Recipes for Domesticity: Cookery, Household Management, and the Notion of Expertise

Curated by Julia Gardner, Head of Reader Services, Special Collections Research Center

The cookbook: its very name seems self-explanatory, yet this consistently practical genre is more challenging to delimit than the term suggests. In examining historical examples of cookbooks, one finds recipes for preparing specific dishes, but also encounters recipes for medicine and tonics, instructions on how to deliver babies, advice on how to remove stains from fabric and how best to black boots, warnings of moral failings among one's servants, and tips on fireplace maintenance.

Very early modern examples of cookbooks may not even register as "cookbooks" to the twenty-first century reader, as the books themselves, including the recipes, tend to be more discursive than we are accustomed to seeing. Indeed, this element of descriptiveness can make it difficult to define exactly what qualifies as a cookbook, as books describing or defining recipes might be part of a larger "how to" project, or be contained in works which discussed a variety of topics on the household, cooking being one of them.

By the end of the seventeenth century, increasing literacy, the rise of the middle class, and interest in the "how to" genre saw a tremendous growth in the publishing of books on cooking, wine-making and brewing, and household management. Estimates for cookbook printing during the eighteenth century places the figure at over 300 cookbooks alone being published. When it is further considered that many of these titles were so popular that multiple editions were published, the number of cookbooks published during that century numbers well into the thousands. Indeed, a cookbook was likely to figure among the books a middle class home might commonly own. As time passed, readers had access to many cookbooks, as well as books discussing the running of a household, from advice on hiring staff to how to best furnish a kitchen and dining room. Thus, while the concept of the cookbook became more specialized and defined, moving away from earlier incarnations in which recipes, household management, and even medical advice, all appeared in the same volume, these various domestic topics became the subject of their own specialized books.

Far from attempting to provide a complete chronicle of cookbook history, this exhibition instead focuses on various aspects of the relationship between the domestic and elements commonly associated with it, such as food storage and preparation, or the physical layout of the kitchen. It also takes into account the people who inhabited these spaces, from courtly chefs to kitchen maids to housewives, and the ways in which these domestic occupants presented themselves, in the case of cooks who became authors; were advised by others, in the case of those in domestic service; or were studied when the household became a subject of academic interest. Together, these representations of who contributed to domestic constructs, whether in terms of food, of space, or of behaviors, provide many and varied "recipes for domesticity."

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