A History of Women and Cooking

Barbara Haber

Guest speaker Barbara Haber, noted author and retired Curator of Books at the Radcliffe Institute’s Schlesinger Library, this morning presented Women’s History and Food History: New Ways of Seeing American Life in the Mumford Room at the Library of Congress Madison building (map) (metro).
The room, which had seating for approximately 150 audience members, was packed. A Q&A session and book signing followed the presentation.

Barbara began her talk with a bit of personal history—landing her first job after finishing two post-graduate degrees, namely the curator position at Radcliffe, which she held for 34 years. When she started they had 8,000 volumes, and because she “could not be stopped,” when her tenure was over the collection housed 80,000 titles. Julia Child contributed a large number from her own collection (mostly on French cooking, for which she is most famous) to the library. In 2001, Julia also donated her kitchen to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History (map) (metro).

During her career, Barbara spent much of her time researching all of this material and writing books. Her presentation continued with fascinating topics including Civil War “diet kitchens,” which were run by nurses (an unknown occupation before the war), the Irish Potato Famine, World War II POWs (both civilian and military) in Manila, and the notorious bad food served at the White House during FDR’s three terms as president. Much of her research involved pouring over countless personal journals, diaries and letters.

A selection of rare and unusual cookbooks and other works of culinary interest were also on display for visitors to enjoy. Both Intemperance (wine/rum punch) and Temperance (lemonade) beverages were served along with an assortment of baked goods made from LoC staff family recipes.

A real perk of living in the DC area are the many, and as in the case of of the Library of Congress, free events. I’m looking forward to the October 17th, The Physics of Superheroes, to be presented by physicist and author James Kakalios. More on that in a later post.

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