The original email read, in part: “My husband and I are Army brats and have been married 51 years. We traveled the world as kids and as a couple, ending up in Columbia in 1981. It is time to downsize my vast collection of cookbooks and I was hoping you would be the one with the interest and helpful ways of getting them in the right places.”
More than 50 years of cookbooks – many from around the world, places like Germany, England and Vietnam.
As Anne Bartlett remembers her first tour of Southeast Asia: “I had tickets to an Elvis Pressley concert that I had to give up” because of her father’s posting to Vietnam in 1956.
At the end of that two-year assignment, her family returned to the United States and was stationed at Kentucky’s Fort Knox. It was there that she met her soon-to-be-husband Bill. The families knew of each other and – unknown to the young couple at the time – both families had been assigned to Vietnam (Anne in 1956, Bill in 1963). Bill was finishing the Army Officer Advanced Course at Fort Knox when they met.
The couple married in 1965 and soon afterward transferred to Germany for a year. “The first argument we had was about how to prepare pork chops,” Bartlett said. That’s when she bought her first cookbook.
Her cookbook collection reflects what was going on in her life at the time. From her early travels with her family – before her marriage to Bill – there are cookbooks from China (“Chinese Village Cookbook: A Practical Guide to Cantonese Country Cooking”), Mexico (“...Y La Comida Se Hizo... de Quesos”) England (“500 Recipes for Families”), and a worn copy of “Dagmar Freuchen’s Cookbook of the Seven Seas,” in addition to many more on Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine.
In 1966, her husband got a position at the University of Delaware, just before the second build-up of troops in Vietnam. During that time, Bartlett was taking a cooking course, purchasing paperback cookbooks published by Better Homes & Gardens, Sunset and Time-Life. Titles include “How to Entertain at Parties” and “The Sunset Appetizer Book.” She said one of her go-to recipes during this time was for avocado ice cream.
Bill Bartlett was sent back to Vietnam in 1968. “We were given $500 a month to cover rent, heat, food and clothing ... and DelMarVa (utility company serving Delaware, Maryland and Virginia) took most of it,” said Bartlett. Cookbook topics trended towards titles like “How to Feed a Family of Four for $1” and quite a few books filled with salad recipes.
“Stuffed veal breasts,” said Bartlett, when asked which recipe she remembers from that period. “It sounds so fancy now, but back then they were the cheap cuts.”
After Vietnam, the couple and their two children were transferred to Guatemala and Peru. In Peru, Bartlett joined a group of other Army wives and together began teaching cooking classes and sharing recipes. The ladies, collectively called The American Women’s Literary Club of Lima, Peru, published a cookbook featuring recipes and notes in English and Spanish. An excerpt from the 1976 edition opening reads: “When you first visit Lima markets you will find many fruits and vegetables, as well as other items, that you have not known before. They are interesting to see, fun to prepare and delicious to eat.”
In 1981, the Bartletts were to be reassigned to Washington, D.C. but Anne Bartlett had other plans. The family was given a selection of Southern locales to choose from and because her father had served with Strom Thurmond under Gen. Omar Bradley during World War II, she chose Columbia. Her husband retired from the Army and joined the Red Cross Emergency Services at Fort Jackson.
After almost 52 years together, and with children long grown and gone, Bartlett decided it was time to downsize. In anticipation of selling their home, books and other belongings were boxed. When the house didn’t sell, the boxes of cookbooks remained and Anne reached out to The State for help.
Fifty years of cookbooks equals 26 boxes – two carloads – of books. Most are in great condition, some have torn paper bookmarks indicating favorite recipes, others have recipes clipped from newspapers and handwritten on cards inserted randomly within the pages. There are obvious favorites: “The Complete Chinese Cookbook,” by Jacki Passmore and Daniel P. Reid, and “The Frugal Gourmet: On Our Immigrant Ancestors,” by Jeff Smith.
“I liked Graham Kerr,” Bartlett said, “before he straightened up” and began replacing sugar and other non-healthy ingredients in his recipes. “Too many substitutions!”
Bartlett’s interests are wide ranging: four volumes in a series of “Best of Bridge” – recipes for entertaining/hosting bridge parties; “The Thistle Eaters Guide” by R. E. Scammell features only recipes highlighting artichokes. It is found in a box alongside “I Love Bacon!” by Jayne Rockwell. After sorting into categories, the celebrity chef boxes include titles from the likes of Maya Angelou, Paula Deen, Paul Prudhomme, Gary Collins (Google “The Hour Magazine” television talk show) and Anthony Bourdain.
There’s a series of Weight Watcher’s books from the 2000s, when Bartlett decided that she and her children needed to eat healthier and lose a few pounds.
All of this is printed gold for Debra Bloom, from the Walker Local History Room at Richland Library’s Main branch.
“Cookbooks show culinary history through time,” said Bloom. “Recipes used to be short. No ‘teaspoon of salt’ directions. They assumed you’d add flavor in there somehow.
“Then in the 1950s and ‘60s it became all casseroles and gelatin ... the 1970s and ‘80s were light and healthy.” Recipes became more precise with measurements and procedures.
For the most part, said Bloom, cookbooks contain personal histories, they are the stories of women and ethnic groups.
Bloom said some national libraries have been digitizing cookbooks for their historic value, and Richland Library is considering doing that.
“One of the things we will have to do is contact some of these organizations and make sure they are OK with us doing it” she said. “Also, Mrs Olsen, when she gave this recipe ... may not have intended in 1997 ... how could she have imagined the worldwide web? There’s no way we’re going to get everybody’s permission. If we did digitize cookbooks that were 50 years old or older, we could start to build a digital collection.
“I think that’s what we would do ... start with the very oldest ... and these newer ones, we’ll just have to wait for the future librarians to digitize those.”
For Richland Library, Bloom is looking for local – South Carolina and Richland County books and festival books, church cookbooks – and the older the better, but still in good condition. .
Bartlett’s First Lady cookbooks, books from local organizations such as Columbia’s American Red Cross Central South Carolina Chapter, South Carolina Chapter of Bell South Pioneers, Shandon United Methodist Church, and the second edition of The Basil Pot Cooklet are destined for Richland Library.
Bloom said her staff will go page by page through contributed cookbooks looking for recipes requested by library patrons. “Chicken bog was a recipe someone wanted. I guess you could go to the internet, but they wanted something old ... the way you used to do it.”
“Someone called and wanted a hash recipe for 100 people. We started going through all the cookbooks looking for a hash recipe for 100 people. In that case (we found it) in the Thornwell Orphanage Cookbook from the 1950s, I think, and this guy, the janitor, was making hash for the kids in the orphanage.
“So just like that you have: A: culinary history, no one makes 50 gallons of hash anymore. B: you have the history of the orphanage and you even have a bit of personal history about the janitor who worked in the orphanage,” Bloom said. “Come on! I love that. It’s really nice.”
So you have a collection of books...
According to Debra Bloom of the Walker Local History Room at Richland Library, a good collection consists of these elements:
Books with historical information. A short biography of the organization or person/people behind the cookbook not only provides a snapshot of the area but can be used in genealogical research.
Books that list the names of donors. Bloom was able to scan a few pages in a few of the local cookbooks in the Bartletts’ collection and recognized the names of prominent family members from the area who were recipe contributors. Again, family names are important in genealogical research.
Nameplates inside of the front cover of books. “It’s hard to keep a collection (physically) together in the library,” said Bloom. “But if people put bookplates in their books ... to open up a book and read ‘From the Library of Fant Thornley’... Bookplates really make me happy.”
Related objects. In the case of a restaurant cookbook, like “The Basil Pot Cooklet,” photographs of the building or staff (with identifications) or original menus help round out the history of the place. The Walker Local History Room keeps a vertical file of pamphlets, newspaper clippings and other ephemera on related topics.
So you want to donate books...
The books will be sorted, some added to library shelves, or in Richland Library’s case, given to Friends of the Richland Library for sale at one of the group’s semi-annual book sale events.
Anne Bartlett’s collection will be sold to raise funds for charity; any unsold books will be given to Richland Library.