Texas USA
TWU’s Cookbook Cornucopia
According to Ann McGuffin Barton, ‘Cookbooks are not just recipe holders. They’re reflections of love, politics, and commerce.’

IMAGE: Glen Ellman

How would you like to find shelf space in your kitchen for more than 15,000 cookbooks? Texas Woman’s University houses this many in its library, making it one of the biggest cookbook collections in the United States. The collection is deep as well, going back to the 1600s.

Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison, authors of several cookbooks exploring American regional cuisine and four-time winners of the prestigious James Beard Award, use the collection as their primary research center. Bill, a former American history professor, says, “I can attest that this is as fine a collection of older American cookbooks as you can find anywhere.”

The cookbooks are part of the Woman’s Collection of the Blagg-Huey Library, which also includes personal papers, photographs and oral histories in such areas as African-American women, women in the military and aviation, and female writers, politicians and educators. The library, a regal structure with columns, polished floors and golden chandeliers, is a 107,000-square-foot, Georgian-style building in the heart of the Denton campus.

Ann McGuffin Barton, library assistant and an expert on the cookbook collection, greets me on the second floor, where the collection lives. She looks like a stereotypical librarian, with her glasses and coiffed hair, but carries herself with the stately air of a priestess in her temple. “Cookbooks are not just recipe holders,” she says. “They’re reflections of love, politics and commerce. They offer insight into what brings all humans together: meals.”

Barton says cookbooks are instruction manuals that chronicle the history of mankind.

“Cookbooks are part of culture that shows a common bond between groups,” she says. “People have ownership of food. How they cook it, present it and eat it sets them apart from others. Food represents a group’s identity. Texans love barbeque. Cajuns love seafood.”

The history of a culture characterizes its cuisine, and that’s what draws visitors to view this collection each year. From abundance to diets, from Prohibition to war, this compilation of cookbooks richly illustrates decades of America’s changing relationship with food.

Barton pulls out the preface to the 1922 Picayune Creole Cook Book, which apologizes for changes to recipes as a result of the anti-alcohol Volstead Act: “In previous editions of the Picayune Creole Cook Book, directions for the use of wines and liquors were included as a matter of course in all recipes demanding such flavorings. As it has now become unlawful to acquire such ingredients, reference to them has been eliminated . . . very serious efforts are being made to find substitutes that will add to the desirable flavors of the fruit and berry brandies . . . without violating the anti-alcoholic enactment.”

Dallas gourmet Marion Somerville Church provided the gift that established the collection in 1960. Following his wishes, his sister Mrs. P.R. Gilmer of Shreveport, Louisiana, who had a deep interest in the university’s work in foods and homemaking, donated 249 books, several printed in the 1850s. She also donated Church’s famous regional cookbooks as well as hundreds of menu cards from hotels, restaurants, clubs, railroad lines, airlines and steamship lines.

Barton points to a litany of donors who have contributed in the wake of Church’s initial donation. From all parts of the United States, many remarkable cookbooks and related materials have been acquired over the years.

The collection includes books you’d expect, such as 31 editions of Fannie Farmer’s books, including the much overlooked but very influential Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent (1907). The library has 10 iterations of The Joy of Cooking, from the first trade edition in 1936 to the recently updated 75th anniversary edition, published in 2006. (The very first edition was self-published in 1931 by author Irma S. Rombauer.)

There are also unexpected finds, like the punnily named Kitchen-Ranging: A Book of Dish-cover-y from 1928, or How To Bake a Church (1950), a fund-raising cookbook from St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Arlington.

Toward the end of my tour, Barton ushers me to the cold vault, where rare cookbooks are preserved. She moves stacks of books so we can ease in between rows. She leads me to one of the oldest books in the collection, The Queens Closet Opened, which was published in 1661. It looks like an aged prayer book, and Barton opens it with great reverence.

She points to the name of a recipe, “To comfort the Hearts and Spirits, and suppress Melancholly.” The name itself suggests a panacea—who wouldn’t want such a thing from time to time? The recipe itself, however, sounds noxious: an infusion of herbs, juice, sugar, ground pearls and ambergris (the waxy, sweet-smelling whale by-product used in perfumes of old), although the writer suggests adding some saffron “to make it more cordial.”

This rare cookbook gives a window into life in the 17th century, as all cookbooks somehow reflect the periods in which they were written. Food is not only a basic human need; it sustains our bodies and connects our souls.

You’ll find Texas Co-op Power’s 60 Years of Home Cooking among the treasures in the collection. Most of the cookbooks are available for the public to peruse, although you cannot check them out. The collection is on the second floor of the Blagg-Huey Library on the Denton campus. Normal operating hours are from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., but vary according to semester schedules. For more information, contact Barton at (940) 898-3752 or visit http://www.twu.edu/library/default.asp.

CoServ Electric supplies power for much of the area around Denton.

Cathy Cashio has been a correspondent for the Gallup Independent newspaper in New Mexico, The Houma Courier newspaper in Louisiana and Indian Country Today in New York. She lives in Denton. This is her first article in Texas Co-op Power.

Are you a co-op member?

Don't ask again