Houston collector’s cookbooks reflect Texas communities

Few people know as much about the history of Texas cookbooks as Elizabeth White.

About 25 years ago, the Houstonian started picking up cookbooks at garage sales and then on eBay. Having spent her career as a librarian at Houston Academy of Medicine’s medical library, White knew the value of preserving historical documents. As a cook, she appreciated cookbooks as a source of that kind of information.

“You get to see what people thought they should be putting on their tables,” she says.

The first cookbook in Texas was “Texas Cook Book; a thorough treatise on the art of cookery,” a compilation from the Ladies of the First Presbyterian Church of Houston in 1883.

The second, “Household Manual and Practical Cook Book; embracing many hundreds of valuable recipes” followed in 1888 from the Ladies of St. Paul’s Guild at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Waco.

After she’d gathered more than 2,000 titles, White started looking for a home for some of the most notable. She ended up gifting half her books to the Texas Collection at Baylor, which has one of the largest cookbook collections in the world.

The Texas Collection “can see that each of the cookbooks is a reflection of the community that produced them, and they see the historical value in that,” she says.

They also encourage people to use their volumes for research, which White hopes will inspire future academic work on the subject.

On a recent tour of the 4,000-book cookbook collection — a quarter of which came from White — librarian Amie Oliver, curator of print materials for the Texas Collection, pointed to the many spiral-bound community cookbooks, most of which are categorized by place.

White has another 1,000 books meticulously organized, but “I am purchasing, selectively,” White says. Her focus now is pre-World War II books, especially 19th century books, which can fetch hundreds of dollars in online auctions. She’d like to track down early cookbooks in languages other than English; she has found a German book or two.

She particularly loves the home demonstration cookbooks from the 1930s and ’40s, from instructors who pre-dated extension agents, who served a similar purpose.

White is on the verge of revisiting her landmark statewide bibliography of Texas cookbooks that she first completed in 2005. This time, she’ll be in partnership with Southern Methodist University’s DeGolyer Library and her friends at the Texas Collection.

It will take a few years, but they want to list all the Texas cookbooks through 1986 and where you can find copies of each.

When asked how many other fervent cookbook collectors she knew of, she said there weren’t many. “But maybe we’re just a quieter bunch.”

To learn more about the cookbooks in the Texas Collection or if you would like to visit, go to baylor.edu/lib/texas.

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