A Feast of Rare Material

Elizabeth Ridolfo

Cookbooks, menus, culinary manuscripts, and ephemera have always been part of the collections at the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library. When we received a large donation of Canadian culinary material from the collection of retired Art Librarian and culinary historian Mary F. Williamson, we were immediately excited about its potential for teaching and outreach. The extensive and diverse collection spans more than 150 years and includes rare first editions of The Frugal Housewife’s Manual (the first English language cookbook to be compiled in Canada)[1] and La Cuisiniére Canadienne (the first French language cookbook to be written in Canada)[2], as well as an intriguing selection of culinary ephemera, early Canadian women’s periodicals, and community cookbooks from most of the Canadian provinces, including a number of Indigenous community cookbooks. Several events and a major exhibition were planned to highlight some of the treasures in the collection and to introduce it to its communities.

“Mixed Messages: Making and Shaping Culinary Culture in Canada”, running from May 22 to August 17, 2018, will be one of the most collaborative exhibitions ever to take place at the Fisher Library, with academics, librarians, undergraduate, and graduate students working together to explore the topic. My co-curators Irina Mihalache, Associate Professor at the University of Toronto Faculty of Information, and Nathalie Cooke, Professor and Associate Dean, McGill Library (Archives & Rare Collections) decided against a fully chronological structure, instead mixing chronology with a number of other themes and threads to explore culinary culture in Canada. Some of our primary goals were to amplify the voices and stories of women in Canadian culinary history and to explore who had agency and who did not in the creation of this shared culture. Since the exhibition is on campus at the University of Toronto and open to the public, we also hoped to convey the research value of the material and encourage the reading of cookbooks and culinary objects beyond their recipes, in order to develop a kind of “culinary objects literacy” in students and exhibition attendees.

Figure 1: a medicinal receipt from MSS 01121, Lucy Ronalds Harris Manuscript cookbook. London, Ontario, 18--? Image Credit: Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto
Figure 1: A medicinal receipt from MSS 01121, Lucy Ronalds Harris Manuscript cookbook. London, Ontario, 18–? Image Credit: Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto

A range of materials highlight women’s changing roles and their interactions with one another and society as they negotiated their way further into the public sphere in Canada from the mid-nineteenth to the late twentieth centuries. In the upstairs gallery, an elixir made with Anvil dust from the culinary manuscript of Lucy Ronalds Harris of London, Ontario shows the lady of the house as family physician; an early Canadian Jewish community cookbook containing Christmas recipes hints at the complex process of negotiating cultural identity; an army of cooks testing recipes submitted by thousands of readers through national contests show women working collaboratively, opening a form of national dialogue and having their expertise recognized.

Figure 2 Ration coupon booklets and Ration tokens. The Ration Administration, Canada 194-. Image Credit: Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.
Figure 2: Ration coupon booklets and Ration tokens. The Ration Administration, Canada 194-. Image Credit: Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.

The downstairs gallery contains culinary objects and aims to be a more interactive space. Curated by Master of Museum Studies candidates Cassandra Curtis and Sadie MacDonald in conversation with the material in the main gallery, it focuses on flavours and appropriation, changing technology and domestic labour, and the resourcefulness required to handle the myriad expectations put on the homemaker during the period. The space also includes several interactive items to engage the other senses and bring attendees closer to the experiences of the kitchen.

As with any exhibition, especially one based on a new collection, there were many stories that we were not able to tell and items that could not be shown. Undergraduate and graduate students were asked to engage with some of the material not included in the exhibition as part of their course work and research, and they share these additional stories in oral histories, blog posts, and object stories which are presented on the exhibition blog and on iPads in the main gallery area during the exhibition. We hope that Mixed Messages and the accompanying catalogue and digital content provide a thoughtful introduction to the collection and that students and researchers are enticed to continue some of the conversations started in the exhibition.

 

[1] Elizabeth Driver, Culinary Landmarks: a bibliography of Canadian cookbooks 1825-1949 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, c 2008), xxi.

[2] Ibid., 86.

Teaching Recipes in the Wangensteen Library

By Emily Beck

Over the course of my graduate career at the University of Minnesota, I’ve become interested in the ways that libraries function as spaces for both academic and public teaching. I began using recipe books with undergraduate classes in the Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine simply because I find them interesting. It has become evident, however, that they are powerful teaching tools for both students and the public: recipe books resonate with viewers because they are personal and relatable.

Medical Receipt Book, Mary Pewe, Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine, WZ250 M489 1637
Medical Receipt Book, Mary Pewe, Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine, WZ250 M489 1637

I have used the Wangensteen’s recipe book collection for teaching undergraduate History of Medicine courses. The students in these classes are typically pre-health sciences majors and are implicitly interested in healthcare, but have not often considered the history of their chosen careers. Viewing a medical recipe book gives them opportunities to get closer to historical specifics, considering individuals rather than professions. For example, using an English manuscript from 1637 that is easy to read and quite large, I encourage students to reflect on the variety of illnesses and methods of treatment in the volume. By thinking about individual medical practice and health experience, students are able to more clearly grasp how humoral theory was applied on a day-to-day basis.

The Wangensteen at the Science Museum of MInnesota
The Wangensteen at the Science Museum of Minnesota, Image courtesy of Bonnie Gidzak

In addition to academic teaching and research, the Wangensteen creates exhibits with collection materials to teach the public about various aspects of the history of medicine. As I began developing the Wangensteen’s next exhibit, Bodies and Spirits: Health and the History of Fermentation and Distillation (September 2015-May 2016), it was clear that recipe books were an obvious choice for the display cases. They show how historical individuals frequently made fermented and distilled products, like beer and wine, and used them as medicines. In April 2015, we were invited to participate in an event on fermentation at the Science Museum of Minnesota to give a preview of the exhibit. We were the only historically focused exhibitor at this event with several thousand attendees, so standing out was imperative. We brought facsimile copies of several recipe books as well as postcards with a historical brewing recipe. The recipes captivated the attendees because they could compare them to their own home-brewing and fermenting experiences. Using recipes with this audience was an easy way to initiate discussion about the complex origins of some of the fermented products that they enjoy at home.

When the exhibit opens in September, we will use manuscript recipe books to teach our audience how closely aligned health and alcohol were in earlier time periods. These will also demonstrate how individuals were expected to undertake their production at home. We are in conversation with a local restaurant about making some of the fermented vegetables and drinks out of these manuscripts. I hope to have a tasting event where we can invite the public and the university community to try these foods while thinking about the historical rationale for making fermented products. We’re looking forward to a year of public programming around recipes as well as continuing to teach courses using recipe books.