Alum's lectures explore cook books as narrative history

Mark Howard, a member of the Bates College class of 1975 and an ardent reader and collector of cook books, will discuss history through the kitchen door in Cook Books as Narrative History: Two Hundred Years of American Cook Book Publishing, 1796-1996, An Overview at Bates July 15 and July 16 at 7:30 p.m. in Room 104 of the Olin Arts Center. The public is welcome to attend both talks free of charge.

Focusing on the 19th century in his first lecture and the 20th century in his second talk, Howard will explore the changing face of the United States through a culinary prism to answer the question: How does America, with its peculiar history and regionality, define its identity in terms of a distinctly national cuisine?

Drawing on his personal 1,000-piece collection of 19th- and 20th-century cook books, Howard, who has lectured on culinary history at Radcliffe College and the University of Southern Maine, will introduce his topic by way of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome and medieval Europe. A short look at 17th- and 18th-century cook book manuscripts, including ones from Martha Washington’s family and a little-known 1797 Maine book Mrs. Gardiner’s Receipts will preface the main part of his talk on 19th-century women who cooked and wrote numerous cook books. Howard will discuss the influences of slavery, the Civil War, the industrial revolution, immigration and the Victorian age on American cooking. During his first talk, Howard will look at individual writers such as Abby Fisher, a former slave, accomplished cook and author of What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking, the first document of its kind representing the tradition of African-American cooks.

Howard will consider rare tomes from his collection, such as an 1827 edition of The Cook’s Oracle, whose author, William Kitchiner, M.D., addresses the subjects of home cookery, including foreign wines, medicine, home decoration, repair, music and literature. Howard also will raise individual questions of interest, providing answers to such queries as who invented Indian pudding? When did the tomato appear in the American diet and why was it considered poisonous?

In his second talk, Howard will take the audience on a centennial journey, highlighted by slides of original cook books from his collection, representing an important publication of each year from 1896 to 1996. He will consider the evolving 20th-century in light of its explosion of culinary publications, books, advertisements and periodicals. “America came late to cook book publishing but has outdone itself, especially in the utter proliferation of more recent years,” Howard said.

Topics of the 20th century include a discussion of “Aunt Sammy’s Radio Recipes,” a popular national radio program from the 1930s broadcasting useful recipes and cooking lore to a depression-era audience. Howard also will consider the 20th-century phenomenon of celebrity cookbooks, especially those at mid-century by Pearl Bailey, Kate Smith, Liberace, Kim Hunter, and Yul Brenner.

The coordinator of Bates’ Olin Arts Center and an distinguished pianist, Howard also is an accomplished cook. “I have been an ardent reader and collector of cook books for about 20 years. I grew up in a family of some ethnic variety — Italian, Arabic and Eastern European — all of whom were skilled and enthusiastic cooks. As a young person I was surrounded by fine home-cooked food wherever I went,” Howard said. “I have come to recognize in myself a peculiar inquisitiveness about people and history, what one might call ‘domestic curiosity.’ I always enjoy knowing what people like to eat, why and what they do in their kitchens,” he said.

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