Around the Table: Museum Chat

Welcome to the latest Around the Table! Today we have a chat about the recipes-related collections at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., especially the National Museum of American History (NMAH)! I am delighted to speak with Ashley Rose Young, Historian in the NMAH Division of Work and Industry, and Paula Johnson, Curator in the NMAH Division of Work and Industry.

The Smithsonian has many items of interest to our readership, particularly in the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), National Museum of American History (NMAH), and the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). Within the collections at all three museums are impressive holdings of items related to recipes research. Could you provide a brief overview of the Smithsonian’s collections related to recipes?

Paula Johnson: Researching recipes at the Smithsonian Institution is a complex endeavor, but one that has the potential for great rewards. With nineteen museums and research bureaus, plus pan-institutional libraries and archives, a veritable trove of material covering an astonishing array of culinary-related subjects awaits the intrepid researcher. While each museum has its own physical branch library, the consolidated digital catalog contains records for all Smithsonian holdings. A useful overview of the institution’s libraries and archives can be found here

My long experience with Smithsonian collections is based almost entirely on the holdings of the National Museum of American History (NMAH), which houses significant collections of artifacts, documents, books, ephemera, and digital material reflecting many broad areas of culinary history. Among the diverse food-related collections are many that contain recipes, although that may not be apparent at a glance. Due to different cataloging protocols for objects, archives, and libraries over the institution’s 175-year-history, researchers need to think broadly about search terms and pack some patience when accessing the collections. While catalogs and finding aids are key to a researcher’s success, there’s always the possibility of serendipity, as in this item we located in the Smithsonian Archives, a “Receipt Book” for medicinal and dietary uses, kept by James Smithson, the British scientist whose bequest established the Smithsonian Institution in 1846. The handwritten receipts are mostly for simple candies and spirits, including “Pate de Jujubes,” “Usquebaugh,” and various cordials. 

Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7000, James Smithson Collection. Research photo*

In the NMAH collections, recipes can be found in historic cookbooks that are held by the main research library as well as the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology. A significant number of books and pamphlets was donated to the Smithsonian Institution Libraries (SIL) by the Culinary Historians of Washington, DC, and that collection continues to grow, courtesy of CHOW. The library also holds a large collection of trade literature and product cookbooks that contain recipes and can be accessed here.

The NMAH Archives Center houses many food history-related collections, including some that contain recipes. Although the word “recipe” may not appear in the record title or even the description, it is possible to access recipes (and marvelous related material) via creative searching. Some highlights include the Pillsbury Bake-off Collection and the Nordic Ware Papers, which include recipe pamphlets from the “Maid of Scandinavia” line of cookware, the forerunner to the Nordic Ware brand, most famous for its Bundt cake pans.

As a curator, I collect objects and archival documents for the museum, and over the years I have brought several collections into the museum that include recipes. A recent example is the Mollie Katzen collecting documenting the development of her Moosewood Cookbook. In addition to the original artwork and early, spiral-bound edition of the book (1974), the collection includes Katzen’s detailed estimates of the cost of each ingredient in each recipe and other papers containing recipe notes. My favorite part of the collection are the letters written to Katzen by fans, some of whom were enthusiastic converts to vegetarian cooking. These documents provide both context and texture to the recipes.

The Archives Center also houses documents collected from the recipients of the Julia Child Award, presented annually since 2015 by the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts. Among them is a journal of field notes kept by Chef Rick Bayless, as he and his wife Deann traveled through Mexico in the early 1980s to research regional ingredients, dishes, and cooking techniques.  These field notes became the foundation for Bayless’ first book, Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico (1987).

Rick Bayless field notes, early 1980s. Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Another wonderful and perhaps unexpected document is contained in the Paul Ma Papers, collected from Paul and Linda Ma, a Chinese American couple who operated successful restaurants in the West Chester area of New York, beginning in the 1980s. A well-used, handwritten booklet features recipes for the basic dishes and sauces the Mas remembered from home after migrating to the United States around 1964.  With recipes and notes written in both Chinese and English, and with sauce stains identifying the most favored recipes, the booklet also provides insight into the context of Ma’s restaurant menu and cooking.

Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Paul Ma Paper. Research photo.

Occasionally there are recipes filed as “reference material” associated with accessioned objects and these can sometimes be difficult to find without curatorial staff assistance. An example are the thirty-three recipe cards donated by La Deva Davis, an African American teacher whose 1976 television show, “What’s Cooking?” aired on PBS through station WHYY in Wilmington, DE. Donated along with three aprons La Deva Davis wore on the show, the cards provide a record of the dishes she demonstrated (“low cost, high nutrition cooking”), including “Oriental Beef Stew,” “Liptauer Cheese,” and “Think Thin Salad.”

Finally, a note about beer. Our colleague Theresa McCulla, curator of the museum’s American Brewing History Initiative, has collected beer recipes from the individuals who shaped the modern home brewing and craft beer industries.  A couple of examples are included in the museum’s exhibition, FOOD: Transforming the American Table Theresa’s work has also inspired a great deal of interest in some of the older brewing history collections at the museum and for one beer historian, the Archives Center yielded recipe gold. As he was researching the Walter H. Voigt Brewing Industry Collection, the researcher found a 1930 recipe for Bock beer that called for corn, rice, and sugar scribbled on a piece of paper. In 2019, brewers at Denizens Brewing Co. in Silver Spring, Maryland, created an American bock from the recipe found in the NMAH Archives Center.   

You have been creating a lot of programming around food culture in recent years at the Smithsonian-could you talk about that and how you have adapted during the COVID-19 closures this year?

Ashley Rose Young: The American Food History Project at NMAH hosts a variety of public programs including Cooking Up History, Deep-Dish Dialogues, Roundtables, Conversation Circles, Brewing History After Hours, Ask a Farmer, and more. Additionally, during our annual Food History Weekend, we invite community leaders, food practitioners, activists, academics, policy makers, and the public to come together to discuss a central theme in American history and in our current moment.

Recently, while planning for the all-virtual 2020 Food History Weekend, “Food Futures: Striving for Justice,” we took inspiration from what we saw in our research and collecting around COVID-19: that people are looking ahead with energy and hope for creating better systems and more innovative and humane solutions that will address long-term needs when we emerge from these unprecedented conditions. That weekend, our Cooking Up History programs featured chefs who each shared and prepared a recipe and spoke about its traditional and contemporary significance to food justice. Chef Nico Albert of the Cherokee Nation, for example, prepared Sumac-Crusted Trout with Sauteed Mushrooms and Greens, and guided audiences through foraging for sumac and greens, while also speaking about the culinary heritage of the Cherokee people. She emphasized that retaining and celebrating traditional foodways was a means of securing food sovereignty for indigenous communities across the U.S.

YouTube video of “Cooking Up History: Culinary Traditions within the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma with Chef Nico Albert”

As with Chef Nico’s demonstration, all of our Cooking Up History programs are centered around recipes, the history and traditions behind their ingredients, culinary techniques, and enjoyment. The recipes and descriptions of each event can be found on our website under “Past Demos and Recipes.”

Guest Chefs Aisha Alfadhalah and Iman Alshehab of the Mera Kitchen Collective with Ashley Rose Young during a 2019 “Cooking Up History” program. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

For 2021, we are currently developing new models to bring Cooking Up History and other food history programs to digital audiences throughout the year. Please visit our website this spring for updates.

What tips can you offer to help users find collection items? Is it possible to search all of the Smithsonian’s holdings at once, or do researchers need to look at the individual museums?

Ashley Rose Young: I had a chance to reach out to Alison Oswald, an archivist at the Archives Center at NMAH, for tips on how to navigate the vast collections of the Smithsonian, which, admittedly, can be somewhat daunting given the volume of material available. Alison noted that the data related to our collections are exported into the Collections Search Center (CSC), and the CSC is a good place for researchers to start when they want to search across the Smithsonian including all museums, archives, libraries, and research units.

Researchers can also search finding aids in Smithsonian archives by visiting the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives (SOVA). Some finding aids include digitized content linked at collection, series, and folder level.

Alison also provided a few tips on how to make the best of your searches on CSC and SOVA:

  • It can help to use quotes (“ ”) around the key word/search term and to make use of the facets, which allow you to limit a search. For example, “recipes” in SOVA yields 214 collection level records, but if you wanted to know what kind of recipes the National Museum of Air and Space has, you can limit it by selecting archival repository and you get 4 collections.
  • Researchers should also try a variety of terms when searching. Recipes is a pretty specific term so starting broader with cookbooks, cookery, cooking, baking, etc. can be useful. Most catalogs do something called “stemming” which is when the catalog searches for the “root” of a word and displays all words with that stem. For example, the word “searching” or “search” or “searches” all stem to “search”.

Last but not least, Alison noted that catalogs are works in progress that are constantly evolving, and that the Smithsonian welcomes feedback from researchers to make our catalogs better.

For researchers who have projects and interests spanning multiple museums within the Smithsonian, how do you recommend they go about searching for pertinent materials?

Paula Johnson: This is such an important issue and one we have explored recently through a special collaboration with colleagues in the UK and the US, with support from the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council. While this initiative has been the subject of previous posts, I’ll simply share that we worked with graduate student researchers from the Boston University Program in Gastronomy to test the ease and challenges of conducting food-related subject searches across the Smithsonian’s consolidated digital collections catalogs. The resulting white paper, “Looking for Food in the New Smithsonian Institution Catalog,” is under review and will help inform how we can improve cataloging to make materials more accessible across subject areas.

How much of the Smithsonian’s holdings are digitized? What other digital resources and events are available?

Ashley Rose Young: I also had the opportunity to touch base with Sherri Berger, the head of NMAH’s Digital Programs Office, about the Smithsonian’s digital offerings. Sherri noted that as of 2019, the Smithsonian holds 155.4 million museum objects and specimens, about 19 million of which have been digitized; 1.2 million library volumes, about 760,000 of which have been either fully or partially digitized; and 163,000 cubic feet of archival material, with 5.6 million digitized items. For ways to learn about and access these materials, please see our answer to question 3.

In addition to these materials, the Smithsonian hosts numerous virtual events. You can learn about NMAH’s food history offering by signing up to our newsletter and selecting “food history” as a topic of interest.

We also have recordings of past events available online. You can watch our 2020 Food History Weekend programming and other food-related events on our YouTube “food history” playlist.

Does the Smithsonian offer any fellowships or grants for researchers?

Ashley Rose Young: The Smithsonian offers research fellowships to graduate students, predoctoral students, and postdoctoral and senior investigators to conduct independent research and to utilize the resources of the Institution with members of the Smithsonian professional research staff serving as advisors and hosts. These fellowships are offered through the Smithsonian’s Office of Fellowships and Internships, and are administered under the charter of the Institution, 20 U.S. Code section 41 et seq. You can learn more about our fellowship program here.

*Several photos in this post were taken by research staff and are not official scans provided by the Smithsonian museums and archives. Because the Smithsonian research facilities have been closed due to the pandemic, we are not able to provide proper scans.

Thanks, Ashley and Paula, for chatting about recipes resources at the Smithsonian Institution! You can find Ashley on Twitter @ashleyroseyoung and Instagram @ashleyroseyoung. Theresa McCulla, brewing history coordinator, is on Twitter @theresamccu. You can also find NMAH on Twitter @amhistorymuseum, Instagram @amhistorymuseum, and Facebook @National Museum of American History. They tag their posts/tweets with #SmithsonianFood. If you’d like to feature a project, scholar, or institution on Around the Table, please email Sarah Kernan.