Penn Library Exhibitions

HOUSEHOLD WORDS: Women Write from and for the Kitchen


The Esther B. Aresty Rare Book Collection on the Culinary Arts comprises cookery manuscripts and published books of recipes, etiquette and household advice. Spanning an historical period from the earliest printed folios of the fifteenth century to the more recent and familiar volumes of the twentieth century, the books represent cultural and geographical diversity ranging from Europe and the New World to the Far East.

The Aresty Collection's abundance of literature for, by, and about women provides us with an opportunity to explore, reconstruct, and imagine the domestic lives of women. The exhibition celebrates women's accomplishments in these genres: some who achieved prominence and fame and others who did not but who read as well as wrote cookery books and other household manuals. The books, written by authors of diverse backgrounds, were directed toward women whose labor--both paid and unpaid--had consequences for entire households. Thus they learned how to prepare foods, medicines, and other domestic necessities for their families' survival. Engaged in this form of vernacular writing, authors and readers alike became skilled in far more than household tasks, enriching their own and others' lives.

While women in Europe and America have been associated primarily with domestic cookery, by contrast, men have, until recently, predominated as chefs in the public, ceremonial, and professional domains. Thus, cookbooks were initially written by men for professional chefs. However, in the seventeenth century, men--and on occasion, women--began to write for ladies and gentlewomen as well. Starting in the eighteenth century, more books written by women were directed toward the ordinary housewife and household servants. Here was an instance of women entering the professional domain of culinary writing and transforming that domain for domestic life. Some of these successful authors set the stage for aspiring writers; others established models of housewifely decorum to emulate. In America, by the middle of the nineteenth century, books for domestic use were primarily written by women; in fact, women dominated the market of household literature as author, reader, and subject.

The craft associated with cooking provided both married and unmarried women with opportunities for education and development. Through activities connected with food and cookbooks, women worked together for charity and created powerful support networks to benefit each other as well as their neighbors, friends, and communities. In so doing they all contributed to the shaping of family life, and helped create local, regional, and national cultures.

At a more intimate level, manuscript recipe books--also known as "receipt" books--and printed cookbooks also provided women the opportunity to read, write, and reflect, and to engage in reverie and fantasy while working in the kitchen. Every cookbook opens a door to a collective culinary memory; each is also the expression of individual creativity. This literature--of the everyday and of the domestic--obscures the boundaries of private and public, of self and other, of cerebral and corporal. As much recipes for living as formulae for cooking, cookbooks serve as forums for the discussion of the conduct of life. Even the most pragmatic of books alludes both to a moral world and to an aesthetic to be tended. Although their most salient function is to provide instruction in the domestic arts, cookbooks and household manuals have been used in subtle and ingenious ways by women, who, living within the constraints of their respective eras, used these texts to examine and shape their own lives.

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