Penn Library Exhibitions

HOUSEHOLD WORDS: Women Write from and for the Kitchen

A Book of Her Owne

Leafing through the brittle and grease-stained pages of cooking volumes is much like peering through a kitchen window: the recipe book alludes to meals and events, people and places, successes and failures, joys and sorrows, lives and deaths of those loved and known. The kitchen is a place where momentous events are recorded; it is a place for recollection.

After years of daily use, the cookbook becomes a memoir, a diary--a record of a life. Several of the cookbooks in this collection are manuscripts kept by one woman; others represent the work of "several hands." In their recipe books women shared with one another the secrets of a tempting dish or an efficacious remedy. In these pages they acknowledged one another and their relationships as guests, friends, family. A letter requesting a recipe could initiate a friendship, describe the hardships of families traveling west, incur debts or repay them, signal trust, or simply name and acknowledge others to whom the letter writer was connected. Attributions marked the number and prominence of one's kin and friends, demonstrating the breadth of a social network and one's standing in it. A collection of recipes compiled over the course of a lifetime was emblematic of the social circles through which an adult woman traveled. The handwritten notes were visible tokens of the people who contributed to a woman's personal collection. Letters, poems, and other ephemera were inserted between the pages, in the hope of some day finding a more permanent home. The attributions noted in a cookbook were symbols of affection, esteem, and bonding. Recipes and meals often gave women a common topic for conversation and correspondence despite differences in age, region, or class. And the presence of a handwritten receipt book or a printed cookbook demonstrated to others a woman's commitment to her "sacred duties." Indeed, the receipt book became a representation of the self, a symbol of maternity and femininity, of a woman fulfilling her wifely obligations.

If the reader is also the writer, then the text is accessible for remembering: "My sister Margaret Jumbles" evokes moments of intimacy and sharing. For the stranger the task is more fanciful--to imagine the smell, the feel, the taste, and the look of a finished dish. Not only did the household books contain verses of poetry and rhyme, but even the language for cooking instruction was lyrical. Consider, if you will: "Beat nutmeg in a mortar," "Add butter the size of a walnut," "Gather tansy with dew at dawn in the first week of May," "The most perfect remedy for the bite of a mad dog . . . ."

After printed cookbooks became more available to a wider public, women used published texts in much the same way as their predecessors had used the handwritten receipt book. Housewives edited, compiled, pinned, and pasted on to the existing printed pages the recipes they had received, clipped, or otherwise collected from various sources. The women inscribed their names on the front cover or the flyleaf and bequeathed the book to the female next of kin. In this way, they created their own lineage--to pass on what they knew and what was theirs--a book owned, a life lived, and a legacy passed on--never to be forgotten.

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