Barbara Haber is the Curator of Books at the Schlesinger Library — where she developed a major culinary collection — at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. She has been elected to the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who in American Food and Beverages. She has also been given the MFK Fisher Award by Les Dames d’Escoffier, a worldwide society of women in the fields of food, fine beverage and hospitality. Haber has been profiled in a number of publications including Bon Appetit, The New York Times and Newsweek. She is the author of From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals, and has also co-authored the chapter on Culinary History in the Cambridge World History of Food. Haber is currently a senior advisory editor for Oxford University Press’s Encyclopedia of American Food and serves on the advisory boards of the University of California Food and Culture series and its journal Gastronomica. She is also a member of the foundation board of the International Association of Cooking Professionals (IACP) and she has published Women in America: A Guide to Books, and American Women in the Twentieth Century, a ten-volume series for which Barbara Haber was General Editor. She lives in Winchester, Massachusetts.
From Hardtack to Homefries, in nine concise chapters, presents the connection between women and food and uses that as a lens with which to view America’s history. Presented in an anecdotal style and based on substantial research from traditional and non-traditional sources, Barbara Haber focuses on subjects like The Irish Famine and America, Civil War Nurses, America’s Food Reformers, The Harvey Girls and the opening of the American West, Food in the FDR White house and what cookbooks mean. This readable and quirky book makes a strong case for Barbara Haber’s commitment to food studies as serious field of historical research.
Robert Birnbaum: This is a big topic, food history, and yet your book is not a big book…
Barbara Haber: It was very selective. If you’ll notice the subtitle says “An Uncommon History.” We were very deliberate about thinking that one through. We didn’t want anyone to think that this was a tome, that this was a comprehensive encyclopedia of food. It’s about a perspective and it’s a kind of quirky one, I suppose. But it’s mine and it’s something I have been convincing myself about for a long time. [To quote Gertrude Stein] That there is a there, there. When you put together women’s history or at least social history with food and use the lens that brings the two together, new stories will come out of very familiar territory. That’s what moved me. My choices had to do with things that I was interested in or challenged by. Could I get a new story out of the Civil War, for instance? That’s the most worked-over piece of American history there is. The sources that I used were mainly journals, memoirs and, of course, cookbooks. Not so much memoirs — I should say diaries and journals — because they are more immediate than memoirs. Memoirs often lie because people repair them and they want to be seen in the best possible light. I just picked up book after book of Civil War journals written by women — both in the North and the South — a lot of them I couldn’t stand to read. They were full of pieties about women’s duty…
RB: These were published?
BH: Yes, these were mainly published. More come out every year. People are combing archives all over the South and finding more of these things. The newer ones aren’t as good as the older ones. I immediately found some favorites. Women who did not fall under the rubric of Christian pieties and doing duty and all of that…really unique voices and individuals. In all cases they were working as nurses, mostly as volunteers. Then I narrowed it down to the food stories. And boy they were there.
RB: How does this fit into the way people study history?
BH: The traditional historians will know the journals and the diaries. They do not yet know how to use cookbooks. They are beginning to acknowledge them, but they are still not reading them with the equipment that it takes to read a cookbook.
RB: Some critics don’t see it that way. For instance, “While there is nothing wrong with culinary history per…it is laughable that such a subject is treated by academics as ‘an area of serious scholarly inquiry.’ Nobody refutes that women were long denied positions of real political, social, and economic power or that those few women who did hold sway were often unduly overlooked by historians. But to confer the same kind of academic attention upon women’s historical experiences as cooks and homemakers that we do upon significant events and men who immediately and directly influenced the course of history is to engage in serious intellectual dishonesty. And doing so also degrades the very advancements women have made during the last century.”
BH: That’s just a callow undergraduate (laughs). She’s 20 years late also. I use to deal with that in a very serious way, right here in the library, with colleagues who were feminist supporters of the women’s history collection. In the ’70s and all through the ’80s too, the emphasis by feminist historians was to set straight the public record. They were really looking at women’s public lives and contributions in work and labor movement and government and whatever. To be talking about food and cooking and kitchens was considered really retrograde. I understood that because these were people on a tenure track, trying to get established as academics and they couldn’t do that kind of work. Some of them extended it to believe that what I was doing was taking away from the seriousness of the subject as a whole. What’s happened in the last few years is that women’s history is mainstream enough — it’s arrived — and so people don’t have to justify it any longer. Historians are now looking quite seriously at the subject of women and food. I had a book on my desk — I should have left it here — by Hasia Diner who is looking at Jewish, Irish and Italian immigrants, called Hungering for America. In this book she found out what the food images were and what the identity was all about, around food for each of those separate groups. She is a well-regarded immigrant historian with an endowed chair…
RB: It seems like bad science or history to dismiss such data out of hand.
BH: Right. Not a priori, anybody dealing with food and trying to uplift it.
RB: Did feminist scholars see themselves apart from the revisionist radical history movement?
BH: No, it grew out of the whole social history movement. And Harvard was very much involved. Arthur Schlesinger, the father, was here and looking at records and finding out what large groups of people were doing, not just leaders. But there was something about kitchens and women that has been trivialized so that certainly male academics would find it shallow and the women accepted that in the service of their own political goals.
RB: As your book is being publishing, there was a piece in the LA Times about two men food journalists being up for National Magazine Awards suggesting that there was a new-found weight and seriousness attached to food writing.
BH: I’m quoted in that article. The story is about the fact that a major magazine is now considering for a top award two critics who happen to be food critics, not book or theater critics. That’s the story. I made the point that food is so hot now and so topical and people are really beginning to understand that it’s a field and a subject. Men have been good writers, like the two in the article, Jonathan Gold and Alan Richman. I made the point that they are truly good writers with voices. But the fact that men have come into this field is now elevating it. It was considered womanish. Two generations ago a lot of woman who wanted to be, perhaps political writers, were relegated to writing about their shoes or about food or that sort of thing.
RB: I thought that until recently it was men who were known for authoritative food writing. Craig Clairborne…
BH: Clairborne was an important journalist, that’s true. James Beard, also. If you got to the food pages of every newspaper outside of maybe two or three in this country, which is where the women are doing the writing. The men will be exceptions and they will be in top positions. By and large the hewers of wood and carriers of water…women are doing the dogged work of running food pages. But there are always exceptions.
RB: Isn’t it the case, that up until recently, men have dominated the restaurant world?
BH: Well, the professional cooks particularly in big restaurants and hotel kitchens are men. The star chefs have always been male chefs. But home cooking and writing about home cooking — which is what the food pages do — is a womanish occupation.
RB: What’s gourmet food?
BH: It’s not a word I use. It’s a word that Midwesterners will refer to things too fancy or expensive for them to cook.
RB: So you don’t make such a distinction?
BH: No, that’s a silly term. I think any foodie would say that. Or it means expensive. If you go to Formaggio (Huron Ave in Cambridge) one can describe the whole store as a gourmet place. What that means, I suppose, is that things are top of the line or expensive for that reason. But if you like really good food you don’t think of it that way.
RB: When Gourmet magazine was started, what was the claim they made for what they were doing?
BH: In my analysis it was a man’s magazine. If you look at the original Gourmet cookbook, there are a lot of game and wildlife recipes. The first issues had whiskey and beer ads and a lot of hunting stuff.
RB: Were you saying in your book that men cookbook writers had to take a mocking attitude towards women to justify their own efforts?
BH: They were themselves very good cooks and loved doing home cooking. They couldn’t just write a home cookbook the way men do today. In order for them to produce a cookbook that was about daily cooking for the home, to be taken seriously, they had to make fun of women and establish their credentials as superior, in a spoofing, in this tongue-in-cheek way. You get beyond the personae and there are very good recipes in some of those books. These guys really knew what they were doing.
RB: Besides John Thorne (Outlaw Cook) what men write about home cooking?
BH: There’s a couple, the Jamesons. If you look at Fred Plotkin’s work on different regions in Italy, he is really looking at home food, regular food that most people eat. And Chris Kimball.
RB: This has been a life-long interest of yours?
BH: Absolutely. When I started this kind of writing, any kind of writing, things surface. I remember being that little girl visiting a naval destroyer with my classmates and what they were interested in contrast to what I was interested in. I remember very little about the guns and the sailors and the drills…but I remember everything about the kitchen.
RB: Any theory about why some people are interested in food and someone like Eleanor Roosevelt had none?
BH: I’m a super-taster. Do you know about that?
BH: We had a wonderful experimental psychologist come here for an event. She does research on human taste. It’s hard to get money for that or so she said at the time, because people think, “Taste is that really essential? We should be studying cancer.” She maintains that taste is extremely important. Particularly when people get a lot older and that’s about it. That’s the enjoyment they have left…a good meal. And if they lose their sense of taste, it’s sad. And if that could be repaired it would be wonderful. Anyway, when she has a group in tow she examines them to see where they are on the scale of taste ability. She said about herself that she was practically a non-taster and most people are somewhere in the middle and there are some people who are super tasters. We went through two tests. She gave everybody a little square of paper that had been soaked in some kind of chemical. She said that most people won’t even flinch but super-tasters will find it very bitter or harsh on their tongues. She passed them out and not only did my tongue scream but the inside of my lips and all over my mouth…it was just really horrible. Her next test was like a litmus test and we stood in line and she looked in everybody’s mouth with a flash light and she got up to me and said, “Oh my god!” It was very funny because there were a lot of professional food writers in the group.
RB: Can she quantify this taste ability?
BH: Linda (Bartachek) probably could. She certainly has done enough studies so that she could tell you in a regular population and in a chef’s population what it’s like. She is very interested in testing people who go to food professionally. She found a higher correlation of super-tasters with people who go to food professionally.
RB: Is that the highest degree?
BH: You get non-tasters and super-tasters and there are gradations that have to do with the number of taste buds. I’ve always had a very intense reaction to food. Flavors and all the rest of it.
RB: How wonderful for you that from an early age you have an interest in something and continue on with that interest…how many people get to do that? That’s pretty rare.
BH: (laughs) That’s true. It was not exactly my profession until lately. I’ve had the best library job in the world. Most of my career here has to do with women’s history. It’s only since ’92 that I have been so committed to doing what I am doing now. I was at an Oldways conference in Spain for the commemoration of the Columbus crossing. I was assigned to talk about what Jews were eating in Spain in 1492. I was on a panel with academics who were talking about what Christians and Moslems were eating. I said, “Sure, I’ll find out.” I went to Israel and got into the middle of the Sephardic Jewish community — really terrific people — and it was hopeless because Jews, who moved around, immediately took up attributes of the cuisine and left some behind. It’s like a snowball at the top of a mountain. It rolls and rolls and rolls and then it melts. And then you don’t know what it is anymore. That was my experience there. I couldn’t make head or tail out of how the food went back and what was original to Spain in 1492 even though people I had been talking to traced their families back nine generations and the keys to their old houses. I wound up having to do library research. I found an unpublished dissertation. It was the trial testimony of 111 women living in Toledo, Spain — all accused of being crypto-Jews. Guess what? The accusations were by disgruntled servants and anonymous people. And the evidence all had to do with dishes; “She cooks her adafina with onions and chickpeas and carrots and no eels.” Dish after dish, I tweaked out of this horrible tribunal. Half these women were burned at the stake. What I saw in the document is that this was a time that all the teachers and the rabbis and the people who kept their Jewish identity all exiled or fled. Who remained were women who could not eat traif and taught younger generations of women how to cook the way they had been taught. I saw that as women as community builders and carriers of the culture. So I gave that double view at my talk and people were just blown away. It was the first time I had done this work. I kept on doing that. I would give talks and find my own particular angle — always women’s history, always food — to see what I could open up. And it kept on working and I would throw myself into this work thinking, maybe someday I’ll do a book. Now I have.
RB: Is there really a kosher Cajun cookbook in the Schlesinger Library?
BH: Yes! (laughs) I remember buying it.
RB: How many cookbooks did the library start with?
BH: When I came here it had at least 1500 books. My theory is that the library had some domestic economy books because they are very prescriptive, they say what has to be done in the home and what women ought to be doing. The library quickly took on an identity within other Harvard libraries as “the cookbook library.” A bunch of cookbooks were just sent over here way before I arrived. Maida Heater’s cookie book was already here, the first edition. I later found out those books had been purchased by Lamont and Hollis as leisure reading books and then were chucked out. I was invited by the collection development people at Widener to come down and take a look at the domestic economy books they had that they were going to get rid of. I went down to one of the sub basements of Widiner and there in deed was a whole big shelf of domestic science books — a lot of good stuff — and they were shelved right next to mortuary science. So I took a lot of the books then and that a happened a couple of times. In the early years I was told not to add to the culinary collection, that’s not what the library did. The library was a women’s history library.
RB: “Add to” meaning purchase or accept as a donation?
BH: Mainly purchase and the donations were not forthcoming except from the Harvard libraries because we had no publicity in those days. People didn’t really know what we had here until everything else happened.
RB: And now you have 16,000 cookbooks.
BH: Now we have 16,000 and it’s an extremely well known collection. People make the mistake of thinking we have the biggest in the country. It’s not, but we know what we’ve got and we have people here who can really advise readers. So people come and get real good reference help here.
RB: When I met you a few years back you had just acquired the Ella Fitzgerald cook book collection. I remember you saying that the library doesn’t always accept donations — you have a space crunch, like every library.
BH: Yes, every library has a space crunch. If people call and they say, “Aunt Sara died. The family has picked out what they want. Do you want the rest?” I say, “Unless you want to list them, so that I only will take what the library really will truly put on the shelves, I’ll take them all. This is what we do with duplicates. I check if better copies come along I switch them with what we’ve got and everything else is sold at our Christmas sale and the money goes right back into the collection.” And it just a nice community thing now.
RB: Do I have the figures right? 16,000 cookbooks out of a total 40,000 volumes?
BH: No, we have more than that. We have probably 70,000 books of women’s history.
RB: Is there any way of knowing how many cookbooks have been written?
BH: Nobody knows. The professional term for that is ‘bibliographic control.’ Especially with the community books, these little books that come out of churches and fund-raising efforts, nobody knows. I’m always astonished — I think I know a lot — particularly about American writers. Whenever I get one of these collections, Aunt Sadie dies and left the collection, I’m amazed I will find another book by an author I am very familiar with, who did a book I didn’t know about.
RB: Was the Cross Creek Cookbook [by Marjorie Rawlings, who wrote The Yearling] well known?
BH: Yes, it was because Maxwell Perkins was her editor. But it wasn’t talked about. The best part of writing my book was reading all this stuff. I didn’t realize how good she was. I read Cross Creek and Cross Creek Cookery and then I read books written by her black maid who objected to the fact that they [black cooks] didn’t get more credit. So now I really know a lot about Rawlings and [Lillian] Hellman. I was so intrigued that authors of that caliber had written cookbooks.
RB: The book is subtitled, An Uncommon History. Why?
BH: What’s unusual about my book? Probably making the case that cookbooks are documents to be trusted. In the Eleanor Roosevelt chapter that was…my conclusion that I was thrilled about because it was so unusual that the person that I was trying to find out about [Mrs. Nesbitt, FDR’s White House cook] left behind both a memoir and a cookbook, written, more or less at the same time. I found the memoir so full of self-justification and aggrandizement and the cookbook an honest document.
RB: Do you think Mrs. Nesbitt was unjustly vilified?
BH: I’m quite convinced that she was a boring and bad cook. And she was fired by the Trumans. She pulled the same stuff with Harry Truman. It’s such an Eleanor Roosevelt story; I felt that there was this incredible loyalty…
RB: And then Eleanor Roosevelt, who has is indifferent to food, makes another appearance in your book…
BH: Yes, with the Window Shop, no interest in the food, but it was about the cause.
RB: Will there be more books like this one from you? Since you are not writing this chronologically…
BH: I’m not that kind of worker. The book is doing well. My agent called and said this would be the time to offer another proposal. I just about fainted. The expectations of this book have not been enormous because it’s not a tome and it’s quirky. But it’s hitting people for some reason. You don’t think it would be a sell out if I did “Son of…”? You know, did the same kind of book?
RB: I wouldn’t call it “Son of…” John Thorne had another book besides Outlaw Cook…
BH: His books are collections of pieces from his newsletter. I’m also a short-form writer. And I like going from one subject to another.
RB: No. I don’t think it would be a sell out. There seems to be a lot of material still to be covered. Western food habits or even Native American influences on food would be interesting subject. You characterize New England food as not being exciting. Besides the joyfulness that comes from immigrant cultures is there a distinctly American love for food; is there any area that really shines?
BH: New Orleans, of course. That’s the place that is the most food-oriented in the European sense. The way it is in Paris, for instance, where a lot of traditions like Mardi Gras which has a lot of food-related customs and traditions. The rest of it has been imported. When Italians came here, they lived in little enclaves based on what part of Italy they came from and there became an Italian American cuisine, which is not authentic. All that red sauce stuff. Tuscan food was very new to people. They didn’t realize the bread culture in Tuscany until recently. That food has been refined and restaurants are to be credited for that. American food, still in the Midwest and south — it’s not very good.
RB: What’s wrong with Wonder Bread?
BH: There’s a wonderful anecdote about an Italian immigrant writing home. He wrote, “Life is hard and the bread is soft.” A historian took that to mean that life may be hard but there are compensations. I said, “No, it was a completely ironic statement.” In the 19th century it was considered not good to buy store bread, it was dangerous and you might get sick.
RB: What is artisanal loaf?
BH: The kinds of breads it’s now possible to get in the Stop & Shop, they are crusty and they are bringing them in from New York and they cost $4.00. That’s artisanal bread. (laughs)
RB: An extension of the ‘gourmet’ concept?
BH: They are really are crusty breads, tasting of wheat and they really are very good products. They are made in smaller batches and so they cost more. They have olives in them and all the rest of it. I just like a plain Tuscan loaf, or a country loaf that has more wheat flour. Crusty is the key. The professional term is ‘artisanal’ for that kind of bread.
RB: When did you notice this boom in food interest in pop culture and the evidence for it?
BH: Boy, that’s complicated. I read so much and it seems that more and more people are interested in history. People looking beyond the recipes and intrigued by where things came from. Or the ‘why’ question and always the ‘who’ question. Who was the first to do this or that? More questions of that sort from journalists. I hear from a lot of food writers who need some quote about history and it’s accelerated. It used to be you would just hear from them at Thanksgiving or maybe Valentine’s Day form food and sex and chocolate story. Now it’s more routine. So that the writers themselves are intrigued and the editors are allowing a little of this to creep into the stories. My gut feeling is that people really like history if it’s made relevant to them and the food will be the route to that. But that has to be proven each time. So many people are taught badly and they had to memorize dates and learn the ascendancy of kings and presidents. My agent said, “Avoid the word ‘history,’ Barbara, whatever you do.” What does that tell you? The point is that people like knowing this stuff, but you say the word and it sounds academic and of no interest. I really don’t like academic writing at all. Using plain English, you can say all that stuff. I’m allergic to academic writing and my editor made sure none of it crept into the book.
RB: People seem to agree that there weren’t any good restaurants in Boston 10 or 15 years ago.
BH: When Chris Schlesinger opened up the East Coast Grill, it was a real novelty. The restaurants were Loch Obers and the places in the North End, all red sauce. There wasn’t a restaurant culture. People had more money, younger people delaying marriage, women working. You have to say that. Eating out or getting decent take-out was a new kind of thing.
RB: That explains more restaurants, not necessarily good ones.
BH: Okay, okay. Eating out became an entertainment. People would gather and meet together and pay for it. It was cheaper than dinner and the theater. People read these magazines and take cooking classes. This is still about the East Coast not the whole country. Sure, Chicago has good restaurants, Milwaukee, too, but a lot of these towns, these smaller towns, don’t. We are still talking urban. People are more savvy. Remember when you wouldn’t see yogurt in grocery stores. That was a new food. Food is so complicated. Corporations took over the work of the renegades and the counter culture and now organic food is big business. People think — if they have the money, they’ll buy their health — and so Bread and Circus has big prices for all that stuff. At the same time, if you live in a good town, your regular super market will have good produce. If you live in a lousy part of town, you’ll get the dregs. That’s an issue. That’s infuriating. Poor people pay more and get worse food.
RB: What about the American preoccupation with obesity?
BH: Poor Americans. We’re grazing; we are eating everywhere. The fast food thing has sprung up so much. Guys are eating hamburger everyday. If you talk to someone with a real hamburger habit, it’s really shocking. Like any literacy, food literacy is important. We need to teach people better eating habits.
RB: Knowing about diets is not the same as knowing about food.
BH: When those Nabisco cookies that are all sugar and no fat — I forgot what they were called — they were very popular, the commercials showing fat ladies waiting for the trucks carrying those cookies, rushing to buy them because they contained no fat. Literacy about what that means, low cholesterol doesn’t mean you eat no fat. I know people who got diabetes in this period because they stuffed down boxes and boxes of those cookies and gained weight and all the rest of it. So there is a complete illiteracy about nutrition, which is a boring subject. And also about fine eating. Fine eating to me is buying good fish and fresh vegetables. And that’s what we eat three or four nights of the week. I consider it a real privilege to be able to buy the quality of fish we can buy.
RB: Tell me about the Food Studies Movement?
BH: It’s developing. We are getting a lot of people coming to the library with dissertation projects. It’s so reminiscent of the women’s history movement, the early years of women’s history. When people had to get permission or had to find a sympathetic professor to let them do a topic of interest. Now the same thing is happening with food. It’s hard because the professorial people don’t know food. Or they assume because they eat that they are experts. It’s a huge subject and it has a lot of depth and it’s interdisciplinary the way women’s history is. And you have to understand what you don’t know. I think that’s always the thing. It can be extremely sophisticated work and we are seeing more students from major universities popping in and doing great stuff and getting permission to do it. But degree programs are slow in coming. NYU has one.
RB: Are the British more progressive and involved in food history?
BH: The Oxford Symposium is the earliest and the longest running conference on food history anywhere. Two eccentrics, one an Oxford don, Theodore Zeldin, and Alan Davidson who wrote the Oxford Companion to Food, these two guys established a food history symposium 20 something years ago. Largely because of this symposium and Davidson’s work — he started a journal Petit Propos Cuilinaire — and a publishing house called Prospect Books, these are reasons that England might be ahead of us.
RB: I remember sometime in the early ’80s, I read a great long piece in The New Yorker on tomatoes, the first time I had ever read anything on food.
BH: Every once in a while they do a food piece. The recent issue has Calvin Trillin back writing about a restaurant in his neighborhood. Corby Kummer in The Atlantic is doing this kind of thing. Jeffrey Steingarten in Vogue…
RB: I used to love reading Jim Harrison’s The Raw and Uncooked column in Esquire.
BH: If I write more of this stuff I really want to look at male food writers and see what makes them sing. My hypothesis is that women food writers are still emulating MFK Fisher and it’s about feeling and it’s about love. Men don’t do that.
RB: Do you have a sense that people who have a great devotion to food think much about nutrition?
BH: It depends. I hate to generalize. One of the real gastronomes I know is Jeffrey Steingarten, who wrote The Man Who Ate Everything, he is hot to pooh-pooh any kind of subject and he does his homework. He really digs in and does all that research. Probably eats too much. But that’s his work. People who are restaurant-goers the way he is, who really are out looking for the next thrilling new thing or the best bread stick in the entire world. I’ve been at meetings, five nights out of six, we are sitting to huge dinners with wine at every course and it takes all night. And you get what is a called a night on your own and I’ll just get under the covers. The rest of them have reservations at the finest restaurant in the area. They don’t want to miss it. It’s that kind of mentality. Not wanting to miss out. I consider myself an amateur. I’m not in that rank at all. Paula Wolfort and Nancy Jenkins and all those people will remember what they ate and at what restaurant and all of that. I’ll remember generally, what the culture was, what was strange, what was fun. What I liked and didn’t like. I don’t have any quirks. I eat most things and so what will strike me as odd is someone who is a vegetarian who joins the ranks of this group. I’m sort of in-between in all of this…trying all the perspectives. That’s really what I’m interested in. I’m really interested in what meaning people give to food.
RB: Good. Thank you so much.
BH: It was a pleasure.