The cookbooks are a window into the heart of America’s history. While textbooks and biographies shape our country’s more scholarly history, cookbooks capture a different perspective, often talking about women’s work, from cooking and eating the family to entertainment.

And St. Paul’s College, the only local college with a culinary program, has a collection of over 5,000 of them – all available to students and anyone with a Minnesota library card.

The director of the library, Ben Tri, is responsible for building and cataloging the collection, which he has assembled alongside chef Nathan Sartain, a cooking teacher at the school. In addition to books, the collection includes boxes filled with ephemera such as brochures, advertisements, booklets and mail order recipes.

Compilation began as a modest community college library. That changed in 2019, when the closing Art Institutes International Minnesota donated its culinary library. Among the assets was the collection of longtime local food personality and James Beard Award winner Sue Zelickson, who had amassed thousands of books and donated around 1,500 to art institutes.

“It was like sending my kids to college,” she said, recalling hauling a truckload of her cookbooks first to a school and then to their current home at St. Paul. College. By Zelickson and his organization Women who really cook, more book donations poured in, with Sartain visiting people’s homes to collect valuable collections.

Among them was famed St. Paul chef Jack Riebel. Faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis, Riebel wanted to share her cookbook collection with the school, her alma mater. Each of her books contains a bespoke sticker that cements her legacy – sharing her journey and knowledge with future cooks. Riebel died in December 2021.

“You can see the evolution of his career through these books,” Sartain said. “There are books on Irish cooking from when he was doing the Half Time Rec menu. The charcuterie books were for the opening of Butcher & the Boar,” the restaurant that would earn Riebel a James nomination Beard Award.

Riebel collected these books with the voracity of an inquisitive mind that loved extracting food for stories and inspiration. And Sartain helped transport the 500 of them from the chief’s house. Riebel’s wife and mother were there with him at the time. “That’s a nice gift,” Riebel said, shrugging.

Sartain said Riebel’s mother patted her son and, with the weight of the moment, added: “It’s a very nice gift.” At the heart of the collection: an unpublished work by Julia Child.

A variety of flavors

The Culinary Library is organized like any school library: rows of stacks of books, many with plastic covers, all with Library of Congress codes taped to their spines. A student catches a quiet nap; people speak in low voices.

In the front, a floor-to-ceiling shelf faces the exterior glass wall. “That’s where we keep all of our James Beard Award winners,” Tri said.

To the side and back of the room were other cookbooks: tomes by Escoffier, Bocuse, Boulud, Bourdain shared the space with niche books on baking bread, cooking with insects, a book about Hershey’s chocolate baking and diabetic dinners. There are also books about people who cook, memoirs and even a book of famous historical menus, including brunch after the wedding of Elvis and Lisa Marie Presley (fried chicken). The list continues.

“There’s a cookbook with recipes from every state, but it’s so old that Alaska isn’t included,” Tri said.

Books overflow from the shelves in his office, where boxes of items await his studious organization. (Tri scoffs at Library of Congress classifications as recall anecdotes.) The thin cookbook featuring Mountain Dew tickles him. It also launches into a book summary on the “Dorito-fication” of food, elevating flavor so that manufactured tastes can be added.

The collection has already outgrown its physical space. Tri and Sartain envision a nearby space as their own on-demand room: a much-needed quiet space for students to study (or nap) and plenty of empty shelves.

“We’re working on pathways to create access to use it,” Sartain said. “We’re on Dakota land. I think we owe it to the people of this place who don’t have a history of the written language to include their stories and food traditions.”

Sociology of cooking

Beneath the school, facing a rear parking lot, a storage room serves as a storage area for even more books. Some are more specialized, others show the Eurocentric nature of older books. A 1968 Gourmet compendium contains an essay about adventure in the streets of Japan in search of sushi, accompanied by a cartoon image with xenophobic caricatures. A 1971 Better Homes and Gardens cookbook focuses on weeknight cooking: serving family dynamics as divorce rates rose, women returned to the workforce and a generation children’s key was high.

The older books, with their tissue paper-like pages, are dedicated to home maintenance. Occasionally, a stain or tattered magazine article is found neatly hidden inside, artifacts of the women who once owned these books. A weathered chocolate pie recipe is splattered with stains, a frosting recipe pulled from a carton of butter keeping its place.

It’s easy to get lost in the moment, to fall into the pages of other people’s memories.

And that’s something anyone with a Minnesota library card can do. All cookbooks are available to the public; cardholders can request a book through the online catalog to pick it up from the reservations section of their local library.

As recipes have moved from page to screen, this collection of Americana serves as a vital link to our past. As the gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin Brillat-Savarin said: “Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are.”

Cookbooks tell us who we are and where we’ve been while we wonder where to eat next.

Not the only culinary library in town

St. Paul College’s collection of cookbooks isn’t the only impressive one in the state. Nestled inside the Magrath Library at the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus is the Doris S. Kirschner Collection, which has nearly 6,000 writings on food.

The collection, which is part of the Food Science and Nutrition Library, began with a donation from Doris Kirschner of Minneapolis, a graduate of the university’s home economics program, who donated nearly 3,000 cookbooks from his personal library. The culinary library was beefed up — and moved to a larger location — in 2019, after famed cookbook author Beatrice Ojakangas of Duluth added 2,000 books to her collection.

The library is open to the public, but books must remain on site. For more information – and to search the library – go to tinyurl.com/dnmfzhvv.

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