13 October 2009

Research: A Moveable Feast

By Jennifer Mueller

Your characters are dressed in the latest fashions. They're moving in a world of politics and intrigue, walking through the halls of grand architecture or escaping stifling hovels. They dance with abandon. But when they sit down to eat a sumptuous feast or a meager breakfast and you don't know what the king ate or the jester drooled over.

My husband asks periodically why I have so many cookbooks when I don't cook that much. My first stop at a used bookstore is either the travel section or the cookbooks. Some I pick them up in the countries I've visited. Historical sites often have reproductions and my husband rolls his eyes. I could look it up on the Internet, sure, but when the Horizon Cookbook and Illustrated History of Eating and Drinking Through the Ages is on the shelf, why would you? I still have to resort to it when the country or era is more obscure, but for menus, recipes, and the history behind all the times it does cover, its answered most of the questions I've had. As long as it's covered.

Then again I can always fall back on Chocolate Cooking with the World's Best Ingredient--an entire book on, you guessed it, the history or chocolate. Or Columbus Menu: Italian Cuisine After the First Voyage of Christopher Columbus is another great one. Recipes from the Kenyan Coast offers a bit more off-the-beaten-track cuisine.

My shelves have a bit of everything, to tell the truth. Pioneer cooking? I can do that with my The Little House Cookbook, Eating up the Santa Fe Trail, and Wagon Wheel Kitchens: Food on the Oregon Trail. I can even Feast and Fast with Louis and Clark, a weighty tome that not only tells you what they ate, but how and why it was packed. There are more little pamphlets from museums, more than I care to count. And an old cookbook from 1879, Housekeeping in Old Virginia is sure to make an appearance too.

If I need older books, there are several from the Colonial and Revolutionary period: The Virginia Housewife, The First American Cookbook, and Colonial Virginia Cookery. Overseas, there's The Around the World Cookbook, which is a good doorstop as well as an all around great book to look at. I even have a 1960s version of Favorite Recipes from the United Nations.

Historical in those are a bit harder to find when you get out of the ever popular, Italian, French, and such. The Medieval Cookbook covers England and France mainly. The Good Housewife's Jewel goes back even a little further. That's where I fall back on the Internet. As much Cooking Maltese Cuisine can help me in the modern day, it just doesn't do anything for 500 years ago.

Old or new, it doesn't matter. I love cookbooks. And yes I'm sure my husband will continue to roll his eyes for years to come. Hmm, maybe I should give him my wish list for Christmas. My kitchen bookshelves are full, but I'll figure something out.