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Don’t Throw Away Grandma’s Recipe Cards Yet!

Don’t Throw Away Grandma’s Recipe Cards Yet!

Archivists at the University of Arkansas are cooking up a project that will have history buffs and nutritionists alike hungering for more. Ethel Simpson, archivist at the University Libraries, is launching a project to collect materials that document the history and culture of cuisine in Arkansas: the Arkansas Cookbook Collection.

Simpson explains that cookbooks, when viewed as historic artifacts, offer a unique perspective on the cultures that produced them, often revealing cultural assumptions and anxieties, particularly those about women and domesticity. For instance, “Recipes for the King by Arkansas Chicken-Cookin’ Queens,” published by the Arkansas Poultry Federation in 1963, contains recipes from 20 homemakers, each chosen to be a Chicken-Cookin’ Queen at one of the five District Poultry Festivals. Featured is Mrs. Harold Reese of Springdale, 1963 Queen of the Arkansas Poultry Festival, who made public appearances as a representative of the poultry industry throughout the year of her reign.

Donations of such materials to the University Libraries will not only ensure a safe repository for cherished family items but will support research for generations to come in such fields as history, sociology, nutrition and food science. Simpson notes that a large collection can provide primary sources for researchers’ investigations into the history and science of food; the social and economic history of the region; the evolution of scientific and technological progress in food production and preparation; or the implications of social conditions and changes revealed in eating behaviors, food choices, habits and customs. A simple recipe collection can document the introduction of new culinary technologies, gourmet sensibilities and ethnic foods into Arkansas kitchens.

Cookbooks published by women’s clubs, churches and other organizations will be of particular interest to the libraries. Among the earliest examples in the present Arkansas Collection is the 1929 cookbook of the Missionary Society of Smackover. Cookbooks created by professionals such as dieticians, extension agents, home economists and chefs constitute another category; brand name cookbooks and advertising materials created to promote Arkansas businesses and products, a third category. Also of interest are books describing foods, techniques or equipment used in Arkansas cooking. For example, the books by John Ragsdale of El Dorado on Dutch oven cookery are already in the collection, as is the publication of the Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, “Arkansas Game Recipes,” by Earl Franklin Kennamer. Advertising booklets featuring Arkansas products, such as rice, catfish, soybeans, persimmons or other foodstuffs constitute a fifth category of desired materials.

Cookbooks printed in Arkansas or about Arkansas foods may also support other areas of general Arkansas studies served by Special Collections, such as the history of the University, history of religion, women’s studies or Arkansas folklore. A good example is the “Cherokee Cookbook,” published by the Indian Heritage Association of the University of Arkansas in 1968. It includes the Cherokee alphabet developed by Sequoyah, and the Cherokee translation for words such as raccoon, “ger li,” fish, “ah tsa di,” egg, “tsu way tsi” and water, “ah ma.” Another example is “The Ozark Cook Book of Tested Recipes,” compiled and edited by Mrs. W. A. Ramsey. It was published as a complimentary booklet circa 1935, paid for by advertisers near the Fayetteville square, such as the Fayetteville Mercantile, University of Arkansas Creamery, the Fayetteville Milk Company, McIlroy Bank and Trust, and Campbell & Bell Dry Goods Company.

The recipes of individuals also document local foods and family traditions. For example, the family of Susie Pryor of Camden published a collection of her recipes, “Perfectly Delicious,” in 1990. An interesting family collection called “A Gathering of Tall Tales, Receipts, and Three Songs from the Ozark Dillard Family” was collected and published in 2000. A neatly-organized, loose-leaf binder of recipes collected by Betty Bumpers, wife of former Arkansas Senator Dale Bumpers, includes personal notes in addition to the recipes, such as her commentary on the recipe for flan: “This is very simple to make and absolutely sensational. The caramel comes out on top and sort of runs down the sides and no one would ever guess how easy it is. It is a Spanish dish—Sarita gave me the recipe.” Following her recipe for Cold Marinated Vegetables, she noted, “Looks beautiful and should taste wonderful on a hot, muggy Washington night.” And after the Sweet Potatoes with Whiskey Sauce recipe, she wrote, “I knew a man whose wife wouldn’t let him drink, and every time he came to the house he absolutely guzzled that sauce—in fact, he even ate it on oyster dressing!”

Simpson is appealing to the public to contribute original and published materials that document cooking in Arkansas. Materials of interest include handwritten cards and loose-leaf notebooks of recipes, fund-raising cookbooks, even booklets promoting some of Arkansas’ famous food like catfish, rice and watermelon. While food snobs may heap scorn on these foods and healthy eaters may shy away, the documents describing preparation and ways of serving food provide valuable insight into cooks’ views of what was worth bragging about and worth passing on. Hence, they are valuable to the libraries’ continuing search for materials that document the history, people and culture of Arkansas.

Although thumbing through your grandmother’s handwritten recipe cards might bring a tear to your eye, thumbing through those same cards brings a gleam to Simpson’s.

“Ah,” she laughs softly while looking over one such collection. “Do you remember when velvet cake was all the rage?”

These published books are catalogued and shelved with the Arkansas Collection and are available on a non-circulating basis. Unpublished collections of recipes donated by families or individual cooks will be classified with the manuscript collections, processed for research use and described on the Special Collections Web site http://libinfo.uark.edu/specialcollections/. Historical materials receive priority collection emphasis, but materials of recent date will be accepted as well. Those who have cookbooks that might be added to this collection should contact Ethel Simpson at (479) 575-5577 or esimpson@uark.edu.

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