meanings and connections within our lives than we realize. History is certainly reflected in the cookbooks, diaries, and other examples of culinary literature. By studying recipe books throughout time, we are able to better understand how we came to be where we are with food today.” (Sarah Noble, Psychology/Women’s Gender, Sexuality Studies)

“I’ve learned that a recipe is more than just a list of ingredients with instructions on how to make it. A recipe has history, family connections to people. A recipe could be a reminder of the first time you’ve made it with someone you love; a recipe that has been passed down through the female generations with all the written side notes of modifications.” (Sierra Crosby, Psychology/Women’s Gender, Sexuality Studies)

Finally, history major Abby Belisle Haley, provided the perfect postscript for the course as an in-depth exploration of transformations in American women’s lives through the lens of food:

“In terms of ‘recipes’ I think this course in itself was a recipe because it provided new and interesting ingredients for the student to combine together to produce a wholly new product that is different from another dry, overcooked research paper.”

More information about the course can be found here, including syllabi and sample student projects.