A World Of Food History Goes Digital

Mar 16, 2018

Sometimes, a food aficionado just doesn’t want to bother cracking an actual book to learn something or be entertained. When the weight of that wooden spoon is too much to manage, digital cookbooks can be a satisfying source of recipes and fascinating glimpses into other eras and cultures.

You may consider yourself an adventurous eater, but have you ever tried calipash? That’s the meat that sticks to the upper shell of a turtle. How about rolliche, a sausage assembled in a bag of tripe, then sliced and fried? Yes, you eat scrapple, but do you order yours with scrag meat from the neck and back of a sheep? These are just a few of the foods you can learn about through the online “Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook Project” portal at Michigan State University. MSU’s collection contains more than 10,000 cookbooks that span nine centuries.

The Cookbook and Home Economics Collection at archive.org has something for everyone. Where else would you find A Guide to Modern Cookery, the seminal work by French chef Auguste Escoffier, in the same group of thumbnails as Betty Crocker’s Cookbook for Boys and Girls? Not to mention A Thousand Ways to Please a Husband with Bettina’s Best Recipes?

A macaroni pie recipe from the Wellcome Library's archives.
Credit The Wellcome Library archives

The Wellcome Library in London specializes in health and medicine, but their holdings include a wealth of cookbooks and manuscripts that date back to the 16th century. Many of these works highlight the accomplishments of women in medicine, a field that has historically been intertwined with cooking. That’s where we stumbled upon A Second Dudley Book of Cookery, Collected and Arranged by Georgina, Countess of Dudley. All 412 pages can be downloaded free of charge. On the same page as an intriguing recipe for tripe, the countess offers a macaroni pie recipe that contains Gloucester cheese, beefsteak, a “fowl cut in joints,” another beefsteak, butter, and more cheese.

Many historical recipes are pretty impractical to re-create. Not only do they call for some hard-to-find ingredients that don’t appeal to current-day tastes, the cooking methods are imprecise when compared to the carefully calibrated appliances we use today.

That’s where the work of academics Marissa Nicosia and Alyssa Connell comes in. They’re working on a project titled “Cooking in the Archives: Updating Early Modern Recipes (1600 – 1800) in a Modern Kitchen.” Nicosia recently adapted a 1702 recipe for sassages, and scaled it down for today’s home cook. From that page, we discovered dozens of other recipes being dusted off by the two researchers: Pease Pods of Puff Pastry, Potingall Cakes, and Marmalades of Pippins, to name just a few.

And then a peculiar thing happened. The same cook at our house who was too lazy to lift a finger in the kitchen suddenly got inspired to try preparing something new – even if it was literally old-school.

Now, who’s down for Brown Frickasey and Sorrel Sops, with a little Bisket Pudding on the side?