Researching Food: Post Script with Peter G. Rose
Recently, I interviewed food historian Peter G. Rose about her book Food, Drink and Celebrations of the Hudson Valley Dutch (Listen to the interview here). The book describes the traditions and celebrations of the Hudson Valley Dutch, some of which were carried over from the Netherlands and some of which were adopted in the new world.
With this Post Script interview we dig a little deeper into the occupation of a food historian and how it differs from other types of historians.
Post Script: Researching Food with Peter G. Rose
MPL: How did you become a food historian?
PGR: Becoming a food historian gradually happened as a natural extension of my work as a food columnist for the NY Gannett newspapers. We live in the Hudson Valley and more and more I became aware of the Valley’s Dutch roots. When I visited Historic Hudson Valley’s offices, the curator asked me to look at a Dutch book they had in their archives and to tell her about it. It was the 1683 edition of The Pleasurable Country Life, a book on gardening, beekeeping, medicines, and also a cookbook. That was in the early 1980’s and it took me a long time to properly research its background and – in the time of typewriters – to transcribe the cookbook part as it was too fragile to photocopy. By 1989, Syracuse University Press published it with the title The Sensible Cook: Dutch Foodways in the Old and the New World and that was really the beginning for me.
MPL: What do food historians focus on in their work and how do they differ from other types of historians?
PGR: Food historians as you can imagine focus on food. Some study agriculture, fishing or milling or some specific food, others are more interested in preparation, or specific dishes, others look more at ethnic development, assimilation, and cultural connections. For me it was a no-brainer, since I am Dutch, I wanted to know about the Dutch influence on the American kitchen and that is what I have given my attention to for the last 3 decades. What makes my specialty of Dutch food easier to research is that we have so much visual evidence in the paintings of the Golden Age of The Netherlands and American museums have many holdings of Dutch 17th-century art.
MPL: The term “historical foodways” is often associated food historians. What does it mean?
PGR: Foodways is a collective noun which encompasses not only recipes and preparation, but also social customs of the period.
From 18th and 19th century hand-written Dutch-American cookbooks belonging to the descendants of the early settlers, we know that they continued to cook in the manner of their forebears. Many of the recipes indicate not only the method of preparation but reveal that Dutch social customs continued here as well, as revealed for example by a recipe for doot koeckjes, which are funeral biscuits. From a Schenectady diary we know that the Dutch custom of serving plate size cookies and spiced wine, as well as offering pipes and tobacco at the time of a funeral, still continued until the mid-18th century. Recipes for kandeel, often anglicized to condale indicate that the custom of serving spiced wine mixed with eggs at the time of birth continued as well. Not only agricultural practices and horticultural introductions are attributable to the Dutch colonial past in America, but also doughnuts, coleslaw, waffles, wafers, pretzels, pancakes and above all cookies, to mention only a few examples. The Dutch touch left a lasting mark on the American kitchen.
MPL: Do you try to recreate the historical recipes that you discover? If so, are the recipes surprisingly good or do some disappoint?
PGR: Yes, I do try the recipes I find they work surprisingly well, providing you have enough knowledge of measures and are a reasonably experienced cook. In the case of 17th and 18th-century recipes, a good knowledge of hearth cooking comes into play as well. In general I would say that the recipes are delicious and some are outstanding!
MPL: What is the most fun aspect of being a food historian?
PGR: The most fun aspect of being a food historian is the constant discovery and the finding of little historical tidbits that help in rounding out the total picture. I hope to go on doing this and to go on giving talks because in the Q&A periods I always learn something new and that makes it exciting and great fun!