“Reading Cookbooks as Sources for the Study of Social History”

A food historians’ workshop with Barbara Ketcham Wheaton

Report by Gary Draper

Gary is Acting Chair of the Department of English, St Jerome's University, University of Waterloo

“Take your hare and parboil him, then beat him in a mortar very fine, liver and all if you will.”
Thomas Dawson, Good Huswife’s Jewell, 1587

Barbara Ketcham Wheaton

Barbara Wheaton
(Photography courtesy of Gary Draper)

On a Monday morning in Toronto – November 5th to be precise – a dozen people were looking at cookbooks. Now, all around the planet, there are people looking at cookbooks all the time. Zillions of them. But the people I’m talking about were really looking at cookbooks: looking closely, carefully, even – sometimes – painfully. (Imagine staring at a recipe written in Old English, with its unfamiliar vocabulary, and letters like “ash” and “thorn” borrowed from the runic alphabet.)

We were gathered in the Round Room at University of Toronto’s Massey College for a week-long workshop, under the tender and exacting care of Barbara Ketcham Wheaton. Ms Wheaton is a scholar of international reputation, and the author of Savoring the Past: The French Kitchen and Table from 1300 to 1789 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983), as well as two cookbook bibliographies and many articles. She is honorary curator of the Culinary Collection at the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, Harvard University. Her acolytes, all CHC members, with various interests and experiences in culinary history (writers, historic site interpreters, academics) were assembled to participate in “A Food Historians’ Workshop: Reading Cookbooks as Sources for the Study of Social History.”

Text Box: Apple Pye  (Photograph courtesy of  Fiona Lucas)  (apple potato pie.jpgThe night before, we had met at the Fort York 1826 officers’ mess for a dinner of, well, historic proportions, prepared for us by several Volunteer Historic Cooks, notably Mya Sangster and Amy Scott, who participated all week. Highlights of that meal might include the Fricassee of Neat’s Tongue (1796), Apple Pye with Potatoes (1755), and the Tamarind Tart (1833). Oh, and the French Flummery (1756). And the Shrewsbury Cakes (1800). You get the idea.

Here’s how the workshop ran: each day, each participant was assigned one cookbook to study with one very particular focus in mind. The cookbooks were many and various, ranging from the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries. And what were we looking at?

Day 1: The Ingredients
Day 2: The Cook’s Workplace
Day 3: The Meal
Day 4: The Cookbook as Genre
Day 5: The Writer, Reader, Cook, and Eater

Mya and Barbara.jpg







Text Box: Mya Sangster and Barbara Wheaton  (Photograph courtesy of Gary Draper)


The virtue of this approach was that it forced us, the readers, to concentrate our attention in a very particular way. There was always a temptation to move into the next stage, to blend ingredient with tools, for instance, but Ms Wheaton was strict on this point, and the results, I think, justified her carefulness. Even though all of us were familiar with at least some of the books, our understanding of each text was transformed by the extreme narrowness of vision which this method compelled us to employ. It was like examining a sculpture by touch alone, say, with your eyes closed: the object remains the same, but you know it in a new way.

After the first day, the pattern was this: individual reports on previous day’s findings; Ms Wheaton’s brief introduction to the new day’s topic; independent study (and occasional collaboration) with the newly assigned work. Ms Wheaton’s astonishing collection of images of historic foodways was constantly running on her computer nearby. We were immersed.

It is impossible, of course, to summarize a week’s worth of challenge and enrichment and the sheer joy of learning in a thousand-words-or-less. But we did pursue a few persistent themes. One was the voice of the author. It became plain, as the week progressed, that the books we most enjoyed almost always had a unique and identifiable voice: the pathological clarity of Miss Parloa, for instance, as she laid out the ideal kitchen, down to the details of bookshelf (for cookbooks, of course), and the pot of fresh flowers, or the voice of the anonymous author of a fourteenth-century cookbook, speaking the language of Chaucer, with muscular verbs and beautiful, obsolete nouns. It became plain that, as the centuries advanced, the level of detailed instruction increased. We knew or suspected this before, but we relearned it down to its DNA as we combed and recombed the texts. We saw the way technologies entered and altered the kitchen; we saw changing social hierarchies and relationships; we saw the patterns of interna-tional trade reflected in the spices used for a sauce. Of course we saw tastes change, across both time and distance. We saw New World foods shipped “home” to the Old World, and then come back again. We glimpsed a changing relationship between the cook and the creatures, in the way a pronoun for a chicken diminishes, over time, from “him” to “it.”

And finally, from the first day to the last, there was the pure pleasure of Barbara Wheaton’s guidance and company. She has, it turns out, a glorious gift for the concise, telling turn of phrase, and many of us found ourselves swapping favourite Wheatonisms at the course’s end. Since they were ringing in my head as I left Toronto, I’d like to leave a few ringing in yours now:

  • “You want to knit the books back into the world they came out of.”
  • “Now it’s allergies; then it was dyspepsia.”
  • “The real world is untidy.”
  • “When you want stuff that the book is withholding, you must surprise it when it’s not looking.”
  • “We are not the first to noun verbs. Or to verb nouns, for that matter.”

And my favourite, in response to a question about whether or not it is possible to freeze Seville oranges: “You can freeze your sneakers – but you can’t eat them afterwards.”

Thanks, Barbara. Thanks, everyone.

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