In The News

Historian to share cookbook history

This article originally appeared in the Daily Eastern News

By Amanda Wilkinson

A cultural historian plans to share her insight on how cookbooks are primary documents and can give a look into the past.

Penelope Bingham, a speaker for the Illinois Humanities Council Road Scholars Speakers Bureau, said this program is used to bring the arts to all parts of Illinois.

The free program begins at 2 p.m. on Feb. 23 at the Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site, 402 S. Lincoln Highway Road, in Lerna.

Mallory Laurel, the program coordinator for the council, said the program allows speakers to travel to various areas in Illinois and speak on a variety of topics.

“Some of them are actors, some of them are academics, others are just ordinary people who have a particular expertise in a subject that’s of curiosity to many around the state,” she said. “In addition to have high qualified speakers, they also have a lot of passion for their particular subjects.”

Laurel said Bingham studies cookbooks day and night.

“She lives and breathes this topic,” she said. “She has a real passion for the things that she talks about in her program as do many speakers on our program if not all of them.”

She said “Who Cooks? American Cookbooks and Changes in Gender Roles” is about looking at a cookbook critically and finding history within it.

“I use American cookbooks to tell a story about who we were, who we think were are, and who we wish we were because they are primary documents,” Bingham said.

She said she enjoys studying cookbooks.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” Bingham said. “It’s been a great way to get at things like that and start conversations because we all eat. A lot of us care about what we eat and have wonderful memories of a Thanksgiving meal or a mother’s cake.”

She said she currently has more than 2,000 cookbooks, including ones she uses and others she collects and studies.

“There are some that predate my existence,” Bingham said. “The oldest actually I have is (from) 1845.”

She said since women were the main users of cookbooks, it is obvious how the roles of them changed with time.

“The role of women in this country, in particular, started changing in the first half of the 19th century,” Bingham said.

At that time, she said you could see changes within the Lincoln family.

While Sarah Bush Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s stepmother, and Mary Todd Lincoln, his wife, were only two generations apart and had different levels of education, their roles in the family were changing, Bingham said.

“Just looking at those two women in one family, you can see the change in women’s roles,” she said.

Bingham said advancing technology played a big part in the change.

“The early 19th century, well, the whole century, has just amazing changes that happened in this country,” she said. “Partly they happened because of the technology — transportation, communication and printing technology. When you have a telegraph, everything changes. When you have cheap paper and cheap presses, everything changes. And of course, the railroads change everything.”

Bingham said looking at cookbooks is a great way to find history because food is the centerpiece for every occasion.

“Food is a great way to get at those because it’s universal,” she said. “Food is more important than just filling the belly it’s universal. There’s probably not a society in the world in which anyone can be born, come of age, get married or die without food being involved.”

Bingham said she is even starting to collect funeral cookbooks.

“It’s hard to find them but they’re great,” she said. “Most of them seem to come from Southern churches. One is called ‘Death Warmed Over.’ Another is ‘Food to Die For.’ And another one is how to run your own funeral called ‘Being Dead is No Excuse.’”

Bingham said the more she looks into the details, the more interesting history is.

“What’s really interesting is when you really have a chance to get down to the details, really read what people said and what was said about them and what they were thinking and what they thought was important,” she said.

Amanda Wilkinson can be reached at 581-2812 or