Using Cookbooks in Historical Archaeological Research: New Mexico as a Case Study

Arte de cocina_edited-1

Using cookbooks as a tool in historical archaeological research might sound a tad bit absurd, but by examining certain characteristics of these books, it becomes possible to see dirt-covered artifacts in a slightly different light.

As a tribute to my childhood friend, Meli-Duran Kirkpatrick, and at the request of her husband, archaeologist Dr. David Kirkpatrick, I wrote an article


about the feasibility and possibility of using cookbooks in interpreting the archaeological record found in historical sites in the Southwest, chiefly New Mexico. Of course, the methodology could be extrapolated to other circumstances and other regions.

To read the article, please click on Published article in The Artifact for the .pdf; please be aware that it’s a pretty large file! Note that it takes about a minute or more for it to load. And you need to scroll down a few pages to get to the actual article.

The article, which appeared in The Artifact (Vol. 49, 2011), is reprinted with the permission of the El Paso Archaeological Society, El Paso, Texas.

The following excerpt explains my thoughts on the validity of the material discussed in the article.


Cookbooks make concrete what is basically oral culture. In many areas of the world and in many periods of history as well, cookbooks are as scarce as hens’ teeth. When people, mostly men, wrote down bits and pieces about food, something compelled them to do so. Whatever their motives, such material provides historians and historical archaeologists with another tool useful in the search for the often nebulous past.

Put into the context of the time period under scrutiny, researchers can read cookbooks in many different ways. In examining period cookbooks, either printed or in unpublished manuscript form, evidence often exists to illuminate many ofthe following points:

  • Family size
  • Societal changes
  • Literacy and mathematical skills
  • Technological changes
  • Gender roles and accepted behavior
  • Ingredients available locally
  • Ingredients acquired through trade
  • Cooking equipment
  • Meal patterns and other food-related behavior
  • Upper class values, or status markers
  • Middle-class and lower-class imitations of upper classes
  • Traditions

Scholars like Barbara K. Wheaton began realizing the importance of cookbooks in the interpretation of daily life in early France. When Wheaton produced Savoring the Past: The French Kitchen and Table from 1300 to 1789 in 1983, she found encouragement in the work of historians such as Fernand Braudel in Annales: Economics, Societés, Civilizations ) Since then, a wealth of scholarship indicates that food studies, including studies of cookbooks, now ranks closely to other respected academic disciplines like chemistry, engineering,  history,  and anthropology  and archaeology.

Like Wheaton, archaeologist Elizabeth M. Scott looked at cookbooks from a Eurocentric culture, in this case British. She focused on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Anglo­-American cookbooks in her article ” ‘A Little Gravy in the Dish and Onions in a Tea Cup’: What Cookbooks Reveal about Material Culture.” She concluded that, for archaeologists, “… since functional typologies have been called into question for Anglo­-American households, we should be even more cautious when assigning function to artifacts from households of other ethnic and racial groups. It is clear that established methodologies, interpretation of vessel use, status studies, and analyses of gendered labor roles all need thoughtful, critical reconsideration.”


© 2012 C. Bertelsen


One thought on “Using Cookbooks in Historical Archaeological Research: New Mexico as a Case Study

  1. I’ve collected old church cookbooks for years as a way of preserving a snapshot of that aspect of Midwestern life. Cookbooks as an archaeological tool makes sense to me. Besides, they’re just plain fun to read. Thanks for an enjoyable and information post.


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