Women’s History Month, Part 12: M. F. K. Fisher (1908-1992)

M. F. K. Fisher (1908-1992). Photograph from book jacket of Here Let Us Feast, A Book of Banquets (1946)
M. F. K. Fisher (1908-1992). Photograph from book jacket of Here Let Us Feast, A Book of Banquets (1946)

This week, we’re circling back to an influential woman of the 20th century: M. F. K. (that’s Mary Frances Kennedy, all spelled out) Fisher. Fisher was born in Michigan in 1908, but grew up in California. Although she would return there to live several times over the course of her life, it was France that seemed to influence her most. Between 1928 and 1932, she and her first husband lived in Dijon. From 1936 to 1939, she lived in Vevey and Bern, Switzerland. For a short year in 1954-1955, she took her two daughters to live in Aix, France, before returning to California. Her final lengthy time living abroad was between 1959 and 1961, again in Switzerland and France, though she would take additional trips to France in the 1970s. She designed and built a house in Glen Ellen, California, in 1971. She named it “Last House,” and it did become her last permanent resident, until the time of her death in 1992.

Fisher had a prolific writing career that included a large number of books, essays, and reviews related to food and food history. During the 1940s alone, she completed six books that blended history, food, and food culture designed for a wide audience. (Her personality and wit jump off of many pages!) However, food wasn’t her only genre. She wrote autobiographical works, novels, and essays, too. Between 1942 and 1944, she was even a writer for Paramount Studios!

We are happy to have five of her books among our collection. One of the things I adore are her book covers. They range from simple drawings to collages of image, but they are always something eye-catching and intriguing.

Bibliography (Titles in bold are among our holdings at Special Collections):

  • Serve it Forth (1937)
  • “The Flaw” (1939) (essay)
  • Consider the Oyster (1941)
  • How to Cook a Wolf (1942)
  • The Gastronomical Me (1943)
  • Here Let Us Feast: A Book of Banquets (1946)
  • Not Now But Now (1947)
  • An Alphabet for Gourmets (1949)
  • The Physiology of Taste, Or Meditations on Transcendal Gastronomy (1949) (Fisher translated this new edition)
  • The Art of Eating (1954) (includes the text of Serve It Forth, Consider The Oyster, How To Cook a Wolf, The Gastronomical Me, and An Alphabet for Gourmets)
  • A Cordial Water: A Garland of Odd & Old Receipts to Assuage the Ills of Man & Beast (1961)
  • The Story of Wine in California (1962)
  • Map of Another Town: A Memoir of Provence (1964)
  • The Cooking of Provincial France (1968)
  • With Bold Knife and Fork (1969)
  • Among Friends (1970)
  • A Considerable Town (1978)
  • Not a Station but a Place (1979)
  • As They Were (1982)
  • Two Towns in Provence (1983)
  • Sister Age (1984)
  • Spirits of the Valley (1985)
  • The Standing and the Waiting (1985)
  • Fine Preserving: M. F. K. Fisher’s Annotated Edition of Catherine Plagemann’s Cookbook (1986)
  • Dubious Honors (1988)
  • Answer in the Affirmative & The Oldest Living Man (1989)
  • The Boss Dog: A Story of Provence (1990)
  • Long Ago in France: The Years in Dijon (1991)
  • To Begin Again: Stories and Memories, 1908-1929 (1992)
  • Stay Me, Oh Comfort Me: Journals and Stories, 1933-1941 (1993)
  • Last House: Reflections, Dreams and Observations, 1943-1991 (1995)
  • From the Journals of M. F. K. Fisher (1999)
  • A Stew or a Story: An Assortment of Short Works by M. F. K. Fisher (2006)

A few titles about Fisher:

  • Conversations with M. F. K. Fisher (1992)
  • A Welcoming Life: The M. F. K. Fisher Scrapbook (1997)
  • A Life in Letters: Correspondence, 1929-1991 (1998)
  • Measure of Her Powers : An M. F. K. Fisher Reader (1999)

The majority of these titles came from a wonderful bibliography of Fisher that is available online. In some cases, it includes brief descriptions of titles. The M. F. K. Fisher Foundation website also include tributes and biographical information–it’s worth a look!

I hope you have enjoyed reading our third year of Women’s History Month profiles as much as I have enjoyed writing them. But, of course, every week is an excuse for me to learn new tidbits from culinary history and to share stories with our audience! We’ll be back next week, perhaps with a little less seriousness and a little more frivolity. Until then, eat well!

Instruction, Reference, and the History of Food & Drink Collection

If it isn’t clear by now, there’s a lot I love about the History of Food and Drink Collection. In the last year, however, I’ve been especially excited about some emerging instruction opportunities. During the 2013-2014 academic year, I taught sessions that were both an introduction to Special Collections and an introduction to the History of Food and Drink Collection. One was a course on Food and Literature (we had two sections come to visit us, one in the fall and one in the spring). The other was a history seminar for undergraduates taught by Mark Barrow, Food in American History. It’s the latter I want to talk about today, because the work of students in that course led to a new acquisition for the collection.

Front cover of the collection of undergraduate student essays from HIST4004: Food in American History
Front cover of the collection of undergraduate student essays from HIST4004: Food in American History

Each student in the course wrote a paper on a topic of interest to them (relating to food in America, of course!). Over the spring semester, I was lucky enough to work with many of these students, whether it was helping them find an item for a blog post or helping with research for their paper. Each student kept a blog and all the blogs were consolidated into a single source. You can read that “mother blog” here: http://blogs.lt.vt.edu/foodhistory.

I’ve opted not to scan and share the essays themselves for a variety of reasons. I didn’t want to do so without permission, and several of the students have graduated already, making them tricky to track down. Also, I don’t think there’s an easy way to pick any one or two above the others. As you’ll see from the table of contents below, these students covered a variety of food topics relating to business, history, technology, legislation, and health. Their creativity and ideas were eye-0pening for me. As always, it was a great experience, too, because it meant I discovered new resources to help answer new questions.

There will be two cataloged copies of this publication soon, one in Special Collections and one in the circulating collection. So, whether you come here and visit us, or check out the other copy, I hope you find something to suit your taste. I know I did. 🙂

New Guide to Culinary Resources

Procrastinating Archivist Kira here. I’m still working on a post for this week. In the meantime, I wanted to share a resource I started developing last semester. The University Libraries have begun using LibGuides, an online tool that allows us to build topic, subject, and course guides. Since I love to experiment with new toys, I created “Food & Drink History Resources @Virginia Tech (and Beyond!).” This guide combines information about online and physical collections and publications we have here at Special Collections, as well as exhibits, digital collections, and physical collections at other institutions. I’ve also included a short list of sample food blogs (with more to come!). If you’re curious about our collection, this is a fun place to start. And if you’re wondering what other academic organizations are interested in food history, you can see that, too.

This continues to be a work-in-progress, as I add new resources, blogs, information, and soon, some images. Suggestions are welcome! Here’s a screenshot teaser of the first page:

Screenshot
http://guides.lib.vt.edu/specialcollections/foodhistory

Women’s History Month, Part 8: Amelia Simmons (fl. late 18th century)

Since last week, I’ve been running around with the idea in my head that I wanted to write about a first: namely, the author of the first known American cookbook, Amelia Simmons. We aren’t lucky enough to own an early edition of the treasured American Cookery, or the Art of Dressing Viands, Fish, Poultry, and Vegetables, and the Best Modes of Making Pastes, Puffs, Pies, Tarts, Puddings, Custards, and Preserves, and All Kinds of Cakes, from the Imperial Plum to Plain Cake: Adapted to this Country, and All Grades of Life (first published in 1796), but we do have a 1996 reprint of the second 1796 edition. (Oh, how I do enjoy a long cookbook title!)

Below I’m sharing the book itself, but profiling Amelia turns out to be a near-impossibility! Her history is gleaned in bits and pieces. There’s a wonderful biography of what is known and speculated about her online at the Feeding America project from MSU. I won’t re-hash it here, but it is a great read and I recommend it.

 

American Cookery was first published in 1796. The country was young, still creating an identity. American food culture, influenced by Simmons and some of her receipts, was developing right along with it. Certainly this and other publications relied on mostly British cooking and British cookbooks would remain popular and common in America for decades to come. However, Simmons’ receipts incorporated native ingredients, most notably cornmeal (Indian meal), and, by the 1798 edition, advice for how to improve access to resources for cooking (“The cultivation of Rabbits would be profitable in America”).  Simmon’s recipes include the use of pearl ash (also called “pot ash”), which functioned as a precursor to what we consider modern baking powder, still about 50 years ahead of her time. The final page of our edition also contains directions for “emptins,” an ingredient that worked as a kind of yeast. Simmon’s book wasn’t only about recipes, but cooking and baking as processes in the home. The 1798 edition offered was expanded to offer information on growing and choosing foods, as well as preparing them.

Feeding America has a digital copy of the 1798 edition online, for those of you interested in viewing the whole item and Project Gutenburg includes the text of the first 1796 edition, if you’d like to compare. Either way, this book offers us a great peek into the roots of American food and its history. Now, Independence Cake, anyone? 🙂

Thanksgiving and Virginia: A Brief History

Archivist/blogger Kira here again…Last week, I gave a talk for a Peacock Harper Culinary Friends luncheon, I started out investigating the question “was the first Thanksgiving [in the  modern United States] in Virginia?” Like many good research topics, the answer wasn’t a clear one. As a result, my talk became more a look at the early history and evolution of Thanksgiving as a holiday, and how I felt Virginia contributed to the holiday leading up to to the 20th century. A number of people asked for copies, so I thought I would post it here. 

This link should open a pdf in your browser that you can read, print, or download: ThanksgivingVirginiaTalk_Nov22,2013a

Many thanks to those of you who attended!

Culinary Cereals…Err, that’s Serials

If you missed the Special Collections Open House on September 3rd, don’t worry! You still have three more chances to visit us, see a selection of materials, talk with our staff, and even take a tour behind the scenes! Our next evening is scheduled for next Tuesday, October 1st, from 5-7pm. Come on by!


Last week’s almanac post got me thinking about serial culinary publications (aka food magazines). These days, they come in a variety of formats and with a wide range of emphases. Looking back at previous generations, you’ll see the same kind of variety, even in the same publication. While we don’t focus on collecting culinary magazines, per se, we do have some neat items on our shelves–i.e. What To EatWhat to Eat was Minneapolis based magazine from 1896-1908. (It later changed names and ran for a while as National Food Magazine). Sadly, we don’t have a complete run, but we have the issues from 1897.

January issue, front cover
January issue, front cover
April issue, front cover
April issue, front cover
May issue, front cover
May issue, front cover
Sample table of contents, February issue
Sample table of contents, February issue. This issue features an essay on hosting a Japanese-themed dinner. The cover and the table of contents are decorated with Japanese-style imagery.

The front covers all feature large color illustrations. Some relate to the time of year; others related to a particular item of interest within the issue. And they certainly are eye-catching. Even the table of contents for each issue features themed illustrations. Many other culinary publications at the time didn’t contain much color and those that did were often advertisements. Speakings of which…

Sample advertisements (throughout the issues, the same ads appear again and again).
Sample advertisements (throughout the issues, the same ads appear again and again).
More sample advertisements.
More sample advertisements.

Not only to the same ads appear again and again in each issue, but they address a VERY clear audience: middle-and upper-class ladies who can afford travel (EVERY issue includes train travel ads), servants, and a variety of food goods, and, in most cases, are also caring for a family in some way. But the meat (pun intended) of these publications is what’s between the advertisements: essays, poems, stories, nutrition advice, testimonials, letters to the editor and more!


Quite cleverly, What to Eat has a little something for everyone to read, enjoy, and entertain (including one certain archivist 116 years later!). Although we only have one year’s worth of issues in our holdings, it can offer some great insight in the American woman of 1897 and how she was targeted by publishers and advertisers. What to Eat doesn’t appear to have been scanned by anyone yet, so thinking about stopping by. And you never know, we might even have a volume out at our next Open House. 🙂

The Spices of Life

When it comes to cooking and eating, neither would be as interesting without spices! Ground or whole, seeds, pods, and leaves have a long and complex history with our favorite and not-so-favorite foods:

  • The Romans filled their sauces with spices.
  • During the Middle Ages, spices were a sign of wealth and largely only accessible to those of rank. The more elaborate the dinner and the more spices in your dishes, the more your guests were likely to “oooh” and “ahhh.” Of course, it also conveniently covered the taste of the rotting meat you may not have otherwise preserved.
  • Salt, common on our tables today, has been everything from a religious offering to a barter item to literally a guarded commodity, locked away in towers.
  • Many spices (and herbs) have medicinal values, in addition to their flavor powers!

This week, we’re featuring a spice supplier’s price list from 1899. This small publication from the collection contains photographs of the facility and testimonials from stores, in addition to the price lists themselves. The images above (click on the first image to bring up the gallery) include the title page, several photographs, and lists for a household spice, as well as as a few more exotic choices. It is worth noting that the title pages states “Quotations subject to fluctuations of the market” and the first page has hand-changed prices! Market values changed fast, which has long been a trend when it comes to the supply and demand of spices.

The Culinary History Collection includes a few cookbooks whose recipes are based around spices, rather than specific meals or ingredients. Although limited in number, they are a nice homage to the humble spices, from the bitter to the sweet. Like food, we have our favorites and our not-s0-favorites, but without them, life might be a little more bland. So when you’re in the kitchen today, be sure to spice it up, whether it’s plain old salt and pepper or saffron.

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Just a little update: About two hours after I posted this entry, a story popped up on one of my news feeds from Epicurious.com. Apparently, it’s National Pepper Week! So cracked those little white, pink, or black corns into your favorite dish!