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Grolier Club Exhibitions

Peter I. Berg

I collect cookbooks, specifically early American cookbooks. My interest began over 30 years ago when, as head of Special Collections in the Michigan State University Libraries, I was charged with overseeing a new, substantial endowment to build and strengthen an already existing cookery collection. Thanks to this endowment and the generosity of many other donors, the collection today numbers over 30,000 cookbooks and food related items, drawing students and researchers from all over the world. While the collection represents cookbooks from as early as the 15th century and cuisines from all seven continents, my personal interest was always in early American cookbooks, when the young nation was growing and constructing an identity, which included their abundant sources of food and what they ate as Americans. For many years, cookbooks like these were viewed as ephemera, filled only with long forgotten recipes and directives of seemingly little historical value. Nothing could be further from the truth, for cookbooks provide windows into our past with rich glimpses of daily life and how the nation and its people were changing. Although relatively few exist today, they were produced in the tens of thousands and used repeatedly, passed down through generations and many different hands. They were used, which for me only makes them more valuable as guideposts for the deep study of our past and those who came before us. 

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The United States practical receipt book: or, Complete book of reference, for the manufacturer, tradesman, agriculturist or housekeeper; containing many thousands valuable receipts, in all the useful and domestic arts, by a practical chemist. 

Philadelphia: Lindsay & Blakiston, 1849. 

There were a number of early American cookery books like this one that were encyclopedic in content, but none by “a practical chemist,” which helps explains why there is, alongside a recipe for “Currant Wine,” also one for “Clark’s Process for making White Lead (American Patent.)”  Indeed, similar chemical recipes for industry and trade outweigh ones for food and gardening. Nevertheless, the boldness of the title alone suggests a country hungry for all types of information, whether to feed and care for a household, or establish a new trade or business. It was a nation on the move. 

Peter I. Berg