Awoman in Concord, Mass., once cooked a peacock, then sewed the meat back into the peacock's skin, its emerald and sapphire plumage intact, its beak and eyeholes gilded, its neck alarmingly upright on the serving platter. It was the spring of 1979, but the recipe was medieval.
A man in Salem, Mass., recently went to England to copy the copper cooking molds of the Duke of Wellington. Back home in New England, this metal artist makes reproductions. He is also working on a larger, "nomenclature" project. He calls it "a labor of love." It entails describing and cataloging, according to its function, antique cooking equipment and utensils of all kinds.
And, a couple in Cambridge, Mass., tonight will serve a full-fledged, 19th-century Russian banquet, fit for a czar, for 30 diners.
All are part of the Culinary Historians of Boston, a lively, growing, five-year-old group with 88 members in 15 states, from Maine to California, and headquarters in "the hub of the universe," according to Barbara K. Wheaton, one of its two cofounders.
"We are the only group with a truly national membership," adds the other cofounder, Joyce S. Toomre, who adds that, while culinary history as a serious pursuit is still in its infancy, curiosity about foods of the past has burgeoned over the last couple of decades.
This curiosity has increased, they say, partly as a result of an affluent society's increasing interest in foods of all varieties, their acquisition and their preparation. But culinary history encompasses not only the study of old recipes and ways of cooking. In fact, that is a minor -- some culinary historians would say insignificant -- part of the work. To begin with, recipes often weren't written down until fairly recent historical times. In addition, the first cookbooks -- those written through the 16th century -- were produced primarily by men largely ignorant of kitchens and cooking. Reading these books as historical documents in isolation can lead to erroneous conclusions. To say nothing of ruined puddings.
Culinary historians use the cookbooks of antiquity as only one primary source of research. Banquet menus, studies of wills, diaries, ledgers, household accounts and inventories, as well as analyses of literature and art, often prove much more fruitful. They study nutrition, diet, patterns of main ingredients and food habits, but not as ends in themselves. The history of food is social history, family history and women's history -- since the better part of most women's lives has been, and remains in large portions of the world, devoted to cooking.
The Culinary Historians hold monthly meetings in a conference room at WGBH, Boston's public TV and radio station. Members present formal papers or hear invited speakers on topics such as the history of eating implements; the history and mythology of "the great blue cheeses" (gorgonzola, stilton and roquefort); the role of the housewife -- the rise and fall of domesticity in the United States; the role of food in the life of a rural community in the Deccan plateau region east of Bombay; and the cookbook as a historical document: problems and perspectives.
Member David Miller, the metal artist from Salem, once gave a talk on late 19th-century food trade literature, concentrating especially on the Niagara Printing Company's Jell-O pamphlets (trivia: a man named Peter Cooper invented Jell-O in 1845). It is an interest of Miller's that springs from his work with molds. "Jell-O doesn't seem like it belongs in the 19th century," says Miller, "but food often surprises."
One snowy night this past January, about 30 members sat around the swimming-pool-sized conference table at WGBH to hear a talk on "cookbook 'deconstruction' " by guest speaker John Thorne. He is the iconoclastic publisher of the Simple Cooking Series and of "Simple Cooking," the Boston-based quarterly newsletter that advocates the pleasures of simple foods -- oatmeal, for example. Using risi e bisi (rice and peas) as his illustration, Thorne discussed the implications of the endless variations on the theme to be found in Italian cookbooks from Ada Boni to Marcella Hazan. "There is no such thing as 'seamless cookery,' " Thorne said.
Afterward, the group, including Boston Globe food writer Sheryl Julian and Chinese cookbook author and teacher Nina Simonds, sipped wine and talked shop.
The Culinary Historians work mainly as food writers, food retailers, nutritionists and cooking teachers. Their deeper interest in the origins of food and food as social history stems from their work as professionals. But they also count among their members a computer scientist, a musicologist and a coordinator of kidney transplants at Boston's Children's Hospital -- an array that must reflect general society's unflagging fascination with cooking.
The group also holds an annual "period dinner," such as this year's czarist banquet, where "all those words get put to work," says Toomre. Last year it was a celebration of the 200th birthday of Marie Antoine Care me (1784-1833), the celebrated French cook and gastronomist, inventor of charlotte russe, chef of Talleyrand, Czar Alexander I, George IV and Baron Rothschild. It was attended by 34 culinary historians and their guests at Wheaton's Concord home.
Wheaton is the one who cooked the peacock (using the usual roasting pan and poultry shears, plus embroidery scissors, taxidermist's wire and wire cutters, a shoemaker's leather needle and a vacuum cleaner fitted with an upholstery nozzle), not for "The Care me Bicentennial Bash," but for a 15th-century banquet at Harvard University's Dudley House. It marked the "multimedia culmination" of a semester-long course on Burgundian history taught by Harvard's Arthur Loeb.
More importantly, Wheaton is the author of "Savoring the Past: The French Kitchen and Table from 1300 to 1789," published by the University of Pennsylania Press in 1983.
It is a 341-page scholarly work, 20 years in the making. Erudite but witty, sweeping but thorough, it describes nothing less than the evolution of 18th-century French gastronomy, beginning with the banquets of the Middle Ages, when men and women ate from communal pies, "rummaging with the hand" to serve themselves. It also has been published in England and translated into French, and one reason Wheaton says she had for writing the book was to encourage more culinary history, "to point out the gaps."
Yet, much to Wheaton's continuing annoyance, her Concord neighbors insist upon referring to it as her "cookbook." There are 40 recipes at the end of the book -- just ahead of 50 pages of footnotes and bibliography. But these were meant "as illustrations," Wheaton says.
Wheaton lives in danger of being buried by cooking paraphernalia (numerous David Miller molds, for example, in both copper and plastic) and paper. She serves a visitor a triangle of luscious, orangewater-flavored gingerbread (adapted from a 1796 recipe by Amelia Simmons, who wrote the first American cookbook). Then she confesses she did not learn to cook until graduate school at Harvard (M.A., '54 in fine arts): "I'd already voted before I boiled my first potato." When her childen -- she and her husband have three -- were in nursery school she started spending her free time at the library. One day she "happened upon a medieval cookbook." Wheaton says that was just the beginning of what has become a passionate obsession.
As both a scholar and a cook, Wheaton has progressed. In her living room, in a place of honor, are two miniature architectural constructions. They are intricate, many-tiered models of fanciful places -- Belvede re Anglaise and Ruines de Babylone -- each one about 18 inches tall. The Belvede re is a regal thing, lime-green and yellow; the Ruines is a midnight-blue and white, and, authentically, looks about to topple into the rubble that is its base.
Both look as if they are made of clay; they aren't. Wheaton fashioned the structures out of edible pastillage, a malleable, clay-like substance made of sugar, water, glucose, flavoring and gum tragacanth; it hardens when dried. She found the recipe and the ground plans in Care me's 1815 "Patissier Pittoresque."
At her children's birthday parties Wheaton sometimes would serve candy on plates made of colorful pastillage, which is the same substance that Necco wafers are made of. "Then we would say to the children, 'Okay, now you can break the plate and eat that, too!' "
Toomre provided the menu and recipes for tonight's czarist banquet. She also provided a reading list that included not only 19th-century cookbooks in English, French and Russian, but general Russian history books, books on Russian food history and culture, 19th-century Russian travel diaries, Chekhov, Gogol and "War and Peace."
Once she dreamed of becoming a chef. Now, the Slavicist and assistant director of Harvard's core curriculum doesn't have time to cook except on weekends for herself and her husband, and maybe a few friends (her three children no longer live at home). She is hard at work, under contract with Harvard University Press, on the translation and annotation of an 800-page, 19th-century Russian cookbook.
The title is "Podarok molodym khozjajkom" (or "Gift to Young Housewives) by Elena Ivanovna Molokhovets. It was originally published in St. Petersburg by Molokhovets' husband as a surprise to his wife on her name day in 1861.
The recipes, 3,000-4,000 of them, will not be tested. When completed, the book will not be a cookbook meant for popular use, but a work of culinary history. Included is Molokhovets' recipe for snipe. At the end, Molokhovets suggests that the fat from the snipe and the bacon that surrounded it in the cooking be tored and used for greasing carriage wheels. It is this kind of detail that obviously delights the historical imagination of Toomre.
Twice, Toomre has given a course at Harvard called "Food in History and Literature." But she vows not to give it again until she has finished the cookbook translation. She began it a year ago last Christmas, and estimates that her painstaking work will end only "several years from now." On the other hand, Toomre may not repeat her course exactly as before. She says it is "really too complicated for undergraduates," since a student, "to get very much out of it," must be well-versed in so many disciplines -- art history, economics, numerous languages, anthropology, to name just a few.
Toomre stresses that "culinary history cannot be written by anyone without access to a major research library," such as Harvard's, the Library of Congress, or the Bibliothe que Nationale in Paris, the national library of France.
Harvard and the Culinary Historians enjoy a close relationship. It was five springs ago on the lawn outside the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women at Radcliffe College that the Culinary Historians had their first meetings -- brown-bag lunches. Later, the group met at Harvard's Adams House until they outgrew that.
This June, the Schlesinger Library and the Culinary Historians together will hold an international symposium on "Current Research in Culinary History: Sources, Topics, and Methods," the first of its kind to be held in the United States and modeled after past conferences held at Oxford University.
Since September, Wheaton and another group member, Pat Kelly, have been working on a short-title bibliography of all the culinary-related books in all of the Harvard libraries published through 1920. They hope to have it ready in time for the June symposium.
Barbara Haber, Schlesinger's curator of books, is another member of the Culinary Historians. She describes Wheaton as "the principal user" of the library's culinary collection, which includes 14 editions of Fannie Merritt Farmer's "Boston Cooking School Cookbook," including the first edition in 1896 and a French translation published in 1944. In turn, Wheaton says, "I couldn't do without Schlesinger. It's especially good on French regional cookbooks, which are largely unavailable."
The copy of Elena Molokhovets' book from which Toomre is translating once belonged to Elizabeth Schlesinger, one of the Schlesingers after whom the library is named; the other is her husband, Arthur M. Schlesinger, the Harvard historian (Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. is their son).
Established in 1943, the Schlesinger has become the leading research library on women. It is not only a storehouse of 25,000 books, periodicals, posters and pamphlets on women's rights, suffrage, social welfare and reform, post-1920 feminism, and other women's issues. Here researchers will also find 400 manuscript collections -- diaries, letters and other personal papers -- among them those of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Susan B. Anthony, Amelia Earhart and many lesser known and unknown women who nonetheless help "to document the roles of women and their contribution to society."
In 1961, the culinary collection began with a transfer of several hundred books on cookery and "domestic science" (otherwise known as home economics) from Harvard's Widener Library. Schlesinger already owned some 19th-century American cookbooks and an etiquette book collection. Today many of these books are of vital interest to scholars researching not only culinary history but the history of women in general. But at the time of the transfer, "nobody was looking at those books in that way," says Haber.
In 1974, Schlesinger received another gift: a vast and valuable cookbook collection -- 2,000 superb volumes -- from Samuel and Narcissa Chamberlain, themselves food writers and illustrators.
Eva Moseley, Schlesinger's curator of manuscripts, recalls, "Mrs. Schlesinger wasn't too happy about the Chamberlain books, and neither was I." They felt that the subject of cookery demeaned the seriousness of the library's main business: women's social history. "But," says Moseley, "I've come around."
Haber escorts a visitor down to the cool basement vault where all of Schlesinger's rare books and manuscripts are kept. (Cases of wine, too. "Appropriately," laughs Haber. "For our parties.") It is air conditioned, temperature controlled, dehumidified, dust-free and protected against the threat of fire by a system that douses flames with a gas, not water. Even though Haber continually buys newly published volumes, the Chamberlain books still comprise the bulk of the culinary collection, which is now 3,000-3,500 volumes strong.
One of the prizes here is Vincent La Chapelle's "Le cuisinier moderne" (or "The Modern Cook"), published in five volumes in The Hague in 1742. They are slim books of red and green and brown raised leather, written by the chef responsible for the first souffle'. Wheaton used these volumes of La Chapelle in researching her book.
French cuisine is indebted in many ways to La Chapelle. As Wheaton writes: "Of all the cooks who took part in France's culinary diaspora, Vincent La Chapelle, by writing down his recipes, left the most enduring monument." Of Care me's personal debt to La Chapelle in the writing of his own books, Wheaton adds: "He refers to 'Le cuisinier moderne' more frequently than to any other book of the 18th century."
Wheaton also pointedly notes that "the pie'ce de boeuf a l'ancienne in Julia Child's 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking' descends directly from La Chapelle's pie'ce de boeuf en surprise."
So it is fitting that Child should find her place on the Schlesinger shelves as well. Not just her books, but her private papers. Starting in 1976, Child -- who went to Smith College, but lives in Cambridge -- has been donating professional and personal correspondence, TV scripts, book proofs, fan letters and research notes to the library. They are kept in acid-free, sober-gray Hollinger boxes in Schlesinger's basement vault and will be closed to research until after her death.
Fifteen cartons of Child's, so far, are housed there. A preliminary inventory is enticing: "James Beard correspondence, 1974-79," "Pompidou party," "food processor correspondence" . . .
Where are Fanny Farmer's papers? "She didn't have any papers," Haber says of "the Mother of the Level Measure," who is buried less than a mile from the library, in Mount Auburn Cemetery.
The food essayist M.F.K. Fisher's papers are at Schlesinger, too, but they are not just restricted, as Child's are; they are sealed until 20 years after her death. So even a preliminary inventory is unavailable. "There is no information at all about them," Moseley says.
The sensitivity of living people about their papers is easy to understand. "They are often talking about other people in their letters," says Haber. "At the same time, our donors have a respect for history and their own place in it."
Culinary history, as it turns out.