Between the Lines

Food for Health and Wealth: Five Centuries of Cookbooks and Recipes

19th century cookbook
Cooking Club Magazine, February 1901, Vanderbilt University History of Medicine Collections

Vanderbilt’s History of Medicine Collections is home to thousands of cookbooks, receipt books, and collections of home remedies. Food for Health and Wealth: Five Centuries of Cookbooks and Recipes, part of the libraries’ fall 2019 exhibition schedule, featured many of these rare (and sometimes not-so-rare) selections from the collection, exploring the development of cookbooks across the centuries, with emphasis on the connections between cooking, medicine, class, household management, and regional and ethnic identity. Highlights of the exhibit included a 1562 receipt book containing “secretes” for household remedies, early editions of works by women authors such as Hannah Woolley, Hannah Glasse, and Eliza Smith, handwritten recipe books from the 18th and 19th centuries, and cookbooks by prominent southern and African American writers such as Marion Flexner and Edna Lewis.

New York Times-bestselling author Anne Byrn, also known as the Cake Doctor, spoke on “The Doctor is in: Home Remedies and Recipes through History” at the exhibition’s opening. Byrn has conducted extensive research into historic remedies and recipes as part of her publications on historic cakes and cookies. After her talk, Byrn provided miniature cakes created with one of the earliest-known recipes for chocolate cake. Curator Christopher Ryland also led a tour of the exhibit, highlighting the origin of these collections, their relationship to the history of medicine, and what cookbooks can tell us about ourselves.