by Lucia Austria
Barbara Rotger knows that there is more you can learn from a recipe than just how to cook a Thanksgiving turkey, or the best pecan pie. Cookbooks have been a focus of research for cultural studies scholars, picking apart recipes to understand the diet of a particular society. In her November 6th talk sponsored by the Culinary Historians of Boston held at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute Schlesinger Library, Rotger suggested the limitations of studying cookbooks. She argued that recipe boxes have the potential to reveal true ideas of what types of food past societies prepared and ate. She reminded us that cookbooks are prescriptive literature—“If cookbooks are saying, ‘this is who you should be,’ and community cookbooks say, ‘this is who we would like you to think we are,’ then recipe boxes get you closer to ‘this is who I am.’”
Rotger’s talk was not only a journey through a random recipe box she acquired from eBay, but through a research process inspired by her own grandmother’s recipe box that turned into her BU Gastronomy Master’s thesis project. She recognized a dearth in recipe box related research, and therefore, a lack of methodology. According to food writer Sandra Oliver, scholars are “put off” by the thought of using recipe boxes as a subject of study. Indeed, they would be a history student’s nightmare, as there are no page numbers, no indexes, are difficult to date, and often fragile. Rotger knew these boxes had untapped potential for understanding history and set out to develop a methodology.
Using her acquired eBay recipe box that came from an estate sale in Iowa, Rotger described how she was able to mine the box for information in efforts to establish location, time period, and identity of the owner in order to put the box into context. Rotger used a material culture approach through inductive research by observing and coding information and recognizing patterns before coming up with a tentative hypothesis and developing a theory. She categorized cards into type of dish (dessert, side dishes, salads, soups, meats, etc.), recipe format (handwritten, clipped from newspapers or clipped from products), and recipe date, if any. What aided Rotger in establishing a date and location for the recipe box were the non-recipe items included, such as addressed envelopes, calling cards, and a graduation program. With this information, Rotger pulled census data and was able to identify that the box belonged to Mrs. Edna Abens who lived with her husband and son Pocahontas County, Iowa during the 1930s.
This discovery allowed Rotger to ask the question, “How did women in 1930s rural Iowa live?” By comparing her findings against current historic research on the lives of early 20th century American women in the domestic realm, Rotger concluded that Edna was an independent woman who “provisioned her family in a manner that required knowledge, skill, and planning.” Edna did not fit the bill as the “dainty” housewife who fussed over gelatin-molded salads, an image promoted by popular home economists at the time. For Rotger, “Edna’s recipe box reflects a different kind of cuisine than that described by scholars using other kinds of sources.”
Rotger’s thesis project demonstrates that the fields of food studies and material culture studies have plenty room for new inquiries. Breakthrough research can come from your own personal questions about culture, even from your grandmother’s kitchen.
Lucia is a Gastronomy student and Fall 2012 Editor of gastronomyatbu.com. Her research focuses on food and Filipino-American identity.