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Recipes for Reverie with Janet Theophano

It began with an unexpected find at an antique shop several years ago. Janet Theophano, adjunct associate professor of Folklore and Folklife and associate director of the College of General Studies, was browsing and discovered an interesting little book of what looked like poetry but was actually a collection of recipes. The pages were crumbling, the spine was broken, and it was priced at $1 because, she says, "that's all it was worth, according to the bookseller."

photo of Janet TheophanoIt turned out to be worth a lot more to Theophano, who became fascinated with the identity of the owner of the handwritten nineteenth-century cookbook. Hidden within the well-worn pages were all sorts of clues, a love letter from her husband, a poem about mothers and daughters, newspaper articles; but the woman herself was never named. Gradually, Theophano began to see the cookbook as "a memoir, a diary, a record of life." Thus began her study of cookbooks and her understanding of them as "something between a scrapbook and an autobiography."

As she read more, Theophano found a poetics and creativity in cookbooks. "Reading the recipes is almost an incantation. You imagine flavors and aromas that are created and the sensory experience of eating and drinking. This reverie is made poetic by the metaphoric language."

One of the highlights of Theophano's ongoing research has been the recent on-campus exhibit, "Household Words: Women Write From and For the Kitchen." Based on materials from the Esther B. Aresty Collection of Rare Books on the Culinary Arts, the exhibit included books ranging from handwritten seventeenth-century manuscripts to 1960s best sellers. Theophano, the curator, shaped the exhibit into several case studies demonstrating social developments as reflected by the cookbooks of the period.

For example, early cookbooks included recipes for health and beauty aids, as well as distilled beverages, reflecting what has been called "the craft tradition" of cooking. In the seventeenth century, because of their association with witchcraft, healing remedies began to be deleted from cookbooks.

Standardization of recipes occurred around the turn of the century with the birth of the domestic science movement. At this time, the modern format of a list of ingredients followed by directions began to be used. The domestic science movement represented a further step away from the craft tradition in cookery and emphasized scientific expertise over creativity. Elements of the craft tradition remained, however, in the communal cookbook. Many school, community, and religious groups have published cookbooks as a means of raising funds and consciousness for an institution they believe in.

One constant in all these cookbooks is their mission. Beyond merely teaching cooking skills, they teach social expectations, either explicity or implicitly. Many early books have suggestions on how to treat one's husband or children, for example. By the mid-1950s, the focus was more on how to be a good hostess. As Theophano says, "These are books about how to be a good wife and mother, the social and cultural expectations and ideals of womanhood."

As for the future of her research, Theophano says, "I want to show the role of these books in women's lives. Whenever I've spoken about this material to any audience, it resonates. I'm fascinated by the reading and the writing of this material and what it suggests about women's lives, and how we can use it to piece together a social history."

Theophano's research has already done much to illuminate women's domestic lives in the nineteenth century and beyond. She has explored the lives of women who never supposed that their every day "receipt books" would be used as autobiographies. What she found was a fascinating array of women who used the art of cooking to express and fulfill themselves, and to nurture (not just physically, it turns out) future generations.

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