Preserving on Paper

Preserving on paperCookbook enthusiasts often read vintage cookbooks for entertainment, using them to imagine past ways of cooking and eating. Kristine Kowalchuk also enjoys digging into old cookbooks, although she approaches them from a very different perspective. As part of her Ph.D. thesis at the University of Toronto, Kowalchuk wrote Preserving on Paper, a critical edition of three seventeenth-century ‘receipt books’. These handwritten manuals included a combination of culinary recipes, medical remedies, and household tips which documented the work of women at home.

As she was writing the book, Kowalchuk believed that receipt books served as a form of folk writing, where knowledge was shared and passed between generations. The texts played an important role in the history of women’s writing and literacy and contributed greatly to issues of authorship, authority, and book history. But now, Kowalchuk thinks that the books represent something even more important. 

In a recent article on the website The Recipes Project, Kowalchuk explains why she sees these books as “the ultimate feminist texts.” The cookbooks represent a time when women were the authorities on a number of subjects such as food and medicine. Over the intervening centuries, Kowalchuk argues, the cultural outlook changed to a more patriarchal viewpoint, where “values of dominion over nature, individualism, and capitalism arose as new, male-dominated professions – chefs, doctors, and apothecaries – assumed individual authority over women’s collective knowledge and dismissed, ridiculed, and persecuted the women who persisted with special knowledge in food and medicine.”  Reading old ‘receipt books’ with this viewpoint, we learn that women were vital to advancing the scientific method, among other accomplishments. 

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