Barbara Anderson Rotger ’86, administrative coordinator of the gastronomy program at the Boston University Metropolitan College, is a scholar and collector of recipe boxes. She finds them on eBay or at garage sales, often packed with recipes their owners collected over a lifetime. Her master’s thesis at BU was titled, “How to Read a Recipe Box: A Scholar’s Guide to Working With Personal Recipe Collections.’’
BAM When did you first become interested in food?
BR I have to say, it’s
always been like that. My family jokes that my crib was in the dining
room and ever since then I’ve been interested in food.
BAM What prompted you to start studying recipe boxes?
BR At the time I was
taking some of my first classes at BU, I inherited both of my
grandmothers’ recipe boxes. I had been reading about how people used
cookbooks as sources, and I said I would try to analyze my
grandmothers’ recipe boxes. That led me to realize there’s this real
hole in the academic literature. Nobody was looking at recipe boxes.
BAM Do you use the recipes inside them?
BR Everybody always asks
me that. To be honest, very rarely. They’re mostly mid 20th century
collections, and there are an awful lot of Jell-O salads and cream-of
canned-soup recipes. When it comes right down to it, it’s really hard
for me to make a Jell-O salad for dinner.
BAM What makes working with recipe boxes so appealing to you?
BR Everyone understands
food as communication. The recipes I work with communicate all kinds of
things: social status, ethnic and religious identity, and societal and
gender roles. For example, a recipe box with recipes for dishes like
“Chicken Church Casserole” or “Funeral Hot Dish,” both of which yield
fifty servings, says to me, “I am active in caring for my community.”
Similarly, a World War I–era collection that is full of “wheatless” and
“meatless” recipes says, “I am patriotic, and will support the war
effort by following government instructions to conserve these foods.”
BAM How do you even begin to study a recipe box?
BR I start by indexing a
whole collection and looking for patterns. I categorize it—a breakfast
cake or cookie, a main dish, a salad, then I record the format of the
recipe—handwritten, clipped from a newspaper, clipped from a product
package. Then, I use the index the way I would a cookbook index. From
that point, I formulate a question I want to ask. Maybe it’s “Was this
person making their own alcohol during Prohibition?” You might see
that, “Oh, look, this person has five recipes that have ‘eggless’ in
the title. Does this tell me that an egg shortage was a problem?”
BAM How do cookbooks and recipe boxes differ?
BR Recipe books are often
very cutting-edge and trend-oriented. They don’t give you a good idea
of what food was like in the home, and personal recipe collections are
a much better source if you’re interested in what people actually ate.
Cookbooks say, “This is who I’d like you to think I am.” Recipe boxes
say, “This is who I am.”
The Culinary Detective
By Alessandra Wollner '10 / November/December 2012
November 27th, 2012