Academics and Research / Magazine

Food for Thought

The cookbooks in DU's Husted Culinary Collection create a fascinating history of the way we eat. Photo: Lambert/Archive Photos

When history graduate student Gabrielle Pieroni (MA ’04) presented her paper on the changes in societal expectations of women after World War I and World War II, she brought an exhibit to class: lilies sculpted from white bread, mayonnaise and egg yolks, with green onions for the stems.

The recipe was from a 1920s cookbook, one of more than 13,000 such tomes housed in the Margaret Husted Culinary Collection in the University of Denver’s Penrose Library. The book and others like it in the collection informed Pieroni’s thesis that the rise of convenience appliances after both wars added new jobs for women in the home, rather than freeing them up for other pursuits.

History Associate Professor Carol Helstosky, who regularly uses the Husted collection as the basis for research writing for graduate students and undergraduates, says it’s a great tool for teaching social history.

“You are peering into intimate details of how people live,” she says. “We work through some complex things [in class].”

Helstosky says students are sometimes overwhelmed by the breadth and diversity of the collection, which contains books from 1683 — The Way to Health, Long Life and Happiness by Thomas Tryon — to the present. Once they get over the information overload, however, they come up with some interesting research topics, she says. Those have included the introduction of Mexican food to a larger American audience —garnered partially from cookbooks published by Pace, of picante sauce fame — and the history of cocktails.

Papers often have looked at gender roles, as Pieroni’s did. Helstosky particularly remembers a paper showing a bridge from books on cooking wild game to backyard barbecuing guides that allowed men to participate in preparing food without losing masculinity.

Helstosky says the collection is a reminder that the current interest in local food and books such as Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Penguin Books, 2006) or Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation (Houghton Mifflin, 2001) are not as new as they may seem.

Read helpful hints from the Husted collection here

“People have always been very conscious of the place of food in their lives and how it fits in the larger [social] structure,” she says.

Steve Fisher, associate professor and curator of special collections at DU, uses two words to sum up his initial reaction to receiving more than 7,000 cookbooks as a gift to the library in the early 1980s: “Why me?”

For Fisher, whose area of expertise is crime in the frontier West, the idea of spending years cataloging cookbooks seemed like the worst kind of tedium.

“There was no subject in the world in which I was less interested,” he says.

However, as he spent the next five years cataloging the collection, he realized its value.

“I came to appreciate and love it,” Fisher says. “It’s very eclectic. It doesn’t have a narrow focus.”

Fisher particularly likes regional community cookbooks, with their recipes from home cooks in a given community.

“They’re local history. A lot of cookbooks were done by local church groups [to raise money],” he says.

He also enjoys those that encapsulate a particular era, such as Jean Dixon’s Astrological Cookbook (William Morrow, 1976), as well as humorous volumes like a poison cookbook titled Cooking to Kill (Peter Pauper Press, 1951).

Over the years, the collection has grown with new donations such as a 500-book gift from the late Denver Post food editor Helen Dollaghan. Today, the Husted collection is the fifth or sixth largest in the country and draws scholars from around the nation. Recently, Fisher says, an author from Virginia came to do research, since the collection had more books on Virginia cuisine in one place than did any library in her home state. About two dozen researchers use the collection every year.

Fisher says the library also serves as a community resource. “All the time [I get calls saying] ‘I need a recipe for burritos,’” Fisher says.

History Professor Helstosky says students, accustomed to doing research on their laptops with an idea already in mind, gain something increasingly rare — the serendipity of discovery — by experiencing the Husted collection in the stacks.

“It’s an invaluable experience for them to run their hands on the spines of cookbooks to see what’s there. Wandering that stack, they happen across something,” she says. “They say, ‘Bachelor cooking, what is that?’ Very few students have a solid idea of what they want to do before they go into the stacks.”

Sometimes a look through the cookbooks is poignant.

From the early 20th century, a time when having only one child was generally a misfortune rather than a family-planning decision: The Small Family CookBook, by Mary Denson Pretlow. On the flyleaf of the book, in perfect Palmer Method handwriting, the inscription reads simply: “From Mother, February 1915.”

For former student Pieroni, following the recipe for the white bread lilies gave her an insight into women’s roles at the time that reading alone could not.

“[Women] were expected to entertain, be an adjunct to their husband professionally. [Her skills] were a reflection on her husband,” Pieroni says.

For the recipe, Pieroni flattened the bread, coated it with mayonnaise and rolled it in the shape of calla lilies. She then made the gold-colored flower innards — tiny balls made from a paste with egg yolks — and mounted the bread flowers on the scallion stems.

“I assure you, it took flippin’ forever,” she says, “and it was not even the main course.”

The lilies didn’t even taste very good, Pieroni adds.

Whether very many women actually made such lilies is a good question. Pieroni points out that if people look at Martha Stewart cookbooks a hundred years from now, they won’t be able to tell how many women actually executed Stewart’s fussier recipes. However, she adds: “If the cookbook was published, it tells us something.”

Fisher, curator of the collection, says the cookbooks offer some larger truths about our culture.

“It’s history, what society is like at a particular time,” he says. “It’s not just how to make an omelet.”


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