Food as history
An alphabet of culinary traditions
by Laura Bien
Your mother's sauerbraten recipe on an index card. Nostalgia for nasi goring, a spicy Indonesian dish from an unspicy country with a colonialist past. A hankering for double-salt licorice. Given the cornerstone role of foodways in human cultures, it's no surprise that the U-M Clements Library's planned exhibition of nineteenth-century ethnic and regional cookbooks and related ephemera reveals surprising, forgotten facets of this country's culture.
Arranged from A (African American) to Z (Zuni corn culture), the show includes Malinda Russell's Domestic Cook Book. Unearthed by the Clements, this 1866 Michigan work claims the title of the country's earliest African American cookbook, an honor formerly held by Abby Fisher's 1881 What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking.
Another surprise is the biodiversity shown in a list of the fish available at a Rhode Island market. The eighty-six varieties listed include brill and the mysterious "frost fish" and "bulli eyes." Says exhibit curator Jan Longone, "It blows my mind."
The exhibit also offers aesthetic pleasures. Opposite the title page of Praktisches Kochbuch fr die Deutschen in Amerika there's a German cook's visage, so grim it suggests she owned a kitchen scale calibrated to thousandths of an ounce. There's also the famed 1903 "Settlement" cookbook, flirtatiously titled The Way to a Man's Heart (the right way, apparently - it's still in print). Fish-steeds swirl on an ad for salmon (pictured). There's even a rhymed recipe for chowder:
| First lay some Onions to keep the Pork from burning, |
Because in Chowder there can be no turning,
Then lay some Pork in slices very thin,
That you in Chowder always must begin,
Next, lay some Fish cut crossways very nice,
Then season well with pepper, salt and spice,
Parsley, Sweet Marjoram, Savory, and Thyme,
Then Biskit next which must be soak'd some time,
Thus your foundation laid, you will be able,
To raise a Chowder high as the Tower
repeating o'er the same again,
You may make Chowder for a thousand men.
Last, Bottle of Claret with Water eno' to smother them,
You'll have a Mess which some will Omnium gather 'em.
As Rhode Island boasted of its chowder, other regions boosted their regional cuisines, as in Cleveland's 1842 Every Body's Cook and Receipt Book: But More Particularly Designed for Buckeyes, Hoosiers, Wolverines, Corncrackers, Suckers, and All Epicures Who Wish to Live with the Present Times.
Longone's favorites? A sober treatise on orange cultivation whose cover and endpapers are merrily colored orange, and Michigan's first cookbook. Michael Miller's 1845 Detroit-published The Western Artist offered "300 choice recipes" for the delectation of Washtenaw County pioneer women, armed with balky wood stoves and a couple of cast iron pans.
The exhibition runs from March 26 through June 1.
[Review published April 2007]