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Old Cookbooks Find A Home At Harvard

It’s time for New Year’s resolutions. And after weeks of unbridled holiday culinary indulgence, maybe shedding a few pounds is right up there on your list of 2012 resolutions.

But, maybe we can offer you just one last, little taste of decadence?

“Basically, you have stiff jelly and the liquid from powdered almonds that have been strained and strained. And normally sugar would be added. And… you could put in some coccinele. Which is powdered red beetles,” Barbara Ketcham Wheaton said as she described a recipe in an old cookbook. Wheaton is the honorary curator of the culinary collection at the Radcliffe Institute’s Schlesinger Library

It turns out the beetles are optional for this slightly modernized (circa 1710) version of a 14th century blanc mange. Saffron can be substituted. Or, for “persons of refinement,” no colorant at all. All that according to a cookbook titled “Royal Cookery, or the Complete Court-Cook.”

“And, it’s by Patrick Lamb. Who claimed to be near 50 years the master cook to their late majesties King Charles the Second, King James II, King William, Queen Mary, and Queen Anne,” Wheaton noted.

The Schlesinger Library is home to one of the world’s most outstanding collections of historical cookbooks, including its most famous possession: the papers, recipes and cookbooks of Julia and Paul Child.

The collection spans more than 500 years and almost as many cultures. Marylene Altieri, curator of printed material at the library, says the collection found its home at Radcliffe in the 1960s after Harvard University’s Widner Library decided to move the cookbooks, thinking they were materials better suited for a place devoted to documenting women’s history.

“It was not exactly received with open arms,” Altieri said. “There were many feminists involved with the library who thought that cooking was something they wanted to leave behind.”

It was the 60s after all. But it was quickly realized that these are not just books about cooking: They are historical treasure troves. Food is a rare cultural nexus, connecting information about the economy, climate, technology, even levels of education among people living in a particular place and time.

As I found out when I took a tour of the Schlesinger collection with Marylene Altieri and Barbara Ketcham Wheaton, the cookbooks even document the impact of social upheaval and wars.

Guests:

  • Marylene Altieri, curator of printed material, Radcliffe Institute’s Schlesinger Library, Harvard University
  • Barbara Ketcham Wheaton, honorary curator of the culinary collection, Radcliffe Institute’s Schlesinger Libarary, Harvard University

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