Promoting passion in book collecting
“Now that you have this cookbook, what do you have?”
This question appears on the first page of JulieAnna Kirsh’s family cookbook, in her grandmother’s hand. And it’s a question that at first appears obvious: in a cookbook, you have a collection of recipes, perhaps organized by topic. But in the case of a manuscript cookbook, we can glean so much more insight than merely portions, measures, and cooking time. Manuscript cookbooks offer a glimpse into the daily lives of the women and families who recorded their recipes.
From about 1600 to 1900, the manuscript cookbook was the most common form of recipe keeping. Sometimes also called receipt books or compiled cookbooks, manuscript cookbooks are generally handwritten recipes collected by one person (usually a woman) or a series of people over successive generations. They’re not compiled with an eye for publication, but rather as items of utility. Thus manuscript cookbooks differ from community cookbooks, which were often assembled from the recipes of multiple families as fundraising projects. Manuscript cookbooks come in a variety of forms. They may be simple bundles of paper wrapped with a string or strap, or they may be bound notebooks. Often the way a manuscript cookbook was compiled and/or bound gives further insight into the family who used the book. For example, if recipes were painstakingly squeezed into every available margin, the family might not have been able to afford paper.
Manuscript cookbooks operated as very personalized records of what happened in the kitchen–and other parts of the house. In the study of food history and gastronomy, we can learn much from their pages:
From a broader historical perspective, manuscript cookbooks deliver much more than a glimpse into a family’s culinary habits. They’re an invaluable resource for scholars in a variety of fields.
The beauty of manuscript cookbooks is that each is completely unique. This presents an interesting challenge for both collectors and scholars alike: it makes preservation all the more urgent. If you collect culinary manuscripts or manuscript cookbooks, be sure to work with a trusted, qualified conservator to determine the best way to protect your collection over time.
Further Reading Kirsh, JulieAnna. “Food for Thought: Libraries and Manuscript Cookbooks.” March 2013. University of North Carolina at Greensboro.