Don Lindgren Explores the Anatomy of a Cookbook

by Barbara Rotger

Like family bibles and favorite children’s books, cookbooks are often singled out in the home for special treatment. They are kept separately from other books, passed down from generation to generation, with each caretaker inscribing his or her own name within it. However, unlike other treasured volumes, users regularly mark these texts with their own corrections or commentary, adding whole new sections or boldly crossing out recipes that have proved unsuccessful. Years of heavy use are reflected in repairs, occasionally made by professional binders, but more frequently accomplished with tape or needle and thread, providing a tangible link between the craft of cooking and other household crafts.

Don Lindgren, proprietor of Rabelais Fine Books on Food & Drink, made these points in his lecture “The Anatomy of a Cookbook: The Useful Object and Its Users.” This was the first talk in this year’s Jacques Pepin Lectures Series, offered by Boston University’s Programs in Food and Wine. Lindgren emphasized use of the term “object” rather than “text” in his title, noting that there are many aspects of cookbooks that scholars can learn from that beyond lists of ingredients and instructions for their preparation.

Referencing the methodology that historian Barbara Ketcham Wheaton presents in her seminar on Reading Historic Cookbooks, Lindgren encouraged the audience to look for details such as the number of ingredients a cookbook calls for, the source of those ingredients, and the kind of environment they might reflect. Scholars should also consider evidence of the range of equipment in use and the people involved in preparing food – from heads of households planning menus, cooks who prepared them, and the merchants, foragers and farmers who supplied the ingredients.

Lindgren pointed out the importance of considering the motivations of the publisher or author. Cookbooks do not just exist IMG_2361as a vehicle to share recipes; authors may seek to gain publicity for themselves, raise funds for a cause, or support advertisers. The use of pseudonyms is common in cookbook publishing. Lindgren illustrated this point with an example, noting that a volume published by the “Society of New York Gentlemen” sold far more copies after the author’s name was changed to the fictitious “Priscilla Homespun”.

In another example of cookbook sleuthing, Lindgren showed how a bookseller’s ticket, affixed to the inside of a collection of cocktail recipes that was published in 1862, shed light on another historical moment. This slip of paper, pasted inside the cover of the book, indicated that the volume was sold in a shop in Havana that was in business from 1873 to 1877, providing evidence that contradicts the conventional wisdom of when cocktail culture developed on the island of Cuba.

After his talk, participants were invited to examine a number of cookbooks from Lindgren’s shop. Many took home a catalog and went home inspired to consider the “useful objects” on their own kitchen shelves in a new light.

An Intense Week of Jewish Food Culture

by Andrea Lubrano

Alumna Andrea Lubrano describes her exploits during the week-long Tent: Food NYC, exploring Jewish food culture in New York City from October 19th through the 26th, 2014. 

group picNew York City, a land made up of culinary diversity, was host to twenty remarkable individuals this past October during the first Tent: Food NYC, a program of the Yiddish Book Center. Hosted by The Center for Jewish History and led by Lara Rabinovitch, the Food Editor of Good Magazine and the “Queen of Pastrami,” this week-long intensive seminar had the best itinerary this gastronome could hope for. Plus, I got to share my most profound interests with likeminded individuals, who in one way or another understand the significance of food as a tool to preserve and enrich our cultural heritage and that of others.

Although this week, as one would imagine, explored specifically Jewish food culture in New York, it did so strictly under the parameters that Jewish food culture, like that of the Irish or Italians, is of equal significance to the fabric of the city, so there was little to no religious undertone.

chineseTo give you a re-cap of my week, every morning, more or less, we began our day defining the diversity of Jewishness in the realm of food traditions. We reviewed historic Jewish cookbooks and recipes held in the special collections library at the Center for Jewish History and also got a private showing of the menu and cookbook collection held at the New York Public Library.

We had a challah and babka workshop at Breads Bakery, went on a Lower East Side food crawl that included all the greats like Katz’s Deli, Russ and Daughters, Yonah Schimmel’s Knishes, The Pickle Guys, and Kossar’s Bialys, to name a few. We met Lior Lev Sercarz of La Boîte NYC, a master in spices and the senses.

challahWe had a cooking demonstration with Eli Sussman, the head chef at Mile End Deli. We learned some pitching tips from a lecture with Gabriella Gershenson, the Food Features Editor at Every Day with Rachel Ray. We also went on a tour of Little Odessa and Brighton Beach with Knish expert Laura Silver, learned about MAZON, a national non-profit organization that works on ending hunger, and had a lecture with Mitchell Davis, Executive Vice-President of the James Beard Foundation, about the future of our food and the importance of intertwining flavor and health into the larger conversation.

I’m most definitely forgetting some other wonderful and informative events, probably because the week was so engaging and full of enriching experiences.

criscoAs if the daytime schedule wasn’t eventful enough, all the participants were required to dine together every night of the week. And further encouraged to talk to a different participant as a way to keep the group dynamics flowing. A memorable dinner, aside from the tasting at Bar Bolonat and the meal at La Vara, was probably our Shabbat dinner, where all twenty of us shopped, cooked and cleaned for a home-cooked-family-meal.

All in all, this experience has truly given me a whole new perspective on the revival of Jewish food in the U.S., which being a non-Jew I initially thought only encompassed matzo ball soup and pastrami sandwiches. Thanks to Tent, today I know that Moroccan tagines, Iraqi qatayef, borscht, mamaliga and kvass have more than one culture associated with them. At the heart of the Jewish diaspora live the roots of their culinary diversity, making Jewish food as geographically specific as that of any immigrant American. If you haven’t already looked up this wonderful program in the hopes of joining their next seminar, I’m sure the fact the program is completely free of charge will encourage you to do so. There are also fashion, creative writing, museums, journalism, pop music and comedy workshops under the Tent umbrella (www.tentsite.org/).