Historic Cookbooks Shed Light On Sustainable Past

As we study the ways past generations lived, farmed and ate, one thing is for sure… America has been blessed with clever and thoughtful cooks. And many beautiful, wonderful, educational cookbooks, too.

I love cookbooks!  In fact, I collect them.  Not surprising since I often write about food and love to cook.  But the cookbook offers more than just a place to find delicious things to make and eat.  A cookbook is a living history of our relationship with food.  Cookbooks take us on a journey through our evolving opinions on nutrition, agriculture, frugality and sustainability.

From The Virginia Housewife, first published in 1838, to Julia Child’s recently rediscovered Mastering The Art Of French Cooking to Top Chef: The Quickfire Cookbook, to The Paleo Kitchen:Finding Primal Joy In Modern Cooking, our love of all things foodie consumes us.

But there is so much to be learned from studying the food prejudices and opinions of the past. And Michigan State University Museum is attempting to shine the spotlight on the evolution of America’s eating habits through a collection of hundreds of cookbooks which highlight our cultural heritage.

Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook Project is a marvelous treasure trove of practical information, interesting recipes and an enlightening look at how America’s attitude toward food and agriculture has changed – and stayed the same – over the last 238 years.

The project, which is a collection of cookbooks and antique cooking implements from the 18th,19th and early 20th centuries is a somewhat romantic look back at a time when typical cooking methods were simpler and more sustainable than today.

The cookbooks date back as far as 1798, and include descriptions and measurements that today’s reader probably wouldn’t even recognize. However, the value of such information is not prized for it’s historical perspective alone, but for the evidence of an America with a long history of economy, simplicity and desire for healthful, good tasting food.

The museum collection illustrates the diverse influences that effected the formation of American cuisine. From southern recipes, typical of many cookbooks following the Civil War, to New England style dishes, all seem devoted to economy and frugality.

The collection represents the many books on preparation, health, diet, nutrition, vegetarianism and scientific cooking methods which have influenced American eating habits.

Anyone who doubts that early Americans savored salads and vegetables can find many recipes for everything from artichokes, asparagus and broccoli, to eggplant, turnips, and tomatoes, and everything in between.

So if you ever hear anyone disparage the American diet, or say we don’t know anything about the culinary arts… you can point them toward this interesting collection.  The American way of dealing with food may only have been around for a few centuries, but when it come to sustainability, innovation and good ‘ol deliciousness, our history speaks for itself.

Check out the collection of interesting antique cooking implements here.

Browse the entire cookbook collection here.

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