I wanted to showcase some of my favorite photographs from the Lucy Monroe Calhoun family photographs and papers, a collection we are currently processing. Lucy Monroe Calhoun was born in 1865; she was the sister of poet and editor Harriet (Stone) Monroe. She became a freelance art critic for Chicago and national newspapers, and served as an editorial reader for the Herbert S. Stone publishing company.
In 1904, she married William James Calhoun, known as “Cal,” who was appointed ambassador to China by President Taft. They reached Beijing in 1910, and look particularly regal in this 1911 photograph.
In her memoir (contained in the collection), Lucy detailed all the political upheaval of the period. In addition, she outlined all the various activities and entertainments that accompany the work of an ambassador, among them dinner parties, plays, music and musicals, tiffin (a light, midday meal), and excursions. Whenever possible, Lucy toted her camera along to take photographs. One of the groups she, Cal, and their niece, Polly, joined was the “Purple Cows,” a foreign legation dinner club whose members dressed in purple and met once a week to discuss a current reading.
The couple left Beijing at the end of Cal’s term in 1913. They returned to Chicago. After Cal suffered a stroke and died in 1916, Lucy had difficulty establishing a home, for various reasons. For a period she even worked for the Red Cross in France. So when friends asked her to accompany them on a trip to Japan and China, she joyfully accepted and returned to Beijing in 1921. She stayed until 1937, establishing her home in a former temple that had been built in 1789, using the ample space there for entertaining. She became the unofficial “First Lady” of the diplomatic corps. She even wrote about her house in her memoir: “Here we came to be at home; though it seemed far north at first and was called “Outer Mongolia,” friends of many nationalities found the way to our doors…. Wars and revolutions have raged around it, foreign planes have zoomed overhead, but my shaded courts are tranquil and I live in peace.” She took many photographs of her expansive living quarters, and the pieces of Chinese furniture she used for decoration.
So now for two photographs I found interesting. The first is a photograph of Tien an men Gate, which I didn’t recognize as something familiar until someone mentioned Tiananmen…. <<click!>>.
The second is perhaps my favorite photograph; I find its arrangement attractive. It was taken during a funeral procession, and features paper figures as effigies that will be burned following the funeral.
Spring, and a woman’s thoughts turn to…bicycles? Apart from sudden showers and the onslaught of inchworms and allergens, spring is perhaps the finest season to ride. Trees are filling out, flowers are a’bloom and the birds are a’tweet: in short the whole planet has its hormones on fine display. What’s a girl not to like—especially on a bicycle built for her, equal in every way to a man’s?
This 1900 ad for Columbia’s chainless bicycle makes the progressive argument that women are entitled to the same quality bike as a man. The copy goes on to show how the bike’s frame accommodates the latest in women’s biking fashions, and how the chainless design facilitates mounting and dismounting while eliminating the possibility of one’s skirt getting caught in a chain—or soiled by it, a concern that persists among our current-day urbanites rolling along with the right pant-leg rolled-up out of harm’s way. Actually, this basic frame design is still with us, in unisex “Dutch” and townie bike styles like the Breezers that Zagster provides for rent. Not only that, but the “bevel gear” drive system was the precursor to today’s eclectic shaft-driven bicycles (still trumpeted as “innovative.” Hah!). All in all, the Columbia was a triumph of engineering in its day, especially with the available option of a coaster brake, which is also still in use in kids’ bikes and beach cruisers.
Columbia additionally had the marketing vision to realize that the bike and rider formed a single ensemble, where the lines of the frame “Contribute to the Graceful Appearance of the Rider…” That came at a price, though. $75 in 1900 roughly equates to around $2000 today, which would put a modern woman in the market for a top-of-the-line bike from today’s major manufacturers. On the other hand, grace is priceless, and the freedom and autonomy provided by the bicycle was likely well worth the investment. In fact, the bicycle has occasionally been praised as an instrument of liberation, and early feminists such as Susan B. Anthony were also advocates for cycling, as much for gender-political as for its health benefits. Liberate the body and the mind will follow!
Ashley Rose Young, a doctoral student in History at Duke, is the Reference Intern at the Rubenstein Library.
Tell us about your academic background and interests.
Food and history have long been a part of my life. My mother’s family owns a gourmet grocery food business in the city of Pittsburgh, and my father, a history teacher, instilled his passion for American history in me and my three brothers. As a child, my summers were marked not by family vacations to Disney World, but by trips to historic sites such as Fort Ligonier, Gettysburg, and Colonial Williamsburg.
As a history major at Yale University, I was able to further explore my interests in a wide variety of courses ranging from Global Environmental History, to Ancient Egyptian History, to African American History Post-1865. Two terms abroad at Regent’s Park College at Oxford University introduced me to the fascinating history of court culture in Early Modern Europe, the anthropological study of ancient Etruscan civilization, and the rise of the Baptist faith in America. Perhaps one of the most pivotal moments in my undergraduate career was my Archives and Collections internship at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans, which inspired my senior thesis on the ethnic and racial imagery in postbellum cookbooks, “‘Cooking in the Old Creole Days’: An Exploration of Late 19th and Early 20th Century Creole Culture and Society Through the Study of Creole Cookbooks.”
As a PhD student at Duke University, I’ve sought to engage not only with the history department but also the Center for Documentary Studies, branching out into the study of oral histories. I’ve partnered with the Southern Foodways Alliance to profile the nationally known Carrboro Farmers’ Market through oral histories—a project that illuminated the highly political, rich culture of alternative foodways in North Carolina.
In the fall of 2012, I began to immerse myself in debates and questions about the digital humanities, participating in the PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge as well as the HASTAC Scholars program. This community influenced my dissertation research in several ways. I am, for example, mapping the demographic data of food vendors and public markets in twentieth-century New Orleans to see where power was concentrated and how people survived outside of the commercial core.
My larger dissertation project, “Nourishing Networks: Provisioning Southern Cities in the Atlantic World” examines the history of New Orleans’ public market culture. Whereas scholars have tended to examine how markets functioned in a single city, my project situates places like the French Market within a global context. On both sides of the Atlantic, municipal governments developed local food systems that prioritized fair pricing, cleanliness, and the construction of modern market halls. This European-influenced public market culture was not unique to the American South; it existed in most major American port cities. As a result, vendors, consumers, and local officials across the U.S. forged a cohesive public market culture during the nineteenth century that has yet to be fully understood. Regional food cultures were not isolated. Rather, they were interconnected and—even more importantly—crucial to the development of a larger American culture.
What led you to working in libraries?
I have a passion for public scholarship in all of its iterations. Working at the library, brainstorming with researchers, helping them advance their dissertation projects while enriching my own work are all part of building a lively career. These daily interactions help me break down the barriers that exist between the academy and the public, thereby enriching both the Duke and Durham communities.
As an intern, how does your work at the Rubenstein influence your research and writing?
It’s a known adage that reading widely improves your academic projects. The same goes for researching. Working with materials that are “completely unrelated” to my dissertation helps me think of new ways in which to investigate the development of Creole communities and culture through diverse sources.
What does an average day at RL look like for you?
My days vary, which is wonderful. Typically, though, I help patrons with remote research. I also work the Reference Desk and the Circulation Desk. So, I am often the first face that a research sees when she walks into the Rubenstein or I am one of the two librarians who help her access materials once she heads into the Reading Room. Sometimes, I assist with or lead class visits to our library. This is always a real treat. I enjoy working with undergraduate students who I find some of the most inspiring scholars on campus.
What do you like best about your job? What excites you most?
Some of my favorite work involves helping students with independent research projects. As a culinary historian, I am always eager to work with students who are interested in our rare and historic cookbooks. Some of these students trickle into the library on their own and inquire about our collections. Most of the time, however, I meet students when classes make special visits to work with materials at the Rubenstein.
What might people find surprising about your job?
During one class visit, I taught students how to read medieval square notation from large, vellum songbooks. I even sang a few Gregorian chants for them and ended up sight singing alongside a music student. It was a delight to hear that ancient music come to life. It was haunting and also beautiful.
What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
Our collections are so vast and our patrons’ interests so diverse that it is sometimes difficult to answer their specific questions or meet their particular needs. I strive to help our patrons to the best of my ability, but sometimes neither I nor our staff can help researchers find the materials or information necessary for their projects.
Do you have a favorite piece or collection at The Rubenstein? Why?
I enjoy working with the Nicole Di Bona Peterson Collection of Advertising Cookbooks, 1850s-2000s (especially the nineteenth-century cookbooks). They are fragile, ephemeral, precious, and fascinating. American taste is something that has changed over time. So, some of the recipes seem a bit “strange.” Our staff, though, enjoys diving into the messy history of historic cooking and many of us have blogged about our experiences on the Rubenstein Test Kitchen series (which I highly recommend that you check out).
Where can you be found when you’re not working?
When I’m not working, I like to walk through the Duke Gardens. This time of year, they are stunning. I love how pools of sunlight collect in the tulips. A quick jaunt through the garden helps me get centered and ready to revise my most recent dissertation chapter.
What book is on your nightstand/in your carryall right now?
I am reading two books at the moment. The first is Jason Gay’s Little Victories: Perfect Rules for Imperfect Living. The other is a book of poems titled, Self Portrait as Joseph Cornell, by Ken Taylor, a local poet who lives in Pittsboro.
With constant access to moving images via your cell phone, laptop, or tablet, I expect it is difficult to imagine when even simple movement in a book was revolutionary. But just image the impact of being able to manipulate part of a page in a book in the 18th century!
The Rubenstein’s History of Medicine Collection features many early movable books, which were usually intended for scholars. These were generally the “turn-up” style, often used by students of anatomy, where separate leaves, each featuring a different section of the body, were hinged together and attached to a page. One of the best examples, De humani corporis fabrica librorum epitome was printed by Andreas Vesalius in 1543.
It wasn’t until the late 1700s that movable books intended for entertainment were produced, usually for children. In 1765, Robert Sayer created a movable book that involved lifting a flap. Ann Montanaro explains the construction of these books in her “A Concise History of Pop-up and Movable Books:”
[the] books were composed of single, printed sheets folded perpendicularly into four. Hinged at the top and bottom of each fold, the picture was cut through horizontally across the center to make two flaps that could be opened up or down. When raised, the pages disclosed another hidden picture underneath, each having a few lines of verse.
These books quickly became popular and had different names based on their content or composition of illustrations, including “metamorphoses,” “harlequinades,” as well as the unfortunately-named “toilet books.”
As part of the Lisa Unger Baskin Collection, we recently received one of these metamorphoses books, handmade by Elizabeth Winspear in 1799. Unfortunately, that is the limit of all we know about her. The book features just four pages in full color with accompanying verse, each page with two flaps that reveal a new drawing underneath, in stages. The verses include instructions for how to move the flaps. One reads: The Lion Roaring from his Den / with porpose [sic] for to rainge [sic] / He’s turn’d into another shape / Turn down & see the sight so strange
I don’t want to give everything away! There is immense entertainment value to this little item. Initially we are introduced to Adam, whose Eve is not what one has come to expect. However, it is clear that Winspear also intended some instruction or moral training to occur by reading this book, for all does not end well, despite a character’s obtaining gold and silver. The piece ends as a cautionary tale.
The Hartman Center is currently processing the Gary B. and Sandra G. Baden Collection of Print Advertisements, a collection of about 50 linear feet of print ads that cover primarily the first three quarters of the twentieth century. It is notable and was initially attractive to the Hartman Center for its early ads for automobiles, perfume and watches, but it also includes a wide range of corporate ads as well as some travel and tourism literature.
The Badens were avid collectors, and the collection also includes some non-advertising-related materials: issues of international magazines; direct mail materials; packaging; old maps; and some sheet music. There are about eight compositions from the early 1900s-1930s, including Stephen Foster, Irving Berlin as well as some tunes from the Ragtime/Minstrel/Vaudeville era. Of these, two items especially stand out.
The first, a Thomas Allen/William Macauley ragtime tune entitled “M-M-Mazie” from 1904, is fairly well known, but this one has a seemingly rare cover. Most digitized versions, including one held by Duke, features a red cover with a photograph of pianist Joseph A. Callahan. The version found in the Baden collection features a blue cover with a photograph of the African American Vaudeville duo Brandow and Wiley. Brandow and Wiley were quite prominent in their day, one of the few black song-and-dance acts to star in the mainly white Keith-Orpheum circuit of theaters. Russell Brandow was an acrobatic dancer and a specialist in what was known as comedic “grotesque dance.” Stella Wiley was a singer and dancer who was previously married to the notable composer, producer and musician Bob Cole, credited with creating the first all-black musical production, “A Trip to Coontown” (1898), and a creative who worked to break down the minstrel-era racial stereotypes in theater. The history of African American vaudeville, minstrel shows and other performing arts in the early 20th century is still an emerging research field, so it is exciting to find a picture of this pair of performers.
As a side note, March was Disability Awareness Month, and “M-M-Mazie” regularly appears in scholarly work on the exploitation of speech impediments and other disabilities in popular cultural productions like songs and story narratives. The chorus goes “M’m M’m M’m Mazie My d’d d’d daisy You I adore; and everyday that passes by I love you m-m more and more.”
The second piece of sheet music poses a bit more of a mystery. It’s an 1899 piece entitled “Coontown Promenade” or alternatively, “Coontown or Loyola Minstrels Promenade,” a cake-walk and two-step composition. The composer, Johann Schmid, was quite prolific composer of popular music, with nearly 300 known compositions ranging from minstrel tunes to rags and schottisches, but very little is known of him as a person. “Coontown Promenade” does not seem to appear in any library holdings, digital sheet music collections or in the WorldCat database. It also does not appear in online databases of known compositions by Schmid, although it does appear in the register of U.S. copyright applications. The Loyola University Music Club did perform minstrels in the early 1900s but it is unclear whether this was among them. A very exciting find in a very unexpected place.
Post contributed by Rick Collier, Technical Services Archivist, John W. Hartman Center
Laura Wagner is the Project Archivist for the Radio Haiti Archives. She joined the Rubenstein in 2015. She has a PhD in anthropology from UNC. Her dissertation is about the 2010 earthquake and its long aftermath: how did people’s everyday lives and social worlds change (or not change) in the wake of the disaster and displacement? How do people get by in an aid economy? How did Haitian people and non-Haitian interveners make sense of the humanitarian response and its failures? She also wrote a YA novel, Hold Tight, Don’t Let Go, which deals with some of the same issues. Her interests include Haiti, literary fiction and nonfiction, humanitarianism, human rights, and social justice. She has been a frequent contributor to the Devil’s Tale since joining the RL.
How do you describe what you do to people you meet at a party? To fellow librarians and library staff?
At parties I say “I work on the archives of Haiti’s first independent radio station.” Then that confuses them and they think I’m doing research in the archives, and I have to clarify that I’m processing the materials. Then they generally want to know why these materials live at Duke. And if I’m at a party in Haiti, people then want to talk to about their own memories of Radio Haiti and of Jean Dominique, and they ask me if the station will ever reopen. To librarians and library staff, I say I’m a project archivist who never trained as an archivist.
What led you to working in libraries?
This project. I had never worked in a library before. I began working on this project as an external contractor for the Forum for Scholars and Publics, which was collaborating with the Library to create a public-facing pilot website with a small sample of the Radio Haiti recordings. When the opportunity to apply for the Project Archivist job came along, I applied. I had already decided that if it was possible, I wanted to work on this project full time. Temperamentally and experientially, I am probably a bit of an outlier among the library set.
Tell us about your relationship to Radio Haiti. How has it evolved since taking on this position?
Jean Dominique, Michèle Montas, and other members of the Radio Haiti team had numbered among my heroes since I first started learning about Haiti and learning Haitian Creole, back in 2004. I never could have imagined that one day I would have the opportunity to work on preserving the work of Radio Haiti. The first time I met Michèle, in April 2014, I was embarrassingly giddy. It is a huge honor to work on this project.
I’m learning a lot about late twentieth century Haiti, in a very granular way. I already knew the major events and trends, the main themes, but always analytically and in hindsight. It’s a very different experience to learn about events through real-time, day-to-day reporting, done by people who did not yet know the outcome of the story. It’s fascinating, but also often sad and frustrating because you see the same things happening over and over and over again, until today. The same injustices, the same impunity, though sometimes it “repaints its face”, to use a phrase that Jean Dominique uses.
How does your work at the Rubenstein influence your approach to research and writing?
I was a researcher and writer before I started working on this project, so I have to keep myself in check; I cannot follow my instincts and desires by letting myself act as a researcher and writer when my job, for the moment, is to be processing the archive. That said, I hope to someday write something substantial about this archive. I can also say that my experience as a researcher and writer influences my approach to processing this archive. I want it all to be clear and transparent; I want to provide context and thematic guidance for future researchers and listeners. Working on the Radio Haiti archive has been a huge learning experience for me, and I want to impart as much of that knowledge as possible to others down the line, by incorporating that knowledge into the structure and description of the archive.
What does an average day at RL look like for you?
Because this is a single project with a clear goal and endpoint, and with defined stages, my typical workday varies depending on what we’re working on. These days I am mostly working through Radio Haiti’s paper archive. So I get to work, answer some email, and start organizing the papers, removing the faded invisible Thermofax pages, sorting them by subject and year. I have two excellent undergraduate assistants this semester, both Haitian, who are starting to listen to and describe some of the recordings. I am very eager to finish processing the papers so I can focus on the audio full-time. I also spend part of the day thinking about broader questions of access — how we’re going to make this collection as available and accessible as possible to people in Haiti, given the social and infrastructural realities there. I am very eager to begin working on the recordings full-time, of course.
What do you like best about your job? What excites you most?
What excites me the most is that I am helping keep this important work alive, making it accessible to people in Haiti and beyond. And I just really like the experience of listening to the recordings. Sometimes it’s hard for me to listen as an archivist, rather than as a researcher and writer. So it’s fun when I get to write a blog entry about the project, and synthesize and put together different parts of the archive, translate some excerpts, and provide context to people who may not already know the story of Radio Haiti. As I said, it’s a great honor to work on this collection, to be entrusted with this collection. As Michèle says, part of Jean’s soul is here.
What might people find surprising about your job?
I think it depends on the person. For people who aren’t used to processing archival collections (id est most people), I think they’d be surprised at how much physical restoration, intellectual labor and time this job takes. A lot of people want the Radio Haiti collection to be available as soon as possible. (I’m one of them!) And many people don’t understand why we can’t do it instantly.
What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
I have two answers to that, which are sort of incommensurate with one another. In a day-to-day sense, it can be tedious, and I sometimes feel isolated in this work. Radio Haiti itself was a team effort — it was a social, collaborative, interactive entity, an act of ongoing solidarity, both in terms of the journalists and their audience… and the audience was nearly all of Haiti. So engaging with that work in my cubicle in a converted tobacco warehouse in Durham, North Carolina, can feel lonely. At the same time, I feel connected to the people who appear in the tapes, across time and space, even across life and death. Which brings me to the second challenging aspect of this job, which is actually the same as my favorite thing about the job: the weight of history, the weight of memory. This collection is a huge part of Haitian national heritage. And so much of it is sad, frustrating and infuriating — there is so much injustice, suffering, and absurdity in this archive. Sometimes it’s emotionally difficult to listen to these things — though Jean Dominique’s incisive intellect and humor make it easier. It sounds strange, but I laugh all the time.
Do you have a favorite piece or collection at The Rubenstein? Why?
Well, the Radio Haiti collection is obviously my favorite collection, for all the reasons I’ve mentioned. I’m not intimately familiar with the other collections, but the National Coalition for Haitian Rights archive has some fascinating material in it that often complements the Radio Haiti collection. And I like all the History of Medicine collections, especially Benjamin Rush papers, which are poignant, and the creepy suede baby + placenta.
Where can you be found when you’re not working?
Cooking dinner with friends, baking cakes, drinking a beer, vaguely working on novel #2, vaguely revising my dissertation, singing in the car, asking my cats why they are thundering hither and yon at 2 am. I like making silly little greeting cards for friends; I’ve been thinking about taking an actual art class or something. I’d like to know how to access all the other seasons of the Great British Baking Show. And I’ve started running as of late, at which I am truly mediocre. It’s liberating to do something you know you have no hope of being good at.
What book is on your nightstand/in your carryall right now?
I was delighted to find that one of our newest collections, the Terence Mitchell Collection of Tobacco Advertising, includes a run of Real Photographs, a series for the De Reszke cigarettes produced by J. Millhoff & Co. in England. These tiny cards feature animals posed in funny ways, doing adorable things, with cute captions. They are basically the tobacco card version of today’s Internet cat memes.
These tobacco cards gave me an excuse to look into the history of cat photography, particularly pictures of funny cats with captions. It turns out that posing cats in outfits is not a new trend, despite the persistent popularity of Internet memes like LOLcats and I Can Haz Cheezburger. Matthew Hussey’s 2012 article on A History of LOLcats explains that early photographers quickly discovered the marketability of cats, and began selling cat postcards and cartes de visite as early as 1870. Harry Pointer, the first known photographer of cats posed in silly ways, marketed his photos as The Brighton Cats – so named for his Brighton, England, photography studio. A later photographer who was even more commercially successful was American Harry Whittier Frees (1879-1953), whose postcards and children’s books featured animals, especially cats, doing funny things. Frees was so talented in posing and photographing his animals that some questioned their authenticity. In his preface to The Little Folks of Animal Land (1915), he explained his techniques, saying, “The difficulties encountered in posing kittens and puppies for pictures of this kind have been overcome only by the exercise of great patience and invariable kindness.” After their photoshoot, Frees writes, “my little models … enjoy nothing better than a frolic about the studio.” The Library of Congress now holds a collection of Frees’ photographs. You can view them here.
I think that the tobacco card industry jumped on the funny animal pose trend, which explains why the run featured here is the fourth of five runs of Real Photographs produced by J. Millhoff & Co. between 1931 and 1935. The fourth run that I found in the Mitchell Collection dates to 1932. (It could be that the other runs are also present! We are continuing to process these tobacco cards – there are several thousand of them.) It makes sense that tobacco companies would have realized the marketability of cute animals. They were also smart enough to recognize the popularity of baseball players and pretty actresses. (Check out the newly digitized W. Duke and Sons collection of tobacco cards.)
Looking at all of Harry Whittier Frees’ photographs online led to me wonder what sort of cute cat pictures we hold in Rubenstein. You’ll be pleased to know we have several in our vast Postcard Collection. Here are some of my favorites, all from the early 20th century.
This last one is by Charles E. Bullard, another early twentieth century photographer who wisely copyrighted his cat pictures, and then worked with publishers to distribute them widely. This 1915 profile of Bullard in The American Magazine is truly hilarious and details his methods for capturing the perfect LOLcat. Here’s an excerpt:
“It is no easy job to photograph a cat. He is very unreasonable as to staying where he is put, and the only system is to use infinite patience. I have worked half a day trying to photograph a cat in a particular pose, and then had to give up in despair.”
I am on the lookout for other photographs of historical LOLcats, especially those held in Rubenstein collections. If you find some, let me know!
Post contributed by Meghan Lyon, Section Head Manuscript Processing.
Happy Presidents’ Day! As weird as our current election season has turned out to be, it has a way to go before it compares to the drama and excitement of the 1912 presidential election. That’s the election where William Howard Taft (Republican incumbent), Woodrow Wilson (Democratic challenger), Theodore Roosevelt (former Republican president who lost the Republican nomination and decided to run as the nominee of the Progressive Party, also known as the Bull Moose Party), and Eugene V. Debs (the perpetual nominee of the Socialist Party) battled it out in a four-way race for the White House. Imagine if there had been televised debates back then.
I recently found this postcard in the Slade Family Papers that capitalized (sorry, Debs) on the enthusiasm surrounding the race. Written to friends in North Carolina just before the election, the anonymous author asks “How are politics in that part of the country? Have you any good reads yet?”
Flip the card over and it is so cool! It’s a “magic moving picture card” that lets you slide the tab between all four candidates to “pick the winner.” I’ve only seen this sort of thing in children’s books, like Gallop. (This isn’t quite Scanimation, but it is similar to that technology.)
You can see a video of us playing with the postcard below. Who will it be?
The sender adds the words “Hurray for Wilson!” on the side of the window. Turns out, they were right — Wilson did win the contest and served as president from 1913 until 1921.
Psst, the deadline for registering to vote in our upcoming primaries in North Carolina is Friday, February 19. Register here.
This very special edition of the Rubenstein test kitchen is intended to build bridges between Duke and UNC, between a Digital Collections Program Manager and a Serials Access Librarian. Though both librarians, they live completely different professional lives. Until now…
Given the digital nature of Molly’s work, we decided to choose a recipe from those that had been digitized as part of the Emergence of Advertising in America digital collection. After looking at a handful of recipes we realized that Molly didn’t want to cook with beef tongue, Kurt didn’t want to bake, and neither of us wanted to deal with jello. So we settled on this “pretty and palatable” gem of a recipe from the The Kitchen Encyclopedia, by Swift & Company: “Spanish Minced Beef in a Meat Box.”
We were excited about taking on the challenge of constructing a meat box to contain yet more meat that the title conjured in our minds, although we had no idea at all how it might work. It wasn’t until later, when we were about to start cooking, that we paused to ask the following: What exactly is Spanish about a recipe in which the only spices are salt and pepper? Why does the title refer to minced beef in a meat box when there is no minced beef listed as an ingredient in the filling? This last question particularly filled us with anxiety – did we miss something? Should we have assumed that since the recipe title refers to minced beef in a meat box, that we should put minced beef in the meat box, even if it’s not called for? (About the matter of a “meat box.” As our guests pointed out, can something with only four sides properly be labeled a box?)
Cooking can be so stressful!
Before we proceed, however, a question posed by the text: “Have you tried Swift’s Oleomargarine?” If you have not, permit the book to let you know, “It is worth trying” (p. 26). In case that’s not enticement enough, consider that “The price of butter holds no terror for users of Swift’s Oleomargarine” (p. 27).
Theses quotes are Molly’s favorites of the short, persuasive selling points on the benefits of oleomargarine that appear on every page of the book (and which had to be pointed out to Kurt, who overlooked entirely the margarine-filled pearls of wisdom in his single-minded focus on the meat box). Has it been mentioned that Swift & Company were leading the fight against the tyranny of high-priced butter circa 1911 with their “oleomargarine” and that this cookbook touts that revolution? Indeed, anyone interested in oleomargarine (or House-Cleaning Hints and Helps (p. 9), or The Practical Value and Use of Fireless Cookers (p. 17) … To the Wage-earning Woman (p. 21)) should consider this book a must-read. But we digress.
The recipe calls for the filling to be cooked in an “oatmeal kettle,” and we did not then nor do we now have any idea what that means. Without consulting any resources (bad librarians!), we decided it must be a double boiler, which we don’t own. This leads us to the night’s first derivation from the recipe, as we decided to saute the filling in a saute pan. This filling consists of sweet peppers (red bell peppers, in our case), tomatoes (canned, in our case, rather than whole tomatoes “cut in halves and the seeds squeezed out”) and onions cooked in (you guessed it) oleomargarine, which we substituted with regular margarine (do you know how hard it is to even find margarine at the grocery store these days?).
Regarding the preparation of the filling, refer to these excerpts from our kitchen conversation: “peppers into strips – insanity!” “1 onion to 4 peppers – madness!” This from Kurt, a former student in the esteemed Johnson County Community College Hospitality & Culinary program.
With the filling sauteeing-rather-than-sweating away, we turned our attention to the “meat box.” The only instruction given by the recipe is to “form into a box whose sides are about an inch thick.” This (relative lack of) instruction generated some pretty fundamental (and philosophical) questions: should the box have a bottom and a top? If it doesn’t have a bottom and a top, is it still a box (see above: guests)? How tall should it be? WHAT IS IT FOR ANYWAY?!?”
Sidebar: When did cookbooks stop presuming any basic knowledge of cooking – as seems to be the case in the books we looked in for recipes – and become the step-by-step manuals they are today?
In the end we created a kind of meat enclosure, with no meat top and no meat bottom. We basted the box with melted margarine, as per the recipe, before and during cooking. Once it was cooked in a “quick oven” (we used our regular old, modern-day electric oven, which is pretty quick), we put the filling into the enclosure and served it to some fellow librarians who were employed as testers.
Sidebar: Unlike the ongoing mystery of an oatmeal kettle, Kurt believes a quick oven to be one that’s pretty hot, i.e., 425 degrees. This “knowledge” comes from a search in the midst of constructing this post, and might have been more helpful in determining proper oven temperature in the moment (we went a slower 350 degrees), but then, that might have been cheating.
The verdict? Everyone agreed it tasted like bland hamburger. Not bad, but not really flavorful in any way, either. Certainly not flavorful in any way, shape or form associated with “Spanish” cooking. If we ever do this again, we decided we would add sausage, not use margarine, and add some actual seasonings, maybe some paprika, a little garlic, and some rosemary. We wonder what might have been had we not missed the advice on the page opposite that “For … mince meat … the neck is best.” We might also try using potatoes for the bottom of a true box. We are still really unsure whether this dish should have a top, and why this involves forming a box in the first place. Some questions will just have to remain a mystery.
Post contributed by Kurt Blythe, Serials Access Librarian, UNC, and Molly Bragg, Duke Digital Collections Program Manager
Browsing our digitized collections for Test Kitchen fodder on the recent snow day, I stumbled upon an item from the Emergence of Advertising in America project,How Phyllis Grew Thin, created by the Lydia E. Pinkham Medicine Company and published circa the 1920s. On the advertisement’s cover, Phyllis shields her rosy complexion with a parasol as she gazes off the page, inviting the reader to discover the secret to achieving the willowy frame holding up her stylish sweater and pleated skirt. We open the booklet and find stories of how women can shed undesired pounds through a reduced diet and relieve menstrual cramps, cycle irregularities, and menopausal symptoms through the use of Lydia E. Pinkham’s products.
The epistolary advertisement is addressed to Nancy, a pudgy cartoon foil to Phyllis’s elegant watercolor. Phyllis promises to share with Dear Nancy the keys to losing weight through a proper diet. We learn that Phyllis has not always been so effortlessly thin. Inspired by Douglas Fairbanks’ and President Taft’s weight loss, Phyllis determines to do the same. As soon as she announced her intention to lose weight, “the derision and ridicule of my family strengthened me in my determination.” (page 2) In addition to the nourishing fire that comes from wanting to prove someone wrong, her reduced-calorie diet consisted of “plain meat without butter or gravies,” corn, prunes, and the occasional crustless pie. (page 2) This kind of confessional tone continues to be a mainstay in contemporary weight loss advertising. The letter from Phyllis to Nancy serves as a precursor to current weight loss advertising’s penchant for before-and-after photos, Instagram hashtag culture (check out #transformationtuesday and #fitspo), and celebrity-endorsed diets. (After a few Google searches for weight loss advertisements, my Facebook feed populated with sponsored content promising me a smaller pant size in mere days.)
Though her crash diet kept the weight off for a few years, Phyllis eventually gained the weight back and got serious about counting calories as a way to reduce again. She shares with Nancy that “it is not necessary for you to know just what a calorie is so long as you remember not to eat foods containing too many of them.” (page 3) The suggested calorie intake is considerably lower than most contemporary diet plans recommended by nutritionists, advising that Nancy (and “the army of women who are interested in reducing”) consume 1000-1200 calories a day. Phyllis then advises Nancy to take Lydia E. Pinkham’s Liver Pills and Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, claiming that they help alleviate constipation and excessive nervousness, respectively. Lydia E. Pinkham established the Lydia E. Pinkham Medicine Company in 1873. Its signature product, Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, was a tincture of “black cohosh, life root, unicorn root, pleurisy root, fenugreek seed, and a substantial amount of alcohol” formulated to ease menstrual cramps and menopausal symptoms (1). Pinkham’s products still line shelves today, each box featuring Lydia Pinkham’s face, promising relief.
At the top of each page, the booklet provides a daily meal plan with calorie counts for each item. The offerings are spare. One suggested breakfast consists of “4 saltines, 1 tbsp. cream cheese, 2 prunes, tea and lemon (without sugar).” (page 18) An idea for one dinner is little more than bun-less hot dogs and a small bowl of ice cream.
Faced with these choices, I considered upping the Test Kitchen ante by following one of the suggested meal plans for a few days. Upon reflection, I thought better and opted to spare my friends and colleagues the monster that I am when not eating enough at regular intervals. Even reading meal plans for day after day of fruit (or saltines!) for breakfast followed by a mayonnaise-laden lunch had me throwing my Phyllis-esque determination out the window. The booklet contained few actual recipes. Oddly, most of them were for desserts: frosting, Brown Betty, orange sherbet, and pudding. The dessert that caught my eye, though, was prune soufflé. Why? Frankly, it sounded so unappetizing that I felt compelled to give it a shot. Maybe I’d been missing its hidden appeal. And, having never tried to make a soufflé, it seemed a fun technical challenge.
The recipe given by the advertisement is deceptively simple. It’s less a recipe and more a list of ingredients. Perhaps this suggests that Pinkham’s target customer already had a thorough knowledge of soufflé-making and would simply need the inspiration to try a new take on the dessert. Since I have no such skills, I turned to the internet as a supplement, sourcing tips from a 1998 issue of Gourmet.
When beginning a cooking project, I recommend ensuring you have all the right tools at your disposal before cracking your eggs. Alas, I did not follow my own advice! I began my soufflé only to find that my house apparently lacks a hand mixer. Already committed to the recipe, I decided to channel my foremothers and hand-whip the eggs into stiff peaks. If cooks beat eggs into submission for years by hand, then surely I could as well! All those hours spent practicing surya namaskarashould be good for something, right?
Unfortunately, I underestimated the time and effort needed to beat the eggs into fluffy mountains. I achieved the early stage, a frothy foam, but never progressed to the stiff peaks a soufflé needs to bloom. Still, it was late and I had cracked five eggs to try to make this work, so I soldiered on. Per Gourmet’s instructions, I had soaked the chopped prunes in hot earl grey tea and lemon zest, hoping to brighten the flavors. After pureeing and cooling them, I slowly folded the foam into the mixture. Uneven in color, bubbly, and flat, I knew things had taken a turn for the worse. Still, I slid the muffin tin into the oven anyway, hoping that even if the souffle didn’t rise, I’d end up with a sweet baked egg fluff?
Sixteen minutes later, I pulled them out of the oven to find a sad, deflated pan of brown blobs. I tasted one, and suddenly understood how easy it would be to “reduce” while following this diet. I tossed the remnants and dosed myself with a small handful of chocolate chips, the rest of which will hopefully go into a more successful baking project.
Post contributed by Katrina Martin, Technical Services Assistant.
Dispatches from the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Duke University