Many of us live in the world of food and follow the openings and closings of restaurants, keep tabs on chefs and their whereabouts, search out the new vogue ingredients (I’m loving the appearance of black garlic everywhere!), and occasionally attend food events. I guiltily, though pleasurably, do all of the above…but only recently became totally fascinated with food history.
Right before I left for Africa, I attended a talk at the New York Public Library. The guest speaker, Grant Achatz, obviously had my attention, but the woman who introduced him had sparked a new interest for me. She announced that she was in charge of the menu collection in the rare books section. Before that moment, I didn’t even know menus were collected and categorized, let alone rare menus! Yes Grant, I love your nitrogen frozen wagyu draped over a perfectly cubed, buttery potato with aged balsamic and tableside picked thyme…but I’d like to hear a little bit more about these preserved pieces of paper that document what people ate in restaurants 200 years ago.
A week later, I went through the process of obtaining a library card, and eventually, access to the rare books room. Then I had to create a list with all the items I wanted to view, which meant perusing an endless amount of on-line data. It was honestly a bit daunting, and to top it off, I had to come back because they couldn’t pull any menus until the following day. I ended up catering for the next few days and never made it back to the library before I left.
Wouldn’t you know, something better (and easier) fell into my lap. I was catering uptown, right across from my roommate’s workplace, so he offered to give me the grand tour (only because I was complaining about the need to waste an hour before my call-time, and it was too cold outside). We popped into the Academy of Medicine on 103rd and 5th and headed straight to the restoration room. Upon stepping foot into the work area, which was strewn with prints, books, lots of leather and chemical equipment, we stopped in front of his colleague’s table and our jaws fell open. We ooh’ed and aah’ed over three original Vesalius prints. It is believed that Andreas Vesalius produced the most profound work on human anatomy in the 16th century. I was looking at prints, 2 feet from my face, from the 1500s. I hadn’t expected to encounter such beautiful, or historically groundbreaking, work when I stepped into my roommate’s office building.
And from here on out, the story gets even better. Jon then casually mentioned that I’m a cook. It turns out the library has an extensive cookbook collection that was donated primarily by one food-savvy woman, Dr. Margaret Barclay Wilson. His colleague, Anne, looked at me, smiled and walked over to the vault to pull out a book: “I think I have something you’ll really appreciate then,” she gleamed. She came over with a box and slowly lifted the lid. I could tell it was a tease, but in what context, I wasn’t sure. The book was Apicius–the earliest cookbook in the West! There is only one other copy, supposedly, and it resides in the Vatican. The one in the New York Academy of Medicine is from the 9th century and older than the copy in Italy. Really cool old cookbook in New York v. same really cool, slightly less old, cookbook in Italy… 1:0. Take that, stodgy (yet glorious) Vatican city!
She opened the delicate binding and pushed the book towards me. I touched the velum, which felt surprisingly like peach skin. The book was composed by many monks and is thought to have been a practice in calligraphy for them. It was written much as a novel–there are no pictures and no list of ingredients. I don’t understand much Latin (aside from persona non grata, de gustibus non est disputandum, quid pro quo, et cetera!) so Anne, the restorer of these precious objects, explained that many important details are left out of the recipes. For example, let’s say you wanted to try a new pancake that’s all the rage; the monks would have said, “make the batter and then add chocolate chips and banana.” They assumed you already knew how to make the batter so therefor left out that ‘irrelevant’ tidbit in the instructions.
She then flourished another piece of art in front of my face. Scappi. He was a chef for Pope Pius V, but is recognized for his documentation of kitchen recipes and tools. The first known depiction of the fork is in the back of his collection. The book is beautiful. It’s almost transcendental. I think I felt more emotion looking at these two early cookbooks than does a man stranded on a desert island re-experiencing his first bite of medium rare ribeye (basted in butter of course).
I immediately booked a day in the rare books room so I could spend some quality one-on-one time with a few of these legends. Today I read through a hand written manuscript from 1791 where a woman not only collected food recipes, but included recipes for varnish, cement, burn salves and many other remedies that were left up to the housewife to know. The book was old, ruffled at the edges, smeared with food stains, and obviously written with care. I pulled out my own boring, yellow leather book that I carry everywhere in case I’m hit by food inspiration. Hers was so much more interesting…!
I read through compilations of popular recipes from the 16th-19th century. I flipped through old, foreign menus. Basically I only skimmed the surface and can hardly wait til next week when I can go spend a few hours in a gorgeous room that’s decorated with skulls and houses George Washington’s dentures!! If that isn’t enough reason to check out this library of rare books, then I’m not sure what is. Oh wait, maybe the fact that they have the largest bezoar (from a cow) will be enough to entice you in. Curious? You should be.
I always fall in love with this city, week after week, because it is so perfectly suited to my food enthusiasm. Food is everywhere. Restaurants are constantly popping up, closing down, reinventing themselves. We eagerly await for the day when the green market will provide us with other produce aside from potatoes, apples…and more potatoes. And the food information available to us is astounding. There are thousands upon thousands of books, menus and manuscripts to provide endless food knowledge and entertainment; even inspiration. So whether you’re into Scappi, Vesalius, fascinating cooking accounts, or old dentures, the New York Academy of Medicine is a fantastic way to understand where our cooking has evolved from, why, and perhaps offer insight and guidance for that half- baked recipe that has been haphazardly floating around your head these past few years. Yeah, you can find a recipe for chicken pudding. It’s in there.