By ERIN ALLEN
“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are,” said renowned epicure Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826). His treatise “Physiologie du gout” (“The Physiology of Taste”) was showcased during a special display March 4, when the Library’s Rare Book and Special Collections Division welcomed members of the Culinary Historians of Washington, D.C.
Published in 1825, the work offers a series of meditations on the senses, palate cultivation, gastronomy, appetite, digestion, pleasures of the table and obesity, among other topics.
Brillat-Savarin is often considered the father of the low-carbohydrate diet, and his work helped found the genre of the gastronomic essay. He defined food as a cultural experience.
Division curators exhibited items from the 15th through 19th centuries, including the first cookery book—the manuscript “Libro de Arte Coquinaria” (“Book on the Art of Cookery”) by Maestro Martino, ca. 1470—and the first American cookbook, “American Cookery,” by Amelia Simmons, published in 1796, just 20 years after the Declaration of Independence was adopted.
Eclectic manuscript collections, the precursors of printed cookbooks, provided the only systematic record of culinary technique before printing was introduced in Europe. On the cutting edge of the “new gastronomy” was Martino’s manuscript. Written in a fine, cursive hand, recipes cover meat, pasta, fish, cheese and more, and provide a glimpse into the Italian Renaissance kitchen.
“The binding from the period represents a wonderful example of bookmaking from the late-Medieval to early Renaissance period,” said Dan de Simone of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division.
Simmons’ cookbook was the first of American authorship to be printed in the United States. Numerous recipes, which adapted traditional dishes by substituting ingredients native to North America, were printed for the first time.
“The book is in its original marble-paper wrapper,” said de Simone of its simple binding. “It was printed so it could be affordable.”
Another noteworthy item is the “Cours gastronomique,” a gastronomic map of France published in 1809. Tourcaty, the designer and engraver, named each dish for its place of origin. The book was written by Charles-Louis de Gassicourt, the son of Louis XV and Marie-Thérèse Boisselet.
According to de Simone, the map came about during the encyclopedic movement, which began in the late 18th century with the lofty goal of providing a systematic compilation of all knowledge.
“This is a great example of the movement being duplicated in the form of cartography,” he said.
Many of these cookbooks are more than just recipe-laden; they offer advice and insight into domestic sciences and the household.
“During the Victorian era, cookery not only involved recipes but also manners, domestic management, comportment, the education of children,” said de Simone. “You can see the development of the influence of women of the era in general.”
In “The American Woman’s Home” (1869), by Catharine E. Beecher and her sister Harriet Beecher Stowe (best known for her novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”), are recommendations and instructions on practical house design—especially with the newly invented ranges, stoves, refrigerators and other gadgets—and advice on cleanliness and healthful food and drink options. Peppered throughout are illustrations depicting various household responsibilities.
Other items on display included an early Tudor cookbook written by Sir Thomas Elyot, a scholar and English diplomat often in the employ of Henry VIII; a two-volume block book, folded and bound Japanese-style, with more than 500 illustrations depicting methods of carving, preparing and cooking fish and fowl; a Dutch broadside written for children and depicting a “candyland” of sorts; and an early edition of the first original Mexican cookbook.
The majority of the items come from the Library’s Katherine Golden Bitting and Elizabeth Robins Pennell collections.
Between 1939 and 1944, Arvill Wayne Bitting presented to the Library the gastronomic collection assembled by his wife, Katherine Golden Bitting, food chemist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the American Canners Association and author of nearly 50 pamphlets and articles on food preservation and related topics. The collection of 4,450 titles contains numerous English and American publications on food preparation from the 18th and 19th centuries and a sampling of notable French, German and Italian works.
The Elizabeth Robins Pennell collection encompasses some 732 titles on cookery, fine printing and literature. The collection is strongest in French and Italian cookbooks from the 16th through 18th centuries. She and her artist husband, Joseph, also donated his graphic works, their personal papers and their compilation of Whistleriana (items pertaining to artist James McNeill Whistler) to the Prints and Photographs and the Manuscript divisions—some of which had been deposited as early as the 1910s.
Erin Allen is acting editor of The Gazette, the Library’s staff newsletter.