I just finished reading Mark Kurlansky's The Food of a Younger Land. It is terrific book in many ways. It confirms Kurlansky's place as an historian, it serves as a snapshot of a particular time in history, and it calls our attention to an earlier time that involved foodways. We are reminded that we did not just invent the table. In addition the panoramic sweep of the book shows us the entire country, which allows us to see regional trends as well as border influences.
But the book is important to me as I read old cookbooks and read books written by restaurant chefs, the book makes me wonder what can we believe from old cookbooks. Where is the line between story and history? I read a cookbook today with some skepticism - considering the author's agenda and mindful of what may be omitted. But old cookbooks are read as pieces of history. I think that this is probably not wise.
Recently there was a workshop at the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study that explored the pitfalls and benefits of relying on cookbooks for historical research. A recent analysis by Rien Fertel of Lafcadio Hearn's book, La Cuisine Creole, revealed plaigarism from other cookbooks and questioned its place in the pantheon of Creole cookbooks. So I am not alone in my questioning.
I know that even when I reveal my warts I want them to be seen in the best light. It is interesting that cookbooks - while appearing to be objective presentations of data - are as biased as a memoir. To me that means that the study of foodways and eating is a fruitful way to learn about the human condition. We wouldn't spin our food stories, if it weren't central to our lives.