This post was written by Nina Nazionale, Director of Library Operations.
With the approach of the winter holidays, many of us find ourselves flipping through recipe books we’ve compiled over the years—a motley mix of cards and sheets, handwritten and typed, photocopied and downloaded, clipped from newspapers and magazines — while also searching through cookbooks, magazines, websites, and blogs, for new inspiration. And we are reminded of recipes we’ve been given by family and friends, their names written or typed across the page. For as long as recipes have been written down, they have been shared.
Throughout the library’s collection of nearly thirty manuscript cookbooks and recipe books are many recipe attributions. We know, for instance, that the recipe for plum cake in the cookbooks of Caroline Butler Laing (1860s) came from Mrs. Collins; the dough-nuts from Mrs. Conklin.
The predominance of cakes and baked goods in Butler Laing’s cookbooks is typical of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when recipes for dishes made day-in and day-out were committed to memory, and only recipes used on special occasions were written down.
Also within the manuscript cookbook collection are recipes for drinks, like these for spruce and common table beer. In the John Neilson recipe book. Spruce and pine were used to flavor and preserve beer when hops were not available. They also supplied a large dose of Vitamin C at a time when scurvy was still a concern. But, in honor of the holidays, why not hoist a few pints of spruce beer cheer?
Neilson, like Butler Laing, followed the tradition of crediting the sources of recipes not his own. Mixed in with recipes for food and drink are those for medicinal cures and remedies as well as household solutions such as dentifrices, soaps and pesticides. Home recipes for non-culinary concoctions were common at the time, and are found throughout the collection. What distinguishes Neilson was his role as a doctor and consulting physician for the Northern Dispensary in New York City and, in connection with that, his sale of patented, and popular, remedies, among them: “Dr. Neilson’s Carminative,” “Dr. Neilson’s Vegetable Digestive Pills,” and “Dr. Neilson’s Bilious (or Black) Pills.”
While the majority of the library’s manuscript recipes are from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a cache from the 1950s through 1970s can be found within the New York Exchange for Woman’s Work Records (1878-2003). In addition to a consignment shop, the organization ran a highly successful restaurant, the proceeds of which funded their charity work. The tradition of acknowledging the source of a recipe is evident throughout the collection, as are culinary trends, market prices, and notes on seasonal availability of ingredients. It is the combination of all these details, along with the mix of handwriting, annotations made to improve the recipes, and the rejiggering necessary to feed large groups of people, that makes this collection a wonderful, captivating mess, and one well worth exploring.
These are just a few examples of the library’s manuscript recipes, all of which can be identified through the library’s online catalog and viewed in our reading room. To-date only the Duane family cookbooks, 1840-1874, have been digitized. Link to those from the catalog record or search for them in the library’s collection of digitized American Manuscripts.
All of the library’s manuscript cookbooks produced prior to 1865 are also listed within the Manuscript Cookbook Survey, a valuable resource for those interested in manuscript cookbooks specifically.