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From Betty Crocker to Playboy Gourmet: The 3,500-Cookbook Kirschner Collection

The Kirschner Cookbook collection holds 3,500 titles for your perusal

The Kirschner Cookbook collection holds 3,500 titles for your perusal

Through the labyrinthine, leafy roads of the University of Minnesota St. Paul Campus, in a bunkeresque, almost completely windowless building, through a hallway and then a corridor and in a far corner of the Magrath Library lies a cookbook collector's paradise.

See also: 10 Best Local Cookbooks and Food Guides

In 1957, one Doris Kirschner graduated from the University of Minnesota with a Home Economics degree, and with the school holding a special place in her heart, 30 years later, she donated the entirety of her personal cookbook collection, over 1,500 titles, to the school. Kirschner was an avid home cook, entertainer, world traveler, and early enthusiast of ethnic cuisine (she hand-wrote her weekly menu plans for 40 years, never duplicating any meal in a given month or beyond, and those plans are available to view on microfiche). The collection is still regularly updated and now holds over 3,500 titles.

No internet search on recipes.com could ever begin to unearth the treasures herein, where the more you dig, the more giddy you become, depending on the heights of your bookworkmishness. From a 1910 edition of What a Cook Ought to Know About Cornstarch, to A Thousand Ways to Please a Husband (ahem, with food), published in 1917, right up to this year's James Beard award-winning books, the collection is a time capsule of American cooking and beyond. There's hardly a region that goes untouched, from an extensive section on Jewish cuisine (Kirschner's family kept kosher) to Creole, New Orleans, and Louisiana; to an extensive section on microwave cooking and even modernist cuisine.

"I think there's a fine line between learning from these and making fun of them," says librarian and the curator of the collection Megan Kocher. "There are a thousand women's studies dissertations to be had here," she says, tossing me a selection entitled Have Cookbook, Will Marry, with a choice recipe selection of "blackberry tongue." (Who doesn't want a gal who can whip up precooked beef tongue with raisins and blackberry jelly?)

But the cringeworthy sexist (and sometimes racist) time-capusle nature of the collection aside, it is an impressive assessment of what American cookery was (the collection's titles begin around 1800) to what it is (it includes Nathan Myhrvold's Modernist Cuisine at Home tome, which retails for over a hundred bucks), and I can think of few other places to get such an extensive viewpoint of this evolution.

Better get to know cornstarch. Start here.

Better get to know cornstarch. Start here.

Remember libraries? There's no better place to learn stuff you didn't even know you needed to know, like the fact that during the 1940s, entire cookbooks were devoted to making desserts without sugar. Not because they cared about such silly things as cutting back on sweetener, but because, of course, sugar was being rationed. Or how about the fact that "Pet Milk" was the first American company to produce evaporated milk, and yes, they had a cookbook devoted to cooking with it. Why evaporated milk? Because refrigerators were still uncommon in American homes, and it was an early convenience food, for, you guessed it, busy housewives. Or how about a quick homeopathic recipe for the abolishment of pimples, using salt, cream of tartar, and wine, excerpted from The Jewish Manual, the first Jewish cookbook published in the English language?

If none of this jazzes you, know that there is an entire series of Playboy Gourmet cookery books that are surprisingly comprehensive, so yes, you'll want to seek those out for the articles, and if you're still unimpressed, well, there's at least 3,500 other ways to inspire.

Unfortunately, the books are not for checkout, but if all this rainy weather has got you down, this is a gratis ticket to paradise.

1984 Buford Ave., St. Paul 612-624-2233 http://lib.umn.edu/magrath

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