I am a mageirocophile. To those unaware, mageirocophilia is the love of cooking. With cooking, I get a little carried away. I devote my Mondays to food prep. I probably get too excited about grocery shopping. I have an overflowing binder of recipes, along with hundreds of bookmarks on my laptop’s browser of dishes I would like to make some day. Fantasizing about food is a prime procrastination activity for me. As I have done with other interests of mine, such as feminism and environmentalism, I have recently begun questioning what roles food and cooking can play in the realms of libraries and archives. For this article, I wanted to go beyond examining the common practice of making a library display of cooking popular cookbooks. Although it is true that resources related to cooking constitute the largest portion of circulating nonfiction books in public libraries, I wanted to focus instead on the methods that LIS organizations use to engage more actively with patrons on the subject of food.
Gourmet Style Archival Outreach
At the Society of American Archivists (SAA) Conference in 2016, I attended a session entitled “Recipes from the Culinary Collections: Creative (and Tasty!) Approaches to Outreach.” I remember the speaker covering such wide-ranging topics as World War II-era recipes, the racial politics of brown sugar, and decades-old menus from Dartmouth University’s special holiday dinners. As an archival studies student, one of the things I love about archives is how personal they can be, how you can oftentimes get so much insight into people’s day-to-day lives. Learning about how and what people used to eat definitely facilitates that aim. After all, the archival organizations mentioned in the presentation were rather successful at garnering enthusiasm for the collections with their food-related documents and displays. Connecting people to the past with food is clearly an enriching practice.
Even with as much brain space as I devote to all things culinary, I tend not to think of myself as any kind of cooking expert, since I almost exclusively follow recipes, rather than coming up with my own dishes. Still, when I voiced this thought to my partner, she countered that following recipes is a learned skill that should not be taken for granted. It is true that, with the fading away of high school home economics classes over the last several decades, basic knowledge of kitchen equipment and cooking techniques is not something that should be assumed. An illustration of this fact that I remember fondly is a moment when my younger sister was helping me with in the kitchen once. I asked her to peel some cloves of garlic, and she responded with eyebrows raised, “You have to peel garlic?”
As it turns out, some libraries have stepped up to fulfill this educational need. In 2014, the Free Library of Philadelphia created a Culinary Literacy Center that serves both instructional and gustatory purposes. The classes at this Center include such titles as “Edible Alphabet: Learning English Through Cooking,” “A Taste of African Heritage,” and “Kitchen Science: Cookie Lab.” Philadelphia is far from the only example. There have also been cooking classes offered at the Gates Public Library in Rochester, New York; the Maitland Public Library in Maitland, Florida, and the Burton Public Library in Burton, Ohio, as well as a general adulting class that includes culinary instruction at Oregon’s North Bend Public Library. Not gonna lie, I get quite geeked hearing about projects such as these.
Fighting Food Deserts
In another life, I was heavily involved with environmental activism, especially food justice efforts. I interned one summer in an urban agriculture organization. As an undergraduate student, I conducted research on the history of food desertification in my hometown of Detroit for one of my classes. As such, endeavors to increase disadvantaged communities’ access to healthy, culturally relevant foods really excite me. One such library-centered effort is the Virtual Supermarket Project in Baltimore, Maryland, in which certain branches of the Enoch Pratt Free Library participate. In areas of Baltimore where what little healthy food that is available is often sold at inflated rates, the Virtual Supermarket Project allows people to order and pick up such food at supermarket prices from convenient locations. What’s more, the Project allows payment through EBT/SNAP, cash, or credit or debit cards, making this system both geographically and economically accessible. Although this Project is not meant to be a permanent solution to the Baltimore food desert, it is incredibly necessary and has helped many.
As many of us have argued to friends, family, and complete strangers, libraries are not just for books anymore, if they ever were, and archives are not just dusty basements with forgotten documents. LIS institutions are highly adaptable, and the information you can find in them can be surprising. In light of the Aristotelian mind/body dualism that is emphasized in a lot of educational systems in the U.S. and in other Western countries, in which the needs of the mind and those of the body are seen as entirely separate, in my view, it is fantastic that a few LIS organizations are providing both intellectual and gustatory nourishment.
*650 is the Dewey Decimal number for cookbooks.
The cover image is a photo taken by the author of a pot pie topped with biscuits that she made.
Ayoola White is a history and archives management dual degree student at Simmons College.