A cookbook is a historical and political document. Think about it. Pick up any cookbook and you will learn as much about the economic forces of its time as you would from any history book. What do the recipes tell you about the demographics of its preferred audience? What is their class? Their social standing? How accessible are the ingredients and challenging the preparation? I’ve often wondered why definitive histories of a period tend to leave out the goings on in the kitchen. If we don’t know what people were eating and how their food was prepared during this war or that upheaval, we’re missing a big piece of the pie, so to speak. Browse the cookbook shelves of a bookstore and you learn about current economic and social trends; visit the shelves of your local library and you’ll be amazed by once popular diet trends that are now obsolete.
A sub-genre of cookbooks that can teach us about the time in which they were written is the “charity” cookbook compiled by women and sold in order to raise money for a cause. The first such cookbook was A Poetical Cookbook, written over 150 years ago for the 1864 Sanitary Fair, to support those wounded, widowed or orphaned by the Civil War. The practice of selling cookbooks to raise money has thrived ever since.
Jan Longone, curator of American culinary history at the University of Michigan Hatcher Library points out that no matter what the specific cause for which charity cookbook raised funds, the underlying purposes began as “women helping themselves, helping other women to help themselves, helping still other women help themselves and finally blossomed into women taking on the role of helping to solve all societies ills. All the time learning how to organize, to write, to publish, sell ads to sell cookbooks to run a business and to network.” In other words, the making of a lowly cookbook helped women develop life-saving skills.