MA Thesis | History and Archival Studies

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Tentative Title: Cooking Up Motherhood: Establishing Identity Through Cookbooks and Recipes

When my mother died two years ago, I inherited approximately six large packing boxes full of her cookbooks and another box containing her collection of recipe cards. Over the years, she collected cookbooks and recipes from friends, family, and community—often requesting recipes to be handwritten.

My mom enjoyed reading cookbooks as much as any novel and she enjoyed getting new ideas to make for entertaining. Yet, her collection of cookbooks and recipes did something more for her than simply inspire her culinary prowess. In many ways, this archive of cooking and material culture is one way that my mother performed motherhood. I believe that my mom used her collection of cookbooks and recipes, and her exceptional cooking skills as ways  to validate and express her ideal of motherhood. There is no doubt that cookbooks and cookbook collecting has been important for reasons beyond gustatory delight.

Briefly examining the literature on culinary history and identity (and/or motherhood) has yielded numerous sources that suggest that cooking and cookbook collecting may be a rich source for considering identity formation and performance.  According to folklorist Janet Theophano, reading a well-loved or well-used cookbook is “to open a window into the lives of women of distinct classes, cultures, and historical periods who would otherwise be unknown to us.”[1] Theophano goes on to discuss the various ways that women have used cookbooks to define and refine their values, beliefs, identities and authority. Through contributions to cookbook fundraisers, and through the kinship formed by handing down generations of food knowledge, household recipes, and even medicines, women have used cookbooks and recipes to establish identities and to address community issues. Additionally, researchers and popular sources, such as USA Today, or Foodie Magazine have written extensively on the kitchen as a space of gender identification.

[1] Janet Theophano. Eat My Words. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

 

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