Recipe detectives

Group decodes historic recipes in UI archives

IOWA CITY — The cookie recipe written in cursive handwriting has just seven ingredients and these simple instructions: Roll very thin and bake quickly.

There’s no mention of oven temperature or hint as to what “very quickly” means. The only other clue is a small notation that says “Maria’s and Mother’s.”

Who are these women? Did they create this recipe? Was it their favorite?

There are no answers to these and other questions raised by the collection of recipes originally compiled in October 1933 by Mother Armstrong for Helen. With some experimenting in the kitchen, though, a baker can determine the proper oven temperature and cooking time.

That’s where Iowa City’s Historic Foodies club comes in.

“There’s a lot of research that goes into understanding these recipes,” says Kathrine Moermond, education and outreach coordinator at Old Capitol Museum.

It takes time to decipher a person’s handwriting to transcribe a recipe, but diving in to figure out what that person meant brings the project to a whole new level. For instance, Moermond came across a recipe that uses a spider.

“I read that and thought ‘What?’” she says. “It turns out it is a skillet with legs.”

The person writing the recipe didn’t think to add that because it was a common cooking utensil at that time.

“These are the types of stories people want to know,” says Colleen Theisen, an outreach and instruction librarian with the University of Iowa’s Special Collections & University Archives.

The University of Iowa Libraries Special Collections Department is home to The Szathmary Collection of Culinary Arts. Founded by Chef Louis Szathmary II, the collection includes works in classical and modern languages, ranging from 15th century printed books to manuscripts of the 17th through 20th centuries.

It was the manuscripts that launched the club Historic Foodies. Many of the manuscripts were digitized and uploaded to the libraries’ DIY History website last fall. The goal was to have the handwritten recipes transcribed, bringing the historical material to the 21st century. The venture is similar to the transcription of the libraries’ Civil War letters project, but Theisen saw potential in expanding it.

“A recipe goes beyond translation,” she says. “They’re just calling out to be made.”

Jeanne Stoakes agrees.

Stoakes attended the club’s organizational meeting in November and its first meet-and-eat in December. This meeting also included a tour of The Szathmary Collection; an experience Stoakes says renewed her interest in a collection of recipes she has in the attic of her home near Tiffin.

“I have a lot of this era back at home, so it’s a lot of the same writing, a lot of the same foods,” she says. “It makes me want to dig through them.”

Think of the stories recipes hold. Each ingredient is a gateway to the past, a glimpse as to what life was like when a particular dish was made.

“Cookbooks are historical,” says Faith Blaskovich of Lohrville. “So often people write little notes in the margins; I love finding those.”

Blaskovich and her sister, Karen Moehl of Story City, drove to Iowa City to join the Historical Foodies after hearing about the club on Iowa Public Radio.

“Listening to how (Theisen and Moermond) have studied the recipes and tried to re-create them from what sparse information that’s given was intriguing,” Moehl says.

Curiosity piqued, the sisters had to see firsthand how the club’s first group re-creation — cookies — fared.

Sitting in a classroom in the UI’s Main Library, everyone passed around a container of baked goods, sharing their thoughts on making a recipe that was written in 1817, 1868, the early 1900s and 1930.

“This thing is a molasses-laden brick,” Theisen says, cutting into her loaf of soft gingerbread.

Passing around small pieces to everyone, Theisen takes back her earlier description after taking a bite.

“It’s not bad, it just needs to be baked differently,” she says. “It didn’t have instructions and it looked like a bread dough, so I just stuffed it in a bread pan. I think if I baked it differently, maybe baked it like brownies, it would turn out better.”

Theisen’s recipe was chosen from Alice Electa Pickard’s recipe book, dated 1868. Moermond’s cookie recipe — gingersnaps — came from the same book.

“We didn’t realize we were choosing recipes from the same book, from the same page,” Moermond laughs.

The Historic Foodies will meet at 6 p.m. Jan. 29 in the Reading Room of the University of Iowa Special Collections & University Archives to share their triumphs, trials and treats centered around January’s cooking challenge: chocolate.

The meeting is open to all, even those who don’t spend a lot of time in the kitchen.

“I promise my recipe will always be worse,” Theisen says.

Manuscripts from The Szathmary Collection may be accessed online at The public also can visit the University of Iowa Special Collections & University Archives to see the recipes in person.


Like what you're reading?

We make it easy to stay connected:

to our email newsletters
Download our free apps

Give us feedback

Have you found an error or omission in our reporting? Tell us here.
Do you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.