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Feb 19, 2013 03:20PM

Peek into the past: Web project allows readers to uncover to culinary history


By Annie L. Scholl
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University of Iowa Special Collections
Louis Szathmary, a chef, teacher, writer and philanthropist who ran The Bakery, a Chicago restaurant, from 1963 to 1989.
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University of Iowa Special Collections
Page 50 from a collection of recipes belonging to Alice Eleckta Picard, one of 20,000 cookbooks given to the University of Iowa special collections by the late Chef Louis Szathmary.
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University of Iowa Special Collections
The first page of an American cookbook dated 1838-1851 containing a recipe for wafers, among others. The collection is one of 20,000 cookbooks given to the University of Iowa special collections by the late Chef Louis Szathmary.
Kathrine Moermond doesn't equivocate. "I love food," she says. "I love researching the history of different foods and cooking methods. I love trying old recipes to see if I can get a glimpse of what types of food and types of tastes might have been eaten and enjoyed 50, 80 or 100 or more years ago. For me it is a gateway to history and I love that."

Moermond, education and outreach coordinator at the University of Iowa's Old Capitol Museum, found an outlet for her passion after the University of Iowa Libraries acquired more than 20,000 cookbooks donated by the late Chef Louis Szathmary of Chicago -- some of which date back to the 17th century -- and came up with a 21st century method of making them accessible to the public.

To create a searchable database of recipes, the special collections staff at the library has been scanning the cookbook pages and posting them online, where members of the public can help transcribe the recipes written or printed on each page.

Like many others, Moermond logged on to the university's DIY History site (diyhistory.lib.uiowa.edu), went to the page containing the Szathmary Culinary Manuscripts, and started typing. Motivated by the recipes she was helping transcribe, Moermond also helped start the Historic Foodies Group.

When she reads a recipe dating back hundreds of years, Moermond says she's "inspired" by the variety of ingredients, the handwriting, the "curious" titles, and the occasional notes about "an ingredient, someone or something." That often leads Moermond to do additional research about ingredients in the recipes -- ingredients that are known to promote good health, aid digestion or prevent ailments.

"I think that our ancestors had a special knowledge about cooking, preparing and raising food, and how food affects our bodies therapeutically, that had been handed down from each generation to the next," she says. "I feel as though our society today, because of the amount of processed food that is consumed, is suffering from a sort of cultural amnesia, and much of this knowledge has been forgotten or ignored."

A wealth of cookbooks and recipes

The Szathmary Collection has items spanning four centuries. It includes more than 150 handwritten cookbooks as well as many of Szathmary's recipe boxes, all collected by a man described in a 1996 Chicago Tribune article as "a larger-than-life chef, teacher, writer and philanthropist" who ran The Bakery, a Chicago restaurant, from 1963 to 1989. After he sold it, he became chef laureate at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I.

Szathmary was also notable as a "bibliophile in the truest sense," according to Colleen Theisen, outreach and instruction librarian in special collections at the U of I. "He loved books and amassed a warehouse full of them, particularly those representing culinary history."

Johnson & Wales houses the majority of his collection, but Szathmary also donated to other institutions. Theisen says he likely chose Iowa because of his relationship with William "Bill" Anthony, a world-famous bookbinder who was working at the U of I as a conservator. Anthony had worked with Szathmary in Chicago, caring for some of his oldest books. Because of their history, Szathmary was "assured that his books would receive the utmost care," Theisen says.

"Libraries don't have the staff resources to do this kind of manual transcription work so without crowdsourcing, the information in these handwritten pages would continue to remain largely inaccessible," says Jen Wolfe, digital scholarship librarian at the U of I. Most of Szathmary's manuscripts, cookbooks and pamphlets were donated to the U of I in 1985, but have only recently become accessible through the DIY History project.

For the most part, crowdsourcing works, Wolfe says. "There will always be inaccuracies, but with the help of our volunteers we can at least provide some access for full-text searching, where before we had none at all," Wolfe adds. "Aside from enhancing access, the largest pro with crowdsourcing has been reaching new audiences who actively engage with the materials."

According to Theisen, 30,000 pages of documents have been transcribed so far. The earliest cookbook online is from 1665. One dated "1600" has been scanned but not yet uploaded.

"There are still many more to digitize, and many more that are not in English that will likely take a long time to fully complete," Theisen says, adding the collection includes items in German, Danish and Czech.

Get involved

Anyone can browse the digitized cookbook pages and help transcribe recipes or review previously transcribed pages to help ensure accuracy. Volunteers can simply pick a cookbook from a number of options displayed on the page (diyhistory.lib.uiowa.edu/transcribe/collections/show/7), choose a page and get started. A bar displayed beneath each cookbook shows how much of that collection has already been transcribed.

There is no special training required, and volunteers do not need to register before accessing the cookbooks, although there is an option to create an account that allows volunteers to keep track of their projects and set up a watchlist of favorite pages. The cookbooks can be accessed from any computer with an Internet connection, and volunteers can choose to transcribe as many or as few pages as they would like.

For Moermond, the benefits of contributing to the project are clear. The project, and especially the Historic Foodies Group it inspired, has shown her that there are other "historic foodies" like her who also want to try old recipes and are interested in food history. That, she says, "gives me hope that maybe that 'cultural amnesia' could turn itself around."

Annie L. Scholl is a frequent Radish contributor.


Logging history

Want a taste of the past? It might not be as easy as simply deciphering some old-fashioned handwriting. Take these pie recipes from a cook named Alice Elecktra Picard, for example. They show how the shorthand language of recipes has evolved over time.

Cream Pie

2 cups sugar, 2 cups flour, 2 teaspoons cream (of) tartar, 1 ditto soda dissolved in 2 tablespoons water, 6 eggs, mix sugar, flour & cream (of) tartar together, then add eggs, soda, salt & flour with lemon. Spread thin and bake. When cool, lay 2 together on a plate, spreading between the cream ½ cup or (a) little more flour, ½ cup sugar, 2 eggs, 1 pint milk. Beat eggs, sugar & flour together—when the milk boils, pour it in & stir till it thickens—salt & flour with lemon.

Mince Pies

Little suet, 1/2 meat, 1/2 apple, add cassia, cloves, nutmeg, molasses, sugar raisins overnight.

Lemon Tarts

6 eggs, 2 lemons, 1/2 cup butter, 2 cups sugar. Grate in the lemon & work the butter & sugar as for cake.

Rhubarb Pie

Cut rhubarb into small pieces. Place it on a pie dish & sweeten. Put in nutmeg & a lump of butter size of a hickory nut to every piece. Place near the edge of pie.


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