Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University, May 12-13, 2016

Manuscript cookbooks — collections of handwritten culinary recipes — are rich academic resources as well as priceless personal treasures. Written formulas for making particular dishes are almost as old as writing itself.

It is sometimes forgotten that setting down recipes by hand was by far the most popular means of recording and passing on culinary information between about 1600 and 1900. These three centuries were a golden age — but far from the last age — of manuscript cookbooks. Some were the dedicated work of an individual (usually a woman); others were the collective efforts of several household members, or heirlooms passed down over several generations with new additions. Even today, home cooks continue to put together collections of favorite recipes for their own use or to bequeath to their families, whether handwritten on paper or stored as computer files.

The Manuscript Cookbook Conference will bring together professional and amateur researchers with an interest in manuscript cookbooks from many centuries. Tens of thousands of these documents are in existence, many now listed online in the ongoing Manuscript Cookbooks Survey database. Some have ended up in libraries and historical societies, while others remain in private collections. They are invaluable resources for scholars in a variety of fields, including history, economics, anthropology, nutrition, sociology, and, of course, food studies. Unlike published material, manuscript cookbooks can honestly be called unique, even though many of them, especially those written after 1800, include recipes lifted verbatim from published sources. They can often offer better insight into historical diet, cooking methods, available ingredients, and taste preferences than printed works by professional chefs or cookbook writers.

Along with richly rewarding content, manuscript cookbooks present challenges for researchers, starting with the state of preservation. The ones written in penny composition books or on gatherings of cheap paper sewn together by the writer (especially after the mid-nineteenth century, when paper began to be made from wood pulp rather than cotton rags) are often brittle, faded, and fragile. There may be missing pages. And even in institutional collections, cookery manuscripts are sometimes “invisible” — minimally catalogued and as good as inaccessible. We must also remember that manuscript recipe materials are not necessarily bound into books. They may take the form of index-card files, scraps of paper stuck between the pages of books, or notes scribbled in published cookbooks or manufacturers’ brochures.” Such issues will be discussed in detail by librarians familiar with the work of acquisition, conservation, and cataloguing.

Equally crucial are questions of deciphering and interpretation. Since manuscript cookbooks were for private use and not for publication, the recipes may be full of cryptic or idiosyncratic abbreviations. Some manuscripts were obviously prepared with care, perhaps by a professional scrivener. The most elaborate ones may be systematically divided into chapters and even indexed. Others appear to be grab bags of household information with no apparent organizational scheme. Depending on the period, instructions may be barely rudimentary. They tend to assume a degree of shared kitchen knowledge that today’s cookbook writers cannot count on, a problem that will be discussed by several culinary historians.

The conference will also address the fact that handwriting has changed enough over the centuries to present many obstacles to understanding. Until now, producing transcriptions of handwritten recipes to be published in modern printed text has been a case-by-case labor of love. Fortunately the discipline of paleography — deciphering and reading historic manuscript texts so as to transcribe them accurately — has made giant strides in the last few years with the help of new software programs. The Folger Shakespeare Library has been at the forefront of these efforts through its “Dromio” project, which brings greater certainty to the job of transcribing obsolete hands into a form that modern readers can follow. As a result, many more culinary manuscripts will soon become available in book or electronic form.

Libraries and private collectors have long wrestled with the problems of procuring, conserving, restoring, cataloguing, and accessing manuscript cookbooks. Culinary historians and other researchers have faced their own scholarly challenges in working with manuscript texts. The purpose of the Manuscript Cookbook Conference is to explore the tremendous potential of this valuable resource, and to highlight efforts, such as the Manuscript Cookbooks Survey and Dromio, that are quickly redrawing the entire field of manuscript cookbook study.