Recently the New York Times published a piece on the “Cook’s Oracle”, an historical cooking database that has been a five decade long work of scholarship (and labor of love) of Barbara Ketcham Wheaton. Wheaton is a food historian and worked for 25 years as a curator of the culinary collection at the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies. In the Cook’s Oracle, she has gone back centuries to patiently and persistently cataloge recipes, ingredients and food techniques with the goal of doing so for all of the cookbooks printed in North America and Europe. To date she has logged the contents of more than 3,400 cookbooks with more than 130,000 records. The possibilities for research are intriguing, particularly with the recent growth of historical work being done by ethnographers and food historians.
Wheaton’s work inspired me to visit the oldest cookbooks we have at the GHL and in the NC Digital Collections. Looking at some of the earliest from the 19th century gave me a taste of the magnitude of her project. For example, these cookbooks — frequently handwritten — are notable for the absence of the precision of modern recipes with their measurements, tools, process, temperatures, and timing. The Polk Cookbook , dated 1858 and from the collection of the State Archives, is a perfect example. Handwritten by Mary Williams, mother of President James K. Polk’s sister-in-law Lucy, the book includes culinary recipes as well as cleaning and medicinal concoctions. Some that might today even come under the heading “don’t try this at home.” If you’re up for experimenting with these artifacts with holiday desserts in mind, try Transparent Pudding” or “Bread Pudding”. (On the same page of the volume, Williams also includes a recipe for traditional mince pies, made with beef.) (See the image at top right for recipes and link to the cookbook.)