SMU Library Exhibit Feature 200 Years of History Through Cookbooks

Just in time for Thanksgiving, a new cookbook exhibit at SMU’s DeGolyer Library is taking a look at history through a culinary lens. From a 276-page handwritten volume of recipes dating to 1816 to the first cookbook published in Texas to a selection of ethnic cookbooks, there is a recipe for every taste.  

The exhibit, “The Joy of Cooking – Two Centuries of Cookbooks at the DeGolyer Library,” will run through Dec. 22, featuring 206 books from DeGolyer’s 6,000-cookbook collection, acquired during the research library’s decades of collecting items related to Western Americana, transportation, women’s history and business history.

“Cookbooks are much more than compilations of recipes,” says Christina Jensen, curator of the exhibit and head of public services at the library. “They offer a timeline of economic, technology, family, and social history.”

A leather-bound handwritten recipe book, written in Spanish by Dona Maria Josefa de La Luz Tapia in 1816, is the oldest cookbook in the exhibit. Its recipes include dishes like pivipollo, a Yucatan-style dish featuring seasoned chicken wrapped in corn dough, often prepared for Day of the Dead.

The Holiday Drink Book, one of Neiman Marcus executive Stanley Marcus’ cocktail recipe books, includes sayings like, “When thou dost drink beware the toast, for therein lies the danger most!”

The exhibit teaches about more than food and drink. Lucretia Eleanor Thomas’ handwritten cookbook, compiled from 1850 to 1870, includes housekeeping recipes for furniture polish and a marble cleaning paste. Recipes for dried peaches, calves’ foot jelly, and poor man’s cake reflect her practical nature, but the recipe for soft gingerbread is the one most spotted with stains.

“At least half the recipes of many of the cookbooks are for dessert,” Jensen says.

The eggless-butterless-milkless cake recipe in the World War I Liberty cookbook reflects Americans’ love of sweets, despite the limitations of war rations, Jensen says. Other cookbooks in the exhibit include historic and Dallas Jewish cookbooks, international fare, and classic Southern cookbooks like Edna Lewis’ The Taste of Country Cooking. 

Cookbooks in Spanish and German are displayed, along with treasures like the Lucille B. Smith Treasure of Fine Foods, a box of recipe cards created by the cookbook author who established one of the first commercial food and technology programs at Prairie View A&M College and developed the first commercial hot roll mix.

Exhibit curator Jensen began looking for good recipes while stranded at home during COVID. When back at work, the shelves of cookbooks she passed each day in DeGolyer Library on her way to the elevator inspired her recipe search and the idea for the exhibit.

“Cookbooks offer a way to rethink the history of the last 200 years,” she said.

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