A Database of 5,000 Historical Cookbooks Is Now Online, and You Can Help Improve It

IN THE EARLY 1960S, JULIA Child and her husband handed Barbara Ketcham Wheaton the keys to their home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The famous couple was going to California for the summer, but they wanted their young neighbor to be able to continue one of her favorite activities: perusing Child’s collection of historical cookbooks.

Now an honorary curator of Harvard University’s Schlesinger Library Culinary Collection, Wheaton was then in her early 30s, with young children at home. She had left an art history PhD program a few years before to marry historian Bob Wheaton, but she still had a passion for the past. When she discovered her love of cooking, and her neighbor’s trove of unique books, Wheaton wondered: What if she turned the same methodology she had learned in art-history classes to a more humble text—the cookbook?

During long afternoons, Wheaton buried herself in the Schlesinger Library’s historical-cookbook collection. And she ventured to her neighbor Julia’s house, to pore over the famous chef’s cookbook collection. Wheaton didn’t know it at the time, but her curiosity about the books’ stiff pages, full of strange stains and descriptions of vintage sauces, would soon turn her into one of the best-known scholars of culinary history. “I started looking at old cookbooks and one thing led to another,” says Wheaton.

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