Program Title: What We Can Learn from Manuscript Cookbooks
Speaker: Stephen Schmidt
Date: November 13, 2014
Location: Mount Vernon Hotel Museum

Manuscript write up

The printing press was a great innovation in disseminating culinary knowledge, but it took centuries for printed books to displace the handwritten manuscript in kitchens. Indeed, from the middle of the 16th century to the beginning of the 20th, many women (and a few men) of the English-speaking world compiled recipe collections in bound notebooks. These manuscript cookbooks hold a wealth of information absent from most printed cookbooks, such as clever shortcuts, ingredient substitutions, the types of meals at which dishes were served, and fashionable ways of presenting dishes. Stephen Schmidt, the principal writer and researcher for the Manuscript Cookbooks Survey, a forthcoming website that will feature a database of pre-1865 English-language manuscript cookbooks held in U.S. libraries and other institutions, has been intimately involved in studying these manuscripts for the clues they contain about actual culinary practices, the level of culinary and cultural knowledge the cook possessed, and the (changing) material culture of the kitchens in which these manuscripts were used. Among the insights that Schmidt offered was the observation that wear and tear on manuscripts, like cookbooks, tells us which recipes were popular and considered successes; with the advent of the internet and searchable recipes that are printed out and discarded after smeared with batter clinging to a cook’s fingers, or studied from an iPad in the kitchen, we are losing valuable, nonverbal evidence of actual kitchen practices.

Most importantly, we were treated to the vibrant and rich tastes of seventeenth and eighteenth century Anglo-American cookery, with a bracingly spiced cake and a magnificent behemoth of a Great Cake, studied with currants and redolent of rosewater. Great Cake recipe.