“FROM HARDTACK TO HOME FRIES” was a title that intrigued me from the very first time I heard about it. Subtitled, “An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals”, author Barbara Haber delves into such topics as the “Irish Famine and America”, “Civil War Nurses and Diet Kitchens”, “The Harvey Girls: Good Women and Good Food Civilize the American West”, “Home Cooking in the FDR White House”, African American Cooks and their Heritage and even “Cooking Behind Barbed Wire: POWs during World War II”.
What really intrigues me, when I see something published such as Barbara Haber’s “FROM HARDTACK TO HOME FRIES” is that the topics are often the very same subjects that I have written about in the Cookbook Collectors Exchange in the past, and that other food historians have been studying and writing about, too. However, Barbara Haber has written about these and other subjects, presenting an unusual approach to a number of different aspects to our culinary history.
Accurately, the subtitle “An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals” reflects this unique approach. For instance, although I have read numerous books about the Civil War, I didn’t know that more men died in hospital beds than on the battlefield. I didn’t know what an enormous contribution women made in saving lives in those Civil War hospitals, often defying doctors’ misguided dietary orders to save lives.
Barbara Haber has had a distinguished career as Curator of Books at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies. She is a popular speaker and writer on culinary history and has been profiled in prominent publications such as Newsweek, Bon Appetit Magazine, and the New York Times. For her contributions to food and cooking, Ms. Haber was elected to the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who in American Food and Beverages and was given the prestigious M.F.K. Fisher Award by Les Dames d’Escoffier.
Barbara Haber was hired in 1968, straight out of library school, to develop the women’s history collection at Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library. Back in the 60s, food—culinary history—was not a top priority. Indeed, was “culinary historian” even in our vocabularies back then?
Actually, when Barbara became Curator of Books at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, she was responsible for developing the library’s comprehensive collection of books and other printed materials on the history of women in America—a collection, she explains, that from the first has included cookbooks and books on the history of food.
Barbara’s secret love was the Schlesinger Library’s culinary collection described, in those days as “a quirky assemblage of books on cookery and home economy”. After more than thirty years spent developing the library, lecturing and writing academic papers, Ms. Haber decided to take a leave from her position as curator of books and wrote “FROM HARDTACK TO HOME FRIES”
“Writing about food as a way to understand American history has not been a stretch for me,” writes the author in the Introduction to “FROM HARDTACK TO HOME FRIES”.
The library itself was founded in 1943 and has a distinguished manuscript collection that includes the papers of American women such as Betty Friedan, as well as the records of the National Organization for Women. “At the same time”, Barbara writes, “The Schlesinger Library has collected the records of women who were not well known, including labor organizers, activists for women’s health and ordinary homemakers. It was for this reason that cookbooks became part of our collection and that the Schlesinger Library holdings now include 16,000 cookbooks as well as the papers of such noted food writers as Julia Child and M.F.K. Fisher….”
“Cookbooks,” Barbara explains, “were recognized by the library as having essential connections to women’s history well before women’s history was recognized as a respected field of academic study. The field took off at the end of the 1960s, when academic women who have been activists in the civil rights, antiwar, and women’s rights movements came to realize that women in general had been excluded from the historical record. By way of setting the record straight, the resources of the library were called upon by faculty members, students, and independent researchers from all parts of the country and abroad, who came to research and write about women’s history. The cookbook collection, however, was generally ignored during this period as evidence of the past preoccupations of American women. Instead,” she reflects, “women’s studies specialists were more immediately intent on bringing visibility to the public activities of women and downplaying their kitchen duties, which seemed to symbolize women’s subordination and oppression by the patriarchy….”
All of this would change when women’s history came of age. However, she explains, scholars in the traditional fields such as literature, psychology, and sociology were late to the scene of culinary history and the important part women have played in this field.
“Well before food became a legitimate and exciting area of investigation in colleges and universities,” explains Barbara, “groups of nonacademic culinary historians were laboring in the vineyard of food history (I think that means us) “In fact,” says Barbara, “it was these groups especially which had been using the library’s cookbook collection for years, that nurtured my inclination to see food as a way of understanding not only individual and group behavior but whole civilizations and major world events…”
Barbara ‘s approach in “this uncommon history” has been to follow the food in published and unpublished memoirs, diaries, and oral histories that came out of some of the most defining moments of our country’s past. “So, for example,” she explains, “a manuscript collection from the Schlesinger Library allowed me to document the life of a famous Viennese restaurant in Harvard Square that gave welcome work to World War II refugees. Cookbooks have been especially valuable as primary sources and sometimes even more reliable than traditional scholarly evidence. In one instance, a cookbook written by FDR’s housekeeper proved more revealing than her memoir of her Washington years, its dull recipes proof that White House guests had been justified in complaining about the food…” (synchronicity! I have been reading Margaret Truman’s excellent “First Ladies” which includes Ms. Truman’s first hand experiences with FDR’s housekeeper, Mrs. Nesbitt, and how she came to be fired by President Truman).
Food was also, she says, a way of discovering unforeseen but revealing aspects of otherwise well-documented events. She writes, “…The importance of food in defining life came home to me in diaries written by Americans who were herded into Japanese prison camps in the Philippines after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and had to reconstruct their lives around whatever food they could find to eat….” (I was familiar with the starvation of the Jews and many other people in the concentration camps in Europe during World War II, and I have a copy of “In Memory’s Kitchen”, a unique cookbook compiled by undernourished and starving women in the Czechoslovakian concentration camp of Terezin—also known as Theresienstadt—but confess, I had no idea that ordinary Americans, non-military– struggled to survive in Japanese prison camps—this chapter alone was quite an eye-opener).
“Later,” writes Barbara, “looking at cookbooks written by African Americans, I was struck by how, when virtually every other vestige of a people’s heritage has been viciously removed, food remains to preserve their identity and connect them with one another and their homeland…”
As you undoubtedly realize, “FROM HARDTACK TO HOME FRIES” is not a cookbook. It could perhaps be more accurately described as a food history book. It is an enormously revealing and fascinating “uncommon history of Americans Cooks and Meals”. It will be a valuable addition to your collection.
“FROM HARDTACK TO HOME FRIES” by Barbara Haber was published in 2002 by THE FREE PRESS, a division of Simon & Schuster. It can be found on Amazon.com starting under $10.00 for a new copy, and used starting at 37c.
Barbara Haber is also the co-author of “From Betty Crocker to Feminist Food Studies: Critical Perspectives on Women And Food” published in 2005.
Review by Sandra Lee Smith