A Database of 5,000 Historical Cookbooks–Covering 1,000 Years of Food History–Is Now Online

As you know if you’re a read­er of this site, there are vast, inter­ac­tive (and free!) schol­ar­ly data­bas­es online col­lect­ing just about every kind of arti­fact, from Bibles to bird calls, and yes, there are a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of cook­books online, too. But prop­er search­able, his­tor­i­cal data­bas­es of cook­books seem to have appeared only late­ly. To my mind these might have been some of the first things to become avail­able. How impor­tant is eat­ing, after all, to vir­tu­al­ly every part of our lives? The fact is, how­ev­er, that schol­ars of food have had to invent the dis­ci­pline large­ly from scratch.

“West­ern schol­ars had a bias against study­ing sen­su­al expe­ri­ence,” writes Reina Gat­tuso at Atlas Obscu­ra, “the rel­ic of an Enlight­en­ment-era hier­ar­chy that con­sid­ered taste, touch, and fla­vor taboo top­ics for sober aca­d­e­m­ic inquiry. ‘It’s the baser sense,’ says Cathy Kauf­man, a pro­fes­sor of food stud­ies at the New School.” Kauf­man sits on the board of The Sifter, a new mas­sive, mul­ti-lin­gual online data­base of his­tor­i­cal recipe books. Anoth­er board mem­ber, sculp­tor Joe Wheaton, puts things more direct­ly: “Food his­to­ry has been a bit of an embar­rass­ment to a lot of aca­d­e­mics, because it involves women in the kitchen.”

Luck­i­ly for food schol­ars, the sit­u­a­tion has changed dra­mat­i­cal­ly. There are now over 2,000 his­tor­i­cal Mex­i­can cook­books of all kinds online at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas San Anto­nio, for exam­ple. (The UTSA is busy curat­ing and trans­lat­ing hun­dreds of those recipes into Eng­lish for what they call a “series of mini-cook­books.”)  And schol­ars of food his­to­ry may have to be pulled away by force from The Sifter, a vast, ever-expand­ing Wikipedia-like archive of food research.

The data­base col­lects “over 5,000 authors and 5,000 works with details about the authors and about the con­tents of the works,” the site explains. “The cen­tral doc­u­ments are cook­books and oth­er writ­ings relat­ed to get­ting, prepar­ing, and con­sum­ing food, and the activ­i­ties asso­ci­at­ed with them, as well as writ­ings about cul­tur­al and moral atti­tudes.” Like Wikipedia, users are invit­ed to sub­mit their own data, which can be edit­ed by oth­er users. Unlike the pub­lic ency­clo­pe­dia, which we know has seri­ous flaws, The Sifter is over­seen by experts, and inspired by none oth­er than the expert Julia Child her­self, or at least by her library.

Although the Sifter does not con­tain actu­al texts or recipes, it does col­lect the bib­li­o­graph­ic data of thou­sands of such books, a trea­sury for schol­ars, researchers, and his­to­ri­ans. The pri­ma­ry force behind the project, Bar­bara Wheaton, was a neigh­bor of Julia Childs’ in the ear­ly 1960s and used Childs’ library and Har­vard University’s Schlesinger Library Culi­nary Col­lec­tion (where she is now an hon­orary cura­tor) to become “one of the best-known schol­ars of culi­nary his­to­ry.” Her sto­ry illus­trates how a recent wealth of culi­nary schol­ar­ship did not just sud­den­ly appear but has been ger­mi­nat­ing for decades. The Sifter is the result of “Wheaton’s 50 years of labor.”

Wheaton launched the site in July with the help of a team of schol­ars and her chil­dren, Joe and Cather­ine. The Sifter con­tains “more than a thou­sand years of Euro­pean and U.S. cook­books, from the medieval Latin De Re Culi­nar­ia, pub­lished in 800, to The Romance of Can­dy, a 1938 trea­tise on British sweets.” It also col­lects bib­li­o­graph­ic data on cook­books, in their orig­i­nal lan­guages, from around the world. Wheaton hopes The Sifter will gen­er­ate new areas of research into the his­to­ry of what may be at once the most uni­ver­sal of all human activ­i­ties and the most cul­tur­al­ly, region­al­ly, and his­tor­i­cal­ly par­tic­u­lar. Per­haps a sil­ver lin­ing of so many years of schol­ar­ly neglect is that there is now so much work for food his­to­ri­ans to do. Get start­ed at The Sifter here.

via Atlas Obscu­ra

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Archive of Hand­writ­ten Tra­di­tion­al Mex­i­can Cook­books Is Now Online

His­toric Mex­i­can Recipes Are Now Avail­able as Free Dig­i­tal Cook­books: Get Start­ed With Dessert

An Archive of 3,000 Vin­tage Cook­books Lets You Trav­el Back Through Culi­nary Time

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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