On “Evidence” in American Religions: Historical Cookbooks

Editor’s Note: In the recent issue of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion, Emily Bailey published her reflections as part of a special issue on “evidence” in American religions, which, as Kelly Baker summarizes it, “provides a close and careful analysis of Victorian women’s cookbooks to argue that cookbooks and recipes are valid evidence for academic study.” In this blog, Emily offers some reflections on how she became interested in the intersection between food and religion as well as a concise summary of her article. 

by Emily Bailey

The seed for this article was planted early on in my graduate research, as I became increasingly interested in the intersections between food and religion in American life.  It was only a matter of time before a life-long infatuation with all things turn-of-the-century shifted my focus on this topic to the Victorian period.  As someone who is interested in nineteenth-century domestic literature I discovered that Protestant cookbooks from the period are treasure troves of historical information, revealing not only what middle-class Christians in America ate and how they prepared those foods, but how closely food and morality were linked in an era in which one’s moral character was perceived as being jeopardized by an increasingly secularized and industrialized society.

In this article I consider the “paratexts” of nineteenth-century American Protestant charitable cookbooks, including period artwork, advertisements, recipes for how to live a good life, religiously inspired recipes, prefaces, biblical references, and even the stains in the books.  As written information beyond that originally intended in the book (in this case, beyond instructions for cooking), the paratexts of Victorian charitable cookbooks offer us more intimate windows into the domestic and religious lives of Protestant American women around the turn of the twentieth century.  In the texts that I encountered, paratexts reveal the daily struggles of middle-class Christian women, who strove to fulfill their role as moral pillars for their families and society.  They did this not only by remaining key actors in their church communities, but by becoming domestic authorities who realized that Christian virtue began first in the home.

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