How to Read a Recipe Box: A Scholar's Guide to Working with Personal Recipe Collections
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The difficulty of working with personal recipe collections has led scholars to overlook their potential as primary sources. With the intent to inspire and encourage others to use recipe boxes, manuscript recipe books and recipe scrapbooks in their research, this thesis presents a comprehensive methodology for analyzing such collections as historical, cultural and gendered artifacts. Considering personal recipe collections as artifacts, rather than as texts, is a critical aspect of this work and leads to a material culture approach. This methodology calls for inductive research, including a three-step process of description, induction and speculation. Establishment of a historical, geographical and cultural context for each collection allows the scholar to formulate an appropriate hypothesis and test for conclusions. To demonstrate this process, this paper describes the step-by-step implementation of this methodology with two specific examples. The first is a study of an early twentieth-century recipe scrapbook compiled by Isabella Ward of Brooklyn, New York, which examines the impact that World War I food policies had on her cooking. The second example is an analysis of two recipe boxes from farming communities in central Iowa; one compiled by Edna Abens, who collected recipes from the 1930s to the 1950s, and a second by Irene Mills, who collected recipes from the 1970s to the 1990s. A comparison of these two collections illustrates how women’s roles as cooks, caregivers and community members changed over time. While the foods they prepared were quite different, both of these women took pride in their cooking and drew a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction from providing food for their families and communities.
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