Imagine that you could search for blancmange recipes from cookbooks written from the fourteen through twentieth centuries at the touch of a button. Imagine that you could, at the touch of your keyboard, analyze when chicken breast went out, ground almonds, came in, rice became a popular ingredient, and when vanilla was introduced to this evolving food by the name of blancmange? Imagine you could search for different cooking techniques, or different equipment, or changes in names of dishes, and compare them across language groups? This is the promise of The Cook’s Oracle, a database of historical recipes that has been the culmination of a life devoted to culinary history by Barbara Ketcham Wheaton.
Armed with a fabulously-illustrated PowerPoint, capturing some of her earliest computer records (those of use conscious in the 1960s and ’70s may remember cumbersome stacks of punch cards that were ‘read’ by computers), Wheaton explained the challenges and joys of assembling information from 600 years of historical cookbooks into a database that will be housed at the Radcliffe Institute’s Schlesinger Library and will be available to researchers worldwide. The project continues to grow, as Wheaton is recruiting volunteers to enter data from additional cookbooks, especially in languages other than the English, French, Dutch, Italian, and Spanish that Wheaton has already plumbed.
What better way to celebrate The Cook’s Oracle than to prepare recipes from historical cookbooks, one for each century represented in the database? Thus, we enjoyed 14th century meatballs “endured” to look like golden apples, sweet buns studded with dried fruits and fennel from the 15th century, 17th century deviled eggs, chocolate lady fingers from the mid-18th century, and savory anchovy canapés from the 19th. But the biggest surprise to many was this late 16th century English tart that combines apples and oranges, fragranced with rosewater.