Alison Barnett has an enviable job perk to anyone like me who could spend hours poring over old cookbooks.
Barnett works as the business services coordinator for the North Carolina Collection at the University of North Carolina’s Wilson Library and has access to the collection’s 900 cookbooks.
Even though Barnett doesn’t cook, she loved reading from the splotched pages of these old tomes: books from before and right after the Civil War on household management, cookbooks from sanatoriums in the North Carolina mountains, community cookbooks from churches, fire department auxiliaries and even fraternal groups.
Barnett started blogging about these books in 2012, recruited others to cook from them and even got students involved. The result is an exhibit, “From Brunswick Stew to Barbecue: The Cookbook as Cultural History,” on display starting Thursday to Oct. 4 in the North Carolina Collection Gallery at UNC’s Wilson library. (Last month’s free two-day Carolina Cornucopia conference was the kickoff event for the exhibit.)
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Barnett worked closely leading up to the exhibit with one of her students, Holly Roper, a North Carolina teaching fellow who is getting a master’s degree in education. When Barnett and later Roper started blogging about the cookbooks, they discovered how cookbooks were more than instructions to stir this, grill that, bake these.
“Cookbooks aren’t just recipes,” Roper said. “There’s so much you can get from looking at a cookbook.”
Barnett added: “Looking at the differences over time, you can tell what’s happening in the world.”
I sat down with Barnett and Roper last week to talk about the exhibit and get a chance to touch, peruse and marvel at these cookbooks.
The women reflected on what these cookbooks revealed: How the recipes changed when women entered the workforce (the use of convenience foods and the increased use of the word “quick”). How healthy eating trends evolved with sanatorium eating advice, diet pills, fad diets and calorie counts. How the diversity of the state’s population is reflected in its cookbooks, including Cherokee, Lumbee, Moravian and Waldensian.
(Waldensians? I didn’t know either until I read their cookbook but they are a group of persecuted Italian Christians who settled in Valdese. The cookbook reflects their Italian heritage with recipes for chicken cacciatore, mostardella sausage and polenta rings topped with fried chicken livers.)
The exhibit explores other themes as well: classic Southern recipes (Brunswick stew, barbecue, cornbread); notable North Carolina cooks (Jean Anderson, Bill Neal, Charlotte television host Betty Feezor); cultural imagery in cookbooks; community cookbooks (one is a Ronald McDonald House cookbook featuring recipes from basketball star Michael Jordan and other UNC athletes); and resourcefulness in the kitchen (using salt and kerosene to get rid of bed bugs and an alcoholism cure that involved eating oranges for a month).
If you are a cookbook lover, this exhibit will be a wonderful way to while away an afternoon and remember that cookbooks reflect more than what we ate.
The cookbook exhibit, “From Brunswick Stew to Barbecue: The Cookbook as Cultural History,” will be on display in the North Carolina Collection Gallery at the Wilson Special Collections Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The exhibit runs June 18-Oct. 4. The gallery is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays, 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturdays and 1-5 p.m. Sundays.
Info: Wilson Library, 200 South Road, Chapel Hill, 919-962-3765, library.unc.edu/wilson/gallery/
Michael Jordan’s Crabmeat Canapes
This recipe appeared in a 1988 cookbook, “Tarheels Cooking for Ronald’s Kids,” a fundraiser for the Ronald McDonald House in Chapel Hill.
Combine 8 tablespoons softened butter, 15 ounces shredded sharp cheddar cheese, 1 1/2 teaspoons mayonnaise, 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Drain liquid from a 7 ounce-can crabmeat; add crabmeat to other ingredients and stir to combine. Split 6 English muffins, spread crabmeat mixture on each muffin and cut into fourths. Bake at 350 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes. Serve or may be frozen and reheated as needed.