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Shelf Life: Iowa Ingredients

ISU Library, Ames

An ISU Library special collection
reminds us: We are what we eat

By Nick Bergus

At the peak of summer, swaths of Iowa culture are displayed and judged in hot barns and buildings practically in the dead center of the state. Vying for the State Fair’s ribbons are bulls, crafts, auctioneers, and food — nearly 900 different classes of food. (Yes, there’s a Jell-O division.) The panoply is a testament to Iowa’s culinary culture.

What may be an even greater testament lies, year-round, about 35 miles north. Housed among the library stacks on Iowa State University’s campus in Ames are nearly 4,000 books, pamphlets, menus, and notebooks that track and trace Iowa’s gastronomic evolution.

The collection started two decades ago with a phone call from Robert Smith. Smith, a retired Army cook from What Cheer, had heard about the University of Iowa’s Szathmáry cookbook collection and wondered if Iowa State would like the 12,000 cookbooks and related ephemera he’d gathered over years spent buying just about anything related to cooking he could find at any estate sale he’d visit. Diana Shonrock, the former ISU librarian responsible for curating the collection until her recent retirement, was willing to take the trove — with the understanding that the library would only keep the Iowa-related items.

Shonrock and other librarians and students sorted and selected, cleaned and curated until about 1,200 of Smith’s original hoard was left. The collection, which reaches back to the 1880s, was built up with additions from Iowa companies, church groups, a collection of a former Chicago Tribune food editor, and other sources. It took Shonrock and her team two decades to get everything cataloged.

The collection includes the cookbook and teaching notes of Mary B. Welch, wife of the first president of the university (then still a college) and head of the Department of Domestic Economy from 1875 to 1883. Items like hers tell a story about our Midwestern food culture that’s often maligned as little more than Jell-O molds and pork chops.

The most interesting elements in the collection are those that are more than just compiled recipes. Take, for example, Kitchen-Klatter, a radio-show-turned-magazine written by Leanna Field Driftmier. It’s not just how-tos and recipes; Driftmier’s writing is personal and entertaining and akin to today’s best blogs.

“A grocery man told me the other day that women are getting too lazy to cook,” Driftmier wrote under the headline “Lazy Cooks” in an issue from 1940. “The manufacturers know this and are even putting up fried onions in tin cans.”

Substitute a topic other than fried onions, and the hand-wringing over lifestyle changes could fit any era.

“These people were writing down recipes because they didn’t want them to get lost,” says Shonrock. By collecting and cherishing these books, Smith and Shonrock and the others are helping protect that legacy.

Nick Bergus is a writer and multimedia producer based in Iowa City.

Photos courtesy Iowa Cookbook Collection/Special Collections Department/Iowa State University Library.


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