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Historic Cookbooks Shed Light On Sustainable Past

By Sebrina Zerkus Smith |
As we study the ways past generations lived, farmed and ate, one thing is for sure... American has been blessed with clever and thoughtful cooks. And many beautiful, wonderful, educational cookbooks, too.

Where would we be without the cookbook? From The Virginia Housewife, first published in 1838, to Julia Child’s recently rediscovered Mastering The Art Of French Cooking to Top Chef: The Quickfire Cookbook, our love of food and all things food related consumes us.

But there is also much to be learned from studying the food prejudices and opinions of the past. And Michigan State University Museum is attempting to shine the spotlight on the evolution of America’s eating habits through a collection of hundreds of cookbooks which highlight our cultural heritage.

Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook Project is a marvelous treasure trove of practical information, interesting recipes and an enlightening look at how America’s attitude toward food and agriculture has changed - and stayed the same - over the last 234 years.

The project, which is a collection of cookbooks and antique cooking implements from the 18th,19th and early 20th centuries is a somewhat romantic look back at a time when typical cooking methods were simpler and more sustainable than today.

The cookbooks date back as far as 1798, and include descriptions and measurements that today’s reader probably wouldn’t even recognize. However, the value of such information is not prized for it’s historical perspective alone, but for the evidence of an America with a long history of economy, simplicity and desire for healthful, good tasting food.

The museum collection illustrates the diverse influences that effected the formation of American cuisine. From southern recipes, typical of many cookbooks following the Civil War, to New England style dishes, all seem devoted to economy and frugality.

The collection represents the many books on preparation, health, diet, nutrition, vegetarianism and scientific cooking methods which have influenced American eating habits.

Anyone who doubts that early Americans savored salads and vegetables can find many recipes for everything from artichokes, asparagus and broccoli, to eggplant, turnips, and tomatoes, and everything in between.

As we study the ways past generations lived, farmed and ate, one thing is for sure... American has been blessed with clever and thoughtful cooks. And many beautiful, wonderful, educational cookbooks, too.

Check out the collection of interesting antique cooking implements here.

Browse the entire cookbook collection here.



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  • Elaine F. 4 years ago
    good to know.
  • Dee R. 4 years ago
    I used ot have an old cookbook (I think it was from the Chicago Cooking Institute) from 1942 or 43, which included a "Wartime Supplement", whose recipes were how to cook pleasing food using the wartime rationing coupons. I got a really killer Vegetable Chowder recipe from it, which I still use.
  • Dorene P. 4 years ago
    I love this! I've ran historical cooking programs at a living history museum before and the old cookbooks can teach us so much! My focus was on cooking in the 1700's over a fire. The food is so good and the recipes let nothing go to waste!
  • Robert R. 4 years ago
    I wonder. If we follow those old recipies would we all have better health?