Penn Library Exhibitions

HOUSEHOLD WORDS: Women Write from and for the Kitchen

Remarks at the Opening of the Aresty Collection Exhibition, 10 April 1996
It is a pleasure to welcome you to the opening reception of the Aresty Collection of Rare Books on the Culinary Arts. It has been my pleasure to curate the exhibition presented to you this evening.

The Aresty Collection is vast, spanning five centuries and representing cultures from nearly every part of the world. The books written by both men and women provide us with material enough for many culinary and social histories from many points of view.

The exhibition presented this evening is only a portion of the entire collection. I have selected from the Aresty's books those which shed light on women's history, work, and lives. The exhibition focuses on women's writing and use of cookery and househ old books. I approached these texts from two vantage points. First, I wanted to learn about how the book was received. I wanted to understand the reader's response to such writings. What did the reader do to "personalize" the texts? How did this sha pe their reading [and culinary] experiences and how did it affect subsequent communities of readers? (Hindman 1991:15) In fact, much current research on the history and impact of printing focuses on these issues. Second, I wanted to understand the motiv ation of the women who wrote the books: Who were they? Why did they write? What else did they do? And how did the author-cook and reader-cook interact with one another through these texts? Were women's lives enhanced by this form of writing and activity? And if so, how?

My own interest in cookbooks--both manuscript and printed--began with a chance discovery several years ago. While browsing in an antique shop, I stumbled across a book of writings. At first glance, the book reminded me of a journal or a volume of poetry. When I looked more closely, I discovered that what I had found was a collection of recipes. What was most intriguing about this handwritten volume with a section of clipped recipes pasted onto the pages of what had once been a telephone directory w as the absence of the writer's name. After I bought the book for a dollar--the shop owner was reluctant even to ask for that much money--I returned home and searched it for a clue to its writer's identity. I found none. I wondered how many women had kept recipe books such as these. And for what purposes did they keep them? What role did such writing play in women's lives? I was struck not only by the recipes, their titles and ingredients but by the other information contained in the book. Letters, poems, loose recipes on used scraps of paper, devotional texts, a list of books and rhymes, and several pages of names and addresses of people unknown to me and in unspecified relationships to the writer. Perhaps it was a church group or members of a choir? What was unsettling to me was that although I could conjecture something about this woman's life--her participation in some religious or church-related activity, her social network, that she had children and a husband. I did not know who she was. I wondered how many books like this were anonymous; how many had been discarded, lost or destroyed because they were considered unimportant; how many were written intended for publication or were they most often to be kept in families and given as lega cies to children; were some of them meant to signal class and rank and act as symbols of wifely and maternal devotion. Were they read? And if so, by whom?

Since that time I have found a few nineteenth and early twentieth century cookery and household books which I have bought but not with a rare book collector's eye or purpose. I wanted to see how the books had been altered and fiddled with, how they had b een marked by the reader's sensibilities? Had the writers, in fact, created "cookbooks" of their own?

When I was asked to curate the Aresty Collection I was given the opportunity to explore these questions and more. These treasures of culinary literature were written by women and men who became prominent through their writings. I was eager to learn more about them. I also wanted to understand the relationships of the famous authors and their influential texts to the societies in which they lived, and the women whose lives they touched.

The exhibition does not begin to answer these questions; rather, it is an invitation to you the audience--the viewer--to find your own set of questions and your own vantage points from which to study these books.

I have been thrilled to work with the Aresty Collection--books I might otherwise never see or touch. And thrilling is the only word to describe it. I am, above all, grateful to the Arestys for their gift to us and to Mrs. Aresty for her thoughtful and brilliant selection of these books. I wish to say thank you the staff of the Department of Special Collections for their guidance and support. I was a newcomer to this task.

I wish also to thank my colleagues in the College of General Studies for giving me the time to work on this project. Many friends listened and read drafts of the texts. Thank you. To the students who worked with me, my deepest gratitude. And to Jeff Shultz--no words possible.

There is much more to learn from these books: political, economic, social, cultural, and linguistic histories are charted and documented in these texts. Needless to say, so too, are at least several histories of food, cooking and other arts of the table.

The books are here now and waiting for you--the next generation of readers, researchers, and cooks.

--Janet Theophano

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