Anyone who has ever visited a living history museum and enjoyed nibbling on historically accurate foods prepared by costume-clad cooks around a hearth has a cookbook collection at Michigan State University (MSU) to thank.
Twenty years ago, accessing authentic American cookbooks from the 18th and early 19th centuries was almost impossible without traveling to a library and donning nitrile gloves. Then, a small team at MSU using newly created technology changed all that.
Collection Created To Meet A Need
In 2001, Dr. Peter Berg, a professor and curator for MSU's libraries, had a goal: to make a collection of key volumes from the library's extensive historical cookbook collection available to anyone, anywhere.
Having previously worked with the Digital and Multimedia Center at MSU to digitize historically significant Sunday School manuals, Dr. Berg knew it could be done. When the opportunity arose to digitize another collection, Berg knew exactly which one to choose.
Made possible by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the painstaking digitization process took two years, finally reaching completion on August 31, 2003. What resulted was Feeding America: The Historic Cookbook Project.
The online collection of 76 cookbooks spans 1798-1922, with volumes selected to represent cultural trends. Accompanying the digital cookbook collection are photos of historical cooking implements that would have been used in home kitchens.
“We knew that we could do this, and we were very excited by this new technology that would allow us to digitize our material that otherwise people would have to come and visit East Lansing to see,” says Dr. Berg. “The study of food and cookbooks was really beginning to take off, and we just felt there would be an audience for this.”
There was indeed an audience. As word of the collection spread, the new, freely available resource began to draw users from a broad range of backgrounds.
Historical Interpreters Offer Visitors a Taste of the Past
According to the United States Forest Service, heritage tourism is one of the fastest-growing segments in the US tourism industry, with over 88 million people visiting historic sites each year.
At living history sites, visitors interact with historical interpreters dressed in period clothing as they demonstrate traditional skills like making soap and baking bread, offering a unique glimpse into a bygone lifestyle. For those in charge of the food experience, or Foodways, at these sites, having thousands of authentic recipes within instant reach has been a game-changer.
Old Sturbridge Village, a site in Massachusetts that recreates 1830s rural life, recently hosted a significant event where nearly every dish was created using recipes sourced from the Feeding America collection, says Victoria Haynes, Coordinator of Foodways there.
“The thing I love about Foodways,” she explains, “is when you come to a history museum, blacksmithing is cool, but most people will never do that. Cooperage is amazing, and it's magic, but most people will never do that. But everyone eats. Everyone sits at tables. Everyone eats. That is one of our consistencies throughout history. It's a thing that makes you and I able to sit down today and eat a meal and imagine the people who are eating that same meal years ago.”
Kevin Carter, Coordinator of Historical Foodways for Conner Prairie in Indiana, observes, “Food is a necessity of life that transcends time, space, and culture. It is a human connecting point. By studying the whats, hows, and whys of historical foodways, we can better understand the lifeways of our predecessors.”
Content Creators Dish Up 19th Century Life
Bringing historic American cooking to the public isn't limited to physical locations. In fact, Historic Cookery has become its own online niche.
“I absolutely love that resource,” says Justine Dorn about the Feeding America collection. Along with her fiance, Ron Rayfield, Dorn runs the popular YouTube channels Early American and Frontier Patriot, mesmerizing audiences as she calmly cooks early 19th-century dishes over an open hearth. She relies mainly on a volume published in 1796 called American Cookery by Amelia Simmons.
“I don't own a physical copy,” says Dorn, “So, I always reference that online source. Often, when I choose the recipe I want to cook that week, I scroll through every page online until I find a recipe that pops out to me.”
Old Cookbooks Tell History Through the Lens of Food
Researchers and students are among those grateful for easy access to primary documents. Kevin Carter observes, “The beauty of having original resources available online is that it has made research so much more accessible, efficient, and affordable…you don't even have to don nitrile gloves (or the cap and gown) to turn a page.”
Individual volumes from the collection highlight especially pivotal times. Helen Veit, a colleague of Dr. Berg's at MSU, specializes in American Food and Nutrition History. She pinpoints What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking as a text that uniquely illustrates the rapidly changing social landscape of the late 1800's. It was written by Abby Fisher, a former slave.
“Like many formerly enslaved people, she had left the South. And it was dawning on people by the 1880s that this body of plantation cookery had been done by people who had been kept purposely illiterate, and many of them have now dispersed,” Veit says.
“It's a celebration of her knowledge and expertise and also a celebration of antebellum life in the plantation household, which was in some ways at odds with her humanity. So there's this crazy tension at the center of the book–it's this fascinating document that has these incredible-sounding recipes that give both insight into the diaspora of enslaved people and to what it was like to cook in a plantation.”
Putting Historic Fare on the Home Table
A key feature that sets Feeding America apart from other sites that now offer digitized cookbooks is the careful curation that makes volumes easy to find while providing valuable historical context.
Victoria Haynes always points visitors to the Feeding America collection because it's easy to find and use. It delights her when guests feel compelled to try historic cookery.
“Isn't that the museum dream,” Hynes asks. “That we give people an experience meaningful enough that it continues, in any way, into their everyday life? For me, I think the ideal would be that people go home and they make a meal. They eat with someone they love. That someone they love could be themselves, that could be their children, that could be their family or friends. But they make a thing, and then they feel empowered, and then they maybe make another thing.”
Feeding America has been empowering users to do just that for twenty years now. With three to seven thousand visitors each month using the database, recipes from the early years of America's history are returning to tables across the country.
Future Expansion Would Extend Reach into the Past
Dr. Berg is humble when talking about the gratitude expressed by so many users who find the collection invaluable. “That's exactly what we wanted to do with the site, was to make it freely available and to have people from all different endeavors using it to benefit what they're interested in.”
Dr. Berg and Veit are now setting their sights on a new goal: to expand the collection even further. Together with Leslie McRoberts, the current curator of the collection, they've applied for a new grant to expand the collection by 115 more volumes, broadening the scope to reach from the 1790s to about 1960.
Dr. Berg says, “We stopped at 76 cookbooks, and we just felt that given its popularity and its usefulness among a wide variety of users, it would be incumbent upon us at MSU to expand it and enrich it.”