Graduating Project | Barbara Rotger’s How to Read a Recipe Box: A Scholar’s Guide

Edna Abenss recipe box

by Barbara Rotger

Both my grandmothers’ recipe boxes sit on top of the bookshelf in my office, and the first paper I wrote as a student in the Gastronomy program was an analysis of these, plus I few others I have acquired as a result of an eBay habit. More accurately, this first paper was an attempt at such an analysis. Looking back at it, I see that it was not my best work. The truth is, recipe boxes and their kin — manuscript recipe books and recipe scrapbooks — are not easy sources to work with, if you can find them at all. They usually lack any kind of organizational structure, including indexes and page numbers, and often feature crumbling newspaper clippings or illegible handwriting.

You might ask, “Why not just use cookbooks?” After all, a number of scholars have done very interesting work in this area, especially with community cookbooks.  There are some very good reasons to look at recipe collections instead. To me, this difference can be summed up as follows: cookbooks say, “This is who we would like you to think we are” while recipes collections say, “This is who I am.”

Working my way through the program, I periodically returned to the idea of using personal recipe collections as sources and developed my own informal methods for approaching them. As a student in Professor Glick’s cookbook seminar I realized that there was a need for a more structured approach. My thesis project represents an attempt to do just this: develop a comprehensive methodology for analyzing personal recipe collections as historical, cultural and gendered artifacts.

Sample documents from Irene Millss recipe box

The idea of considering personal recipe collections as artifacts rather than as texts is critical to my approach, and leads me to borrow from the techniques of material culture. It can be reduced to a three-step process: description, induction and speculation.  A critical point is that this is inductive research. I do not start by proposing a hypothesis and setting out to prove or disprove it. Rather, inductive research starts out by looking at the body of data available and asking (inducing) what it means.

In my thesis, I walk the reader through two examples to demonstrate this technique. First, I examine a recipe scrapbook that Isabella Ward of Brooklyn, New York, began in 1915, and look at the impact that World War I food policies had on her cooking.  My second example is a comparison of two recipe boxes from central Iowa, one belonging to Edna Abens, begun in the 1930s, and the second from Irene Mills, who started collecting about forty years later. I considered how these women’s roles, particularly as food providers, changed over time and surprised myself with the conclusions I drew. Let’s just say I have come to think of Jell-O salads and cream-of-mushroom-soup casseroles in a whole new light.

The interesting thing about inductive research is that another scholar might use the same set of data (the recipe collections) and come up with an entirely different analysis.  For example, the Isabella Ward’s book contains a number of recipes for wine, and I could have considered this fact in light of its prohibition-era provenance. Similarly, I might have looked at the two recipe boxes and pursued questions regarding religious beliefs, ethnic identity or social class. The possibilities for exploring personal recipe collections are immense. I have become an evangelist for this cause, and hope to inspire other to go “read” a recipe box.

5 thoughts on “Graduating Project | Barbara Rotger’s How to Read a Recipe Box: A Scholar’s Guide

  1. What an interesting post. I must admit i kept getting more and more drawn in as i read more. Your work is fascinating and intriguing, I know nothing about gastronomy but the whole idea of presenting a research paper on recipes is just awesome. Please advise me on where i can read more about the subject.

    1. From Barbara Rotger: I am glad your found the work interesting and are interested in further reading. There are a number of collected works that explore how recipes and/or cookbooks are used by scholars, including Anne Bower’s Recipes for Reading: Community Cookbooks, Stories, Histories; Sherrie Inness’ Kitchen Culture in America, and Janet Floyd and Laurel Foster’s The Recipe Reader: Narratives, Contexts and Traditions. And, while I don’t necessarily agree with her methodology, Janet Theophano’s work, Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives Through the Cookbooks They Wrote, was an inspiration for me to explore the subject more thoroughly.

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