Historian Ian Mosby uses cookbooks as a source of information about the lives of women. The cookbook of one Jean Stephenson is especially useful because it functioned as a kind of autobiography:
But what I like best about Jean’s cookbook is how much it meant to her, beyond being simply a handy source of tested recipes. Her short biography written in the front pages makes this clear. Not only did she connect some of the key moments in her life to this particular book, but the fact that she added to her inscription on three separate occasions suggests that reading the cookbook acted as a powerful trigger for these memories of her youth, of her long and happy marriage, and of her husband’s death.
A cookbook seems particularly well-positioned to be the thread that links important events and relationships in one’s life, since food is a constant and loyal companion adorning everything from celebrations, to conversations, to the most ordinary, colorless moments.
But the opportunities for such research are rare because cookbooks are seldom marked by reflections, records of events, or other biographical data. Most people throughout history have not thought of a cookbook as a place to annotate a life.
Few cookbooks contain even the name of their owner, let alone information such as when they came into possession of it or how long they’ve been using it.
The contrast with today’s food culture is striking. Although cookbooks may still lack annotations, food blogs teem with recipes accompanied by life stories from the mundane to the exotic, fully documented by photos and pensive, first-person narrative. Why the change?
Mosby explains why cookbooks of the past were seldom considered a site for contemplation:
Cooking has always been a key component of a broader set of gendered expectations placed upon women as wives, mothers, and daughters. As Diane Tye and others argue, the sheer weight of these expectations meant that, during most of the twentieth century, cooking became a form of women’s seemingly unending “invisible labour” – the constant, unpaid work that sustains the household and the family but usually receives little in the way of comment or acknowledgement, particularly when it is being done well.
Cooking, especially when encumbered by the confining connotations of “women’s work”, is more chore than pleasure, not the stuff of an idealized romp through life’s ups and downs.
The increasing opportunities in contemporary life for women to participate in the larger culture mean that cooking is now a respite from competition and the dreariness of life in a cubical instead of a monotonous task imposed by one’s lot in life.
Although it is often lamented that in our hyperactive society few people have the time or the skill to cook anymore, women’s liberation has liberated cooking from a chore to an inspiration.
Future historians will have more than enough resource material; their obstacle will be sorting the ideal, romanticized fluff from the real.