The Schlesinger Library

Looking for resources to finish up those final papers? Check out the Schlesinger Library at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute.

With hundreds of volumes of cookbooks dating back to the 17th century and leading to the present, culinary magazines, and other periodicals, to manuscripts of world renowned and lesser known chefs, cooks, television personalities and restauranteurs the Schlesinger Library offers an interesting and diverse sojourn into the American culinary landscape. Here, researchers can follow the development of cooking techniques, the introduction of and popularity of new ingredients in American cooking overtime. Get answers to questions like how have the menus for holidays and special occasions evolved since the 18th century? What were the most popular seasonal foods in 19th century New England? And really, when did green casserole become a thing?


One of the largest and most well-known collections here is that of American born French Chef, Julia Child. In her more than 100 boxes of material are correspondence, audio visual material from television shows, journals and of course recipes! Her papers not only tell her personal story as a woman, wife, and chef but that of a changing American food culture. Her efforts simplified and made French cuisine more accessible to the American cook and complicated the American palate.

Amidst the vast publications, advertisements, audio-visual material and large collections like that of Julia Child is one of our smaller collections that explores the introduction of Chinese cuisine to the American food culture. The “Frist Lady of Chopsticks”, Grace Zia Chu, is largely credited with making Chinese cuisine more accessible to the American home cook. Born in Shanghai China in 1899, Grace came to the United States to study physical education at Wellesley. As a student there, she was often homesick and to remedy her longing she began experimenting with Chinese cooking styles using local ingredients. After graduating and getting married she returned to China where she taught physical education. When her husband was called to Washington, DC in 1941 to serve as a military attaché to the Chinese Embassy Grace began instructing the officers’ wives who were interested in learning Chinese cooking.

Madame Chu stressed the cooking technique rather than the ingredients that made a meal uniquely Chinese. She taught her students about the variety of Chinese cooking from region to region. It was in 1954 that she was established as Chinese cook when she was invited to teach at the China Institute in America (New York). By 1962, Grace published her best seller The Pleasures of Chinese Cooking. In this and subsequent publications she provided pictures and anecdotes to the recipes simplifying the food preparation methods. One of the most important aspects being the use of high heat. This lead to her being a spokesperson for the American Gas Association and a short film based on the book in 1963.

Like Julia’s papers, Graces, although limited also tell of more than her personal journey with cooking. One tidbit that is included in her papers is a story of the advent of the Fortune Cookie. According to the notice from the San Joaquin Valley library system the fortune cookie was part of the charitable works of Los Angeles Restaurant owner David Jung. After World War I, Jung would see passersby that needed food and encouragement. After trying many recipes he found the perfect cookie and included scriptures and encouraging words given to by a local clergyman. This staple in American consumption of Chinese food was born in LA as an offering. Many more interesting developments and customs of American food culture have been chronicled in the collections at the Schlesinger Library. Come explore the food culture material in our archives, you never know where the journey will take you!

Kenvi C. Phillips, PhD
Curator for Race and Ethnicity
Schlesinger Library
Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study
Harvard University
3 James Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
617 834-8550

Summer Research Project: Cuisine de mères: Apprenticeship, Gender and the Construction of Culinary History

image via antiqua print gallery
image via antiqua print gallery

Congratulations to Rachel Black for being awarded the Culinary Trusts’ 2013-2014 Julia Child Independent Study grants. This support will allow Dr. Black to go to Lyon, France to conduct summer research on an important, yet neglected chapter in twentieth-century French culinary history–the cuisine des mères. This project offers insight into a moment in postwar France in which women maintained a privileged position between the two worlds of domestic and professional cookery.
image via Cuisine Plurielle
Photo of Jacotte Brazier via Cuisine Plurielle

Who were these mères? In the early twentieth century, affluent bourgeois households in the Lyon area employed women cooks who became known for their refined cuisine. After World War I and the economic crash of 1929, most families could no longer afford to keep a cook. Finding themselves without work, some of these women opened small, family-run dining establishments, which served simple yet perfectly prepared cuisine. Notable among these was “La mère Brazier” (Eugénie Brazier) who was the darling of the French restaurant critic Curnonsky and the only woman to ever earn three Michelin stars for two of her restaurants. Dr. Black’s research project looks at how women like Brazier, collectively known as ‘les mères’ (the mothers) in French culinary circles, brought their knowledge of local cuisine into the public sphere and raised these culinary traditions to new heights. It was during the interwar years that cuisine bourgeoise, previously only attainable in privileged private households, became available to the public, largely thanks to the women cooks who had been the keepers of these culinary traditions. The work of these women and the apprentices that they trained had an important influence on the construction of Lyonnais and French cuisine after the Second World War.
Postcard featuring la Mère Fillioux carving one of her famous poultry dishes.

Dr. Black will focus on the rise to prominence of the mères lyonnaises in the otherwise male-dominated professional kitchens, and it will look at the reasons why male chefs eventually eclipsed these women. Through archival research and oral history interviews with family members and the chefs who apprenticed with the mères, she will not only seek to answer the question, ‘Why have the mères largely been written out of French culinary history?’ but will also take important steps to writing them back in.

This guest post is brought to you by Barbara Rotger and Rachel Black.