Food in the library: Cookbooks in the Benson Ford Research Center

You might expect the library and archives of The Henry Ford to have books relating to automobiles, but did you know we also collect books on American food history? The Benson Ford Research Center has over 800 food or cooking-related books, including many cookbooks. The Henry Ford collects cookbooks because, like the automobiles, furniture, and other artifacts that are out on the museum floor, cookbooks tell a story about American life at the time when they were produced.

The earliest cookbook in the collection is a handwritten one from 1724. It belonged to Mistres [sic] Jean Brown who called it her “Paistry Book.” In colonial America, recipes were usually passed down by word of mouth. It was not until the late 18th century that the first American cookbook was published. The honor of being the first published American cookbook author goes to goes to Amelia Simmons who published American Cookery in 1796. Simmons’ cookbook includes a few recipes unique to America, such as recipes using cornmeal as an ingredient.

Another significant early American cookbook is The Virginia Housewife, or Methodical Cook by Mary Randolph, first published in 1824. Randolph included some Southern recipes such as “ochra” soup and catfish soup. Of course, anyone who is familiar with Greenfield Village will know of Mrs. Fisher’s Southern Cooking, a lunch stand that offers Southern favorites such as fried catfish and hush puppies. What you might not know is that Mrs. Fisher’s is named after Abby Fisher, one of the first African-American cookbook authors, who published What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking in 1881.

During the 1870s and 1880s, several cooking schools were opened in the United States. Fannie Farmer began her career as a cooking teacher at the Boston Cooking School and eventually published The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book. After its publication in 1896, it was the most popular cookbook in the United States for 35 years. To this day, it has been through several editions and has been reprinted many times.

Cookbooks in the Benson Ford Research Center

Cookbooks in the Benson Ford Research Center

In addition to these older cookbooks, The Henry Ford has many cookbooks from the 20th century and is continuing to collect into the 21st century. Though the cookbooks held in the Benson Ford Research Center are non-circulating, anyone is welcome to view them in the reading room. You can also explore the Historic Recipe Bank online, which was developed by Jeanine Head Miller, Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford. It’s a great way to learn more about the cookbooks in the Benson Ford Research Center and access recipes from these books.

With Thanksgiving and the holiday season just around the corner, I’m sure food is on many people’s minds, so it only seems appropriate to leave you with a recipe.

1 pound onions
1 tablespoon ground cloves
4 pounds cranberries
1 tablespoon cinnamon
2 cups water
1 tablespoon allspice
4 cups sugar
1 tablespoon salt
2 cups vinegar
1 teaspoon pepper

Peel onions and chop very fine. Add cranberries and water and cook until tender. Rub through a sieve. Add remaining ingredients and boil until thick, stirring occasionally. Pour into hot sterilized jars and seal. Makes about three pints. Serve as a relish with poultry or meat.

(From The American Woman’s Cook Book, edited and revised by Ruth Berolzheimer, 1943)

NOTE: If you intend to follow the final step of this historic recipe, which involves canning, for safety’s sake, please consult up-to-date guidelines such as those issued by the National Center for Home Food Preservation.

Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook Project

Historic Recipe Bank

Longone, Jan. American Cookery: The Bicentennial, 1796-1996: An Exhibition of 200 Years of American Cookbooks at the Clements Library, August 15-November 1, 1996. Ann Arbor: William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan, 1996.

Longone, Janice Bluestein, and Daniel T. Longone. American Cookbooks and Wine Books, 1797-1950. Ann Arbor: The Clements Library & The Wine and Food Library, 1984.

By Linda Choo, a librarian at The Henry Ford

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