A few weeks ago, Jan Longone, the curator of the renowned Longone Culinary Archive at the University of Michigan’s Clements Library, dropped us a note inviting us to visit her new exhibit at the Clements, “The Old Girl Network: Charity Cookbooks and the Empowerment of Women.” I’m lucky enough to work steps away from the Clements, so I wandered over at lunchtime to have a look. Of course, I had failed to read the information about the exhibit with any care, and got to the building twenty minutes before it opened, but a kind-hearted volunteer saw me with my nose pressed to the glass and took pity and let me in. So, let me confess, that I was expecting to be in and out really quickly. This is not because I had any doubts about the quality of the exhibit, but because of my own peculiar failings. Oddly, for one who has spent a lot of her life immersed in text in one way or another, I’m really not that excited about old books. I thought I’d take a look, get a quick impression and write up a pointer to the exhibit for readers who might be interested. Well, let me also confess that close to an hour and a half later, I was scrambling out of the building, trying to get to a meeting on time, and regretting the short shrift that I had to give to the last case.
Longone’s thesis, that the production of charity cookbooks have been intricately woven into the fabric of the political and social empowerment of American women is intelligent and well-argued, both in the extensive prose that accompanies the cases and by the displays themselves. The cookbooks served as focal points around which women could and did organize themselves and assert an influence that went far beyond the culinary. And the cookbooks were also concrete organizational tools, raising money so that women could help others, often other women, almost always the economically and politically disadvantaged.
But that’s not what kept me bent over the cases and kept my pen racing furiously across my notebook pages. For me, there are two incredibly compelling aspects to the exhibit. The first is the pure and powerful suggestiveness of those open books. Again and again, I found myself wanting to reach through the case and flip pages to get more of the story, to learn more of the rich history of everyday life that is embedded in what people eat and how they talk and think about what they eat.
On top of that, there are a number of extremely delicious sounding meals and dishes recorded on those pages. The Washington Woman’s Cookbook, published in Seattle in 1909 records the menu for a state dinner as “Olympic oysters, rainbow trout and Snohomish blackberry pie.” Talk about local food! I’m there. It also apparently contains a “woman’s list for the mountains” which I would very much like to review. What did a lady in 1909 need when she took to the mountains? The Centennial Buckeye Cookbook, constantly revised and reprinted from 1876 to the present calls for, in 1903, a green bean cooking time of three hours. Three hours! That’s worse than my mom. By 1991, the cooking time is down to 10-15 minutes, and I find myself wondering what seismic shift in our relationship to vegetables has made for that change. In one book from 1907, for which, most sadly, I forgot to note the citation, we are given instructions for a Hot Tamale Lawn Fete: “Now have the Committee of Refreshments gather round a long table with a pan of mush in the center . . .” It also gives some helpful advice on livening up the party: “If possible, have Mexican hats and sashes for the girls who serve.” Now, I’m a bit humbled by all this, because I think I’m all cosmopolitan and eclectic and all, but a tamale did not cross my lips until well into the 1990’s and here’s some Midwestern church group, some bunch of Iowa farm wives, serving up tamales at the turn of the last century. I know what my next party is going to be . . . I’m organizing the Committee on Refreshments now. Anyone got a lead on Mexican hats?
The delightful details kept me moving slowly from book to book. But after a while — and this is the second reason I stayed so long — I shifted from amusement to some deeper emotion. Because even though many of these charity organizations represented political or social perspectives with which I am sure I would have little truck, I could not help but be tremendously moved by the enormous expression of collective love embodied in these books. There are, for example, the women who put together a cookbook “to procure funds for all of the farmers in that part of France that was devastated by the invasion of the German armies.” Or the Central Pennsylvania Home Cookbook published in 1891 to assist debilitated veterans of the civil war, written as “part of the high and holy mission of lessening pain.”
In the last case, there is a drawing from “Peace De Resistance” a text that came out of the Women’s Strike for Peace in Los Angeles, California in the 1960’s. The drawing shows a woman picketer and her sign reads “Bring the Boys Home for Dinner,” and it was this little bit of comedy that made me cry, that was the reason I was all sniffles and red eyes at that meeting I had to hurry to. I am susceptible to these things these days, as a mother who looks at her sleeping son and then watches the news and thinks about how she’s glad she has a place to live on an island that’s a very short boat ride to Canada. The sentiment of that drawing seems to me to be such a pure expression of the bonds that hold us together. At some level, most of us want nothing more than to sit down with those we love and eat in peace. We eat and we love and we love and we eat and these two things are not parallel or coincidental. They are wonderfully entangled and inextricable.
Jan Longone will be speaking about the exhibit this Sunday, September 21, at 3:00 at the Clements Library on the Universityof Michigan’s central campus. (The exhit will be open starting at 2:30 and until 5:00). I urge you to go see her, because I’m sure she’ll be erudite and entertaining about the story she’s telling with the exhibit. But I urge you more strongly to go see the exhibit because in it you will find a story of your own.
The Clements Library is located at 909 South University Avenue, and is open Monday through Friday from 1:00 to 4:45 p.m.