In this interview Peter Berg discusses cookbook collecting, and the American cookbook collection he’s built at the Michigan State University Library where he serves as the head of special collections. The collection’s digital version, Feeding America, is a member of our Hall of Fame.
Special collections is where we keep non-circulating rare materials which have to be used in the reading room. Our holdings range from one of the world’s finest collections of comic art to a radicalism collection featuring material from points of view outside of the political mainstream. We also have important natural history and early agricultural texts, and a fine early veterinary medicine collection that documents the profession all the way back to the 15th century.
Finally, we have our cookery collection, featuring about 7,000 cookbooks beginning in the 16th century. We had an Apicius, which is considered the first printed cookbook that’s dated 1541. We have Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery, 1798 first edition, which is considered the first true American cookbook. And we have cookbooks from literally all over the world but with an emphasis on English speaking and particularly American cookbooks.
The Feeding America project got started around 2000. The whole idea of digitizing and making virtual copies of rare library material was really getting its start around then. We decided to start with a collection that had high value for a wide variety of people, not just scholars, but also people who were interested in food and cooking. Maybe a junior-high class who wanted to know what the first white settlers ate for Thanksgiving dinner and things of that nature. We decided to put 76 of these cookbooks up on the Internet so they would be widely available to the greatest number of people.
The beginning of the cookbook collection was the result of a couple of large donations by faculty members, way back in the 1940s and ‘50s. Michigan State is a pioneer land grant institution, so the curriculum included courses devoted to food and diet and nutrition. And so there were faculty who enjoyed collecting cookbooks, and they donated these to special collections. That formed the genesis, and over the last half century or so, we’ve been acquiring cookbooks as well as accepting them as donations.
We now have about 7,000 cookbooks, a very representative collection which spans all kinds of cuisines in many different languages, and many different approaches to cooking. Because lately we’ve been receiving so many donations of general cookbooks, we’ve been using our endowment funds to acquire cookbooks in specific areas. One of those is Michigan cookbooks, we’re trying to collect all cookbooks with ties to Michigan, including church and charity cookbooks of which we have maybe 1,200 or 1,500.
Church and charity cookbooks were very inexpensively compiled and produced by charitable groups, church groups, or similar organizations as fundraisers. You’ve probably seen them, they’re usually these small spiral-bound cookbooks. We have a huge variety of those, some going back to 1888. Another area we’ve been collecting in is in diet and nutrition. What we want to do is to provide researchers, scholars, students with a representative group of cookbooks that document approach to diet, the importance of nutrition, and how eating healthy food, safely produced, is an important thing for one’s health. I’ve heard people say that if you want to eat the healthiest possible, get a cookbook from the 1890s and eat what they were eating then and prepare it as they prepared it then.
The cookbooks in our collection span five or six centuries. For example, our first cookbook that talks about diet and nutrition is from the 17th century. What we’re finding is that a lot of the same recommendations made in, say, the early 19th century about eating healthy, the same kinds of recommendations are being made today, oftentimes with the same kind of food: the importance of vegetables, fruit, and drinking clean water. Which is interesting because people think that’s a recent development.
Collectors Weekly: Can you give us a little history on the cookbook in America?
Berg: In America, up until 1800, cookbooks mainly came over from England. Or if they were printed in the colonies, they were based on English cooking and English food. Amelia Simmons cookbook, called American Cookery, was the first true American cookbook which used food that was indigenous to the United States, like pumpkins for example.
For some cookbooks on the Feeding America site, we don’t really have any information on the author, but others are quite well known. The 76 books were selected to be the best representative sample, not only regionally but ethnically, of American cookbooks all the way back to the late 18th century. Cookbooks have always been popular, but I think there’s a heyday right now as far as the study of food history. Cookbooks are more than just recipes, they can give you a real insight into different cultures and how they approached food and eating and the gathering of ingredients for food.
There were regional cuisines in America from the very beginning. There is a cookbook called New England Cookery. Another one called The Virginia Cookbook. A lot of regional foods have gone by the wayside. But back then there were particular ingredients that could only be acquired in New England or in Virginia, and so the cuisines represented that. I think there’s also a cookbook in the collection called The Western Cookbook, from Cincinnati in the 1830s or ‘40s. At that time that was Western cuisine.
We try to acquire books that have recipes. So if we buy a book on diet and nutrition, we want it to have recipes, that’s how we’re defining our cookbook collection. We want to have recipes.
Collectors Weekly: Are there a lot of people who collect cookbooks?
Berg: Yes. In fact we’re very fortunate to have a large number of friends who collect cookbooks as a hobby. After a while they literally can’t move around their house because of so many cookbooks, and so they want to donate them and we gladly accept them.
There are also a number of very fine culinary or cookbook collections at other institutions around the United States. In the Midwest alone, there’s a fine collection at the University of Michigan, and the University of Iowa. Indiana University has a terrific rare cookbook collection. Everyone is trying to do something a little bit different so we don’t duplicate each other. There’s a very fine collection at Radcliffe College.
Collectors Weekly: What are some of your favorite cookbooks in the collection?
Berg: My favorite era for American cookery is in the mid 19th century. The country was going through so many changes at the time, and I think the cookbooks are a wonderful reflection of that. You’ll see cookbooks devoted to temperance issues, cookbooks that show the movement westward, cookbooks that represent people living more and more in urban areas and the foods they should eat (rather than rural areas where foods may be more accessible).
They have recipes, but there’s often also other information: how to make soap, how to kill a particular insect, how to make fabric, how to stop a nosebleed. It was all in one resource. They frequently provide advice to women on how to set a table, what kind of utensils to use, how to organize the servants, how to organize the kitchen, and so on. It provides a wonderful window into everyday life.
There’s an interesting aspect of the Amelia Simmons book. Its just recipes, with a short introduction. But it’s signed by her as ‘an American orphan.’ She says in the preface that she wanted to put together some recipes for young women if they were ever in a situation that she was in, she was an orphan. So she didn’t have a mother to pass down recipes and teach her how to cook.
Most of the cookbooks, particularly in the early 19th century in the United States, were written by women. And back in the 19th century, the use of ingredients and measurements was not as closely watched as it became in the 20th century. They would just say put on a sprinkle of this or throw in a little bit of that, whereas in the 20th century, you began to see them getting more and more specific and the measurements becoming a lot more exact.
Collectors Weekly: Any advice for someone who’s looking to collect cookbooks?
Berg: It’s such a large field. Choose a particular cuisine or country or time period that interests you the most, and go for those. So if you’re interested in French cooking, you may want to ask, well, is it French cooking now or is it just Julia Child? My sense is to start out from something very specific and then grow from there. Otherwise, no pun intended, but it’ll eat you out of house and home because there are so many cookbooks out there.
We have one donor who, among other things, collects hotel cookbooks, cookbooks based on food that was served in a particular hotel. Another donor is interested in food and cookery ephemera. Food companies used to put these things out in great waves, and now of course they’re becoming quite rare, the older they are. A lot of people collect Jell-O ephemera. Some collect Quaker Oats ephemera, and we have a big collection of that too. They’re not only important for the food that they’re advertising, but also wonderful for the history of advertising, corporate history. There’re interesting things about typography and how a particular illustration is laid out.
People collect food related items at ephemera and paper shows, for example, but a lot of collecting is done on eBay now, over the Internet. I don’t know of any cookbook collecting clubs out there, however.
(All images in this article courtesy Peter Berg, Feeding America, and the Michigan State University Library)