Marylène Altieri, library curator, opens the small, manilla-colored paper box one flap at a time. In it sits one of Schlesinger Library’s many copies of The Eskimo Cookbook, a red paper volume produced in 1970 by the Inupiat students of the Shishmaref Day School in Shishmaref, Alaska. According to Altieri, the students were tasked with bringing family recipes to school, where the instructions were transcribed, hand-illustrated, and attributed to each student by name. Altieri flips through the fragile pages, showing me recipes for caribou gravy, blueberry and cranberry jam, walrus stew, and salted herring. She points to a note in Nellie Okpowruk’s recipe for bear feet.
“I love that comment,” she says. “‘Most of the people like bear feet better than the meat.”’
Measuring only four-to-five inches in height, The Eskimo Cookbook is one of the Schlesinger’s more diminutive volumes, but Altieri soon shows me one that’s even smaller. This one is thick and bound so tightly in brown leather that it is difficult to open. It was printed in 1562, only about a hundred years after the printing press was invented in 1450. Though it isn’t the most ancient volume that Schlesinger holds, it is the library’s oldest cookbook.
“The first 50 years after  are considered to be the ‘cradle of printing,’” Altieri says. “So it’s not long after [printing was invented], and they’re already printing cookbooks.”
Altieri is the Curator of Books and Printed Materials at The Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, which holds more than 100,000 volumes in its collections. Approximately 20,000 of those volumes are cookbooks or food-related. Its culinary collection includes cookbooks, food history volumes, archival materials like culinary marketing pamphlets, and correspondence and other personal effects of chefs and food writers like Julia Child and her editor Avis DeVoto.
Today, it is considered one of the world’s most outstanding collections of historic cookbooks and food-related materials, and its acquisition and growth closely mirrored the geneses of both the women’s history movement and the food studies movement. The collection spent decades on the fringes of The Schlesinger with little curatorial support, but as food studies grew as a field, so did the collection’s relevance. Though many initially disputed the collection’s academic merits, it now seems emblematic of the way the academy has changed in recent decades; it is a testament to many fields’ fights for legitimacy.
Though it would eventually become world-renowned, the culinary collection had humble roots. In the summer of 1960, Widener Library sent almost 2,000 historic cookbooks from their stacks to the Schlesinger –– which, at that point, was named The Women’s Archives. The collection of “American, English, and other foreign cookbooks” dated from 1723 to the present and had been housed in Level D, the deepest level of Widener’s sprawling stacks. The transfer was briefly noted in the Women’s Archives Annual Report from 1961 by library director Barbara M. Solomon, who explained her reasoning for accepting the transfer; given that the library was dedicated to documenting the history of women in America, she believed that cookbooks would provide important insight into women’s daily lives.
The transfer was not without controversy. Solomon spoke about the acquisition at Lady Bird Johnson’s second White House Luncheon for “Lady Doers” on Feb. 19, 1964. Her remarks, printed in The Women’s Archives’ 1964 report, describe a woman in the first row who “[shook] her head most visibly and [said], ‘Cookbooks, indeed. WE weren’t interested in cookbooks!’” Solomon insists that this woman was wrong; the Schlesinger was, in fact, interested in cookbooks.
Widener and its patrons, however, did not seem to be interested. “People could go [to Level D] and use [the cookbooks], but nobody did,” Altieri says. “And Widener decided all on its own without consulting anybody over here to send the collection. They didn't just offer it, they actually packed it and sent it to Schlesinger library.” Barbara L. Haber, former Curator of Books, suggests it transpired differently, that Widener staff discussed the transfer with Solomon.
Widener, however, has little to no record that the transfer ever took place. Widener’s 1961 report mentions moving collections from Level D because the building was full, according to Research Librarian for Virtual Reference Emily Bell. Though some of the collections are named, the cookbooks are not. At the time of the transfer, The Women’s Archives were not part of the Harvard University Library system, so the oversight might have occurred as a function of the books being moved to an entirely different library network. It might also have occurred because the cookbooks weren’t deemed important enough to mention.
At the time of the transfer, the Schlesinger Library was small. Women’s history was an emerging scholarly field, and there was little widespread use for a library that focused almost exclusively on the history of American women.
“People thought it was kind of a joke. ‘What's women's history?’ Nobody came. It wasn't viable,” says Haber, “And all of a sudden the second wave women's movement came along and the library was the place to go for anybody wanting material to teach from, to write from, to get book ideas from. It became, overnight almost, a remarkable place for historians of women to come and gather.”
Haber began working at the Schlesinger in 1968 after earning her Master’s Degree in Library Science from Simmons University. During her first job interview with then-director Janet James, she noticed that the shelves in James’ office were full of cookbooks. When she asked why James had not mentioned the cookbooks during their interview, James told her the story of the Widener transfer and admitted that not much was being done with the collection at the time. Haber, who had her own sizeable collection of cookbooks at home, was intrigued.
Through her work acquiring materials for the fledgeling field of women’s studies, Haber was able to discern the foundations of another academic movement: food studies. She then felt able to “strike out and develop that part of the collection” — the cookbooks. She got permission to found an organization called the Radcliffe Culinary Friends. People from the Cambridge area joined for semesterly programs that featured chefs, food historians and writers, and restaurant critics. Membership dues went towards purchasing new materials to add to the collection, though the vast majority of the collection was acquired through donation.
Many of the collection’s foundational historic cookbooks were donated by Marietta M. Greenough, a cookbook author who published under the pseudonym Mary Green and the wife of Harvard professor Chester Greenough. Greenough bequeathed her cookbooks to Widener in her will –– every book she donated contains her bookplate, an illustration of a massive kitchen manned by several cooks, above the text “Marietta Greenough, ex libris.” Another crucial collection came from Julia Child, whose French and American cookbooks make up a significant proportion of the Schlesinger’s holdings. Some other significant donors were Julia Child’s longtime friend and culinary editor Avis DeVoto, historian and writer Barbara Ketcham Wheaton, cookbook writer Narcissa G. Chamberlain and her husband Samuel Chamberlain, and anthropologist Sophie Coe.
“The library did not devote a lot of money to building the collection,” Altieri says. Instead, its growth was piecemeal. “We’re very fortunate to have these [books], as we could never afford to buy them. Culinary books have become incredibly valuable in the antiquarian book dealers market. So some of the books sitting on this table would now cost thousands of dollars to acquire.”
“Barbara Wheaton had a wonderful expression that she used once to describe how our collections grew,” she says. “She said, ‘We stood in the rain with our mouths open.’”
As the collection grew larger and started receiving more attention, it also grew more contentious. Like the woman in Barbara Solomon’s story who audibly scoffed at the mention of cookbooks, several of the Schlesinger’s curators felt that the collection should not have been as prominent as it was.
“It got everybody mad at me at the library...They thought it was taking something away from them,” Haber says. “But they didn't understand that it was all part of women’s history, not either-or.” Culinary history, Haber notes, was an expansive field in and of itself, but she felt it “certainly related to the mission of the library.”
While the collection is most directly relevant to the study of women’s history, several of its materials can be used to study other social phenomena as well, including racial and socioeconomic inequality. “The Blue Grass Cookbook” by Minnie C. Fox is a particularly interesting example. Fox, a white Kentucky socialite raised on a plantation, published the book in 1904, less than 50 years after emancipation. All of the book’s recipes were created by African American cooks –– many of whose parents had been slaves, or who had once been slaves themselves.
The book includes photographic portraits of several of the cooks next to the recipes that they created. A few photos name their subjects. On one page, Marcellus stands next to a towering pile of chopped wood. In another, Aunt Frances smiles as she sits with a cast-iron pan of potatoes on her lap, knife still poised above the half-peeled potato in her hands. According to the University of Kentucky Press, which published a reprint in 2015, the Blue Grass Cookbook is the first known work to give credit for Southern hospitality to African American cooks. Yet we don’t know the surnames of any of the cooks in the photos, and many of them are not named at all.
This book, an imperfect representation of African American cooks, illuminates one of the library’s current goals: to bring more underrepresented voices into its collections, and to feature these voices more prominently. Curator Kenvi Phillips has played a significant hand in achieving this goal. She was hired in 2016 as the Schlesinger’s first Curator of Race and Ethnicity and has since worked on acquiring the collections of women like Angela Y. Davis, Dorothy I. Height, and Cheng Imm Tan. Though she has not worked directly with the culinary collection, several of her purchases were added to the collection, and she affirms its importance to the overall goal of the library.
“Food history generally in ethnic and cultural studies is incredibly important. Almost everything can be done with food. Social hierarchy, social interaction, access to ingredients, economic status,” Phillips says.
Even though the culinary collection is much more accepted by today’s generation of Schlesinger curators, it –– and food studies in general –– still deals with criticism from the larger academy. The term “food studies” only came into widespread use in 1996, so it is still a fledgeling discipline. Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures Janet Beizer teaches courses that often deal heavily with food history. She says that others sometimes view her work as non-academic because culinary matters are seen as “the equivalent of the domestic sphere in the world.”
“In fact, women's scholars have often spoken quite defensively to me if I try to talk about food,” she says. “They'll say, ‘Oh, I don't go there. I write books. I don't talk about food.’ Making it into a binary. And, I like to think, ‘I write books. But I also talk about food.’ Food is something we take into our bodies, into our mouths. The psychoanalytic, the anthropological, the literary, the theological components are just manifest. And so I have a hard time accepting intellectual second-ranking of the alimentary. So for me, it's not just food –– it's eating as process.”
In her work, Beizer aims to illustrate the gender bias in food studies while showing that it’s an intellectually viable field. “There’s no binary opposition of the craft of cooking and the art of thinking about food.”
While Beizer’s advocacy for food studies grounds itself in the theoretical significance of the discipline, several of the collection’s holdings make a concrete case for themselves by virtue of time’s passage. While it has always carried cultural importance, the Eskimo Cookbook now carries greater weight beyond the confines of the food studies discipline. Due to climate change, the island of Shishmaref is eroding into the sea — the coastline is disappearing at a rate of up to 10 feet per year. The federal government ordered the town’s residents to evacuate to the mainland several years ago, the town finally voted to move in 2016.
“The permafrost that they're using for some of the recipes in the book isn't even there anymore,” Altieri says. “This is the only published item that has come out of that community. So this cookbook has just become the most precious document about the culture.”
—Staff writer Anna Kate Cannon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @akec_