MSU Special Collections gains treasure trove of cookbooks

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Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the hottest selling items on online booksellers like Amazon, AbeBooks and e-Bay were cookbooks originating from New Orleans and the rest of Cajun Louisiana. The hurricane had destroyed treasured family cookbooks that had been passed down for generations and family members were anxiously trying to replace them.

Cookbooks are treasures, especially the handwritten or manuscript-style cookbooks. Recently, Michigan State University’s Special Collections acquired more than 6,500 cookbooks and cooking ephemera from the Brass sisters of Cambridge, Massachusetts, including more than 100 manuscript cookbooks and other rare cookbooks.

Marilynn and Sheila Brass, now in their 80s, are longtime foodies in the Boston area who co-authored four cookbooks and at one time were the co-hosts of the PBS cooking show “Food Flirts.” The sisters are recognized for their desserts, a serendipitous result of growing up on a street known as Sea Foam Avenue in Winthrop, Massachusetts. 

The sisters are at work on a joint memoir of their childhood days spent in the kitchen with their mother, Dorothy Brass. The dynamic cooking duo has appeared on numerous television cooking shows, such as “Throwdown with Bobby Flay,” where they destroyed Flay with a delicious pineapple upside-down cake. In addition to collecting recipes, the sisters have accumulated a large collection of antique food molds not included in the acquisition, which they heralded on “Antiques Road Show.”

The collection came to the attention of MSU when a Cambridge historian — who had helped the sisters catalogue their cache of materials — contacted Leslie McRoberts, head of MSU Special Collections, about its availability. McRoberts said after she received the 500-page catalog, she enlisted the help of Peter Berg, the former head of MSU Special Collections, to assess the collection. Berg had shepherded earlier acquisitions for MSU Special Collections – including the collection of Lansing woman Shirley Sliker and her husband, Alan, whose collection of 15,000 items of cooking ephemera is also held at MSU Special Collections. 

“After reviewing the collection, it would be foolish not to acquire the vast collection,” Berg said. 

“The collection helps tell the story of America’s diverse food culture and its historical context,” McRoberts added.

One item in the collection that immediately drew the eye of McRoberts was Julia Child’s childhood textbook of French conjugation signed “Julie McWilliams,” by the famed cookbook author on the cover. The collection contains numerous signed Child cookbooks, which is not unexpected since Child was a longtime resident of the area and Radcliffe College holds Child’s papers. The East Coast area was a fruitful source of the sisters’ collection of British cookbooks. 

Culinary collections are more than just “famous” fudge recipes. They provide context for our history — especially community cookbooks and manuscript recipes, which often contain keys to how recipes adapted to the food shortages of the Great Depression, World Wars and the Civil War, which has been documented by MSU Professor and food writer Helen Veit in her books on the food of the North and the South during the Civil War.

For their books “Heirloom Baking” and “Heirloom Cooking,” the sisters drew heavily on their collection of handwritten cookbooks and recipe cards, which help us recall everyday life of previous generations. For those of us who have frequented estate sales and flea markets, items in the Brass collection will seem familiar. It consists of little wooden boxes containing worn, food-stained recipe cards for desserts like “Heavenly Hash,” handwritten cookbooks clumsily stitched together with yarn, recipes clipped from newspaper food sections and the backs of cardboard Betty Crocker boxes.

In MSU’s collection of more than 40,000 cookbooks are those by MSU graduate Julee Rosso, who revolutionized cooking with her cookbook “The Silver Palate Cookbook.” It also holds Martha Stewart’s “Entertainment,” early editions of “The Joy of Cooking” and local cookbooks from across the country, such as “Copper Kettle Cookbook,” by Lansing’s own Martha Dixon, who wrote while hosting a cooking show for WJIM Television for more than 25 years beginning in the ’50s.

McRoberts said cookery collections also give us insight into food advertising and how companies “pushed their products and how products evolved over time.”

You are likely to find thousands of recipes for Jell-O within the collection, along with the quirky recipes for dishes that are “enriching the blood.” You’ll also discover cookbooks for school lunch ladies that guided institutional cooking with recipes that start with “boil one hundred pounds of potatoes.” 

McRoberts said MSU Special Collections is always looking for additional material, big or small, to add to its cookery section. I’m sending off a cookbook from the Alcatraz Women’s Club, which has no recipe for bread with saw blades.

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