November 29th, 2012
07:00 PM ET
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Interested in trying terrapin? A handwritten recipe from the mid-1800s on how to stew those adorable aquatic turtles might just do the trick.

“Remember to remove the toe nails,” reads the weathered, barely legible recipe card.

The staff at the University of Iowa Libraries scanned and uploaded this recipe, along with thousands of others, from handwritten American and European cookbooks from the 1600s to the 1960s.

This is the latest effort by the University of Iowa Libraries to transcribe history through the power of the internet, and it’s a rare opportunity for both serious historians and food lovers alike to get a taste of bygone times.

All of the handwritten recipes were donated by the late Louis Szathmáry, the famed Hungarian-born chef and owner of The Bakery in Chicago.

Szathmáry also happened to be an avid book collector. His extensive collection was stored in 31 residential rooms above the restaurant before it was moved to the University of Iowa in the late 1980s.

“I remember the first book I bought within a year after coming to this country in 1951 with a small handbag and $1.10 in my pocket,” he wrote in a letter to the university. “It was at a Times Square bookshop in New York that I purchased, for 19 cents, a little volume by Ludwig Bemelmans. I never stopped buying books since.”

Colleen Theisen, an outreach and instruction librarian in the Special Collections department at the University of Iowa Libraries, was a part of the team that started the crowdsourcing project.

The library staff first experimented in crowdsourcing in spring 2011, with their Civil War Diaries and Letters Transcription Project. For the project, they created DIY History - a website that hosts high-res images of 19th century letters and encourages able bodies on the internet to transcribe them.

The site proved to be a smashing success. By the end of the year, more than 15,000 pages of handwritten Civil War-era text had been transcribed.

For Theisen, this isn’t just a fun experiment - it’s a project to preserve history. Every recipe transcribed becomes a legible and searchable copy in the digital age.

“What has been completely surprising and amazing has been just how these recipes seem to enrapture and inspire everyone who comes across them,” said Theisen.

Previously - Save kitchen memories while you can

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Filed under: Culture • Food History • Recipes • Retro

soundoff (26 Responses)
  1. Patricia Shapiro

    My oldest cookbook is one that my mother found in the house she and my father began renting in 1945. It is called the White House cookbook – and goes back to pre-electricity days. Some of the baking recipes in particular would be extremely challenging to duplicate today.

    December 3, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
  2. JMVJY

    I love this idea! . I have grandma and mom's old hand written cookbooks. I've been transcribing them into a new notebook (and adding my own recipes) for my kids and grandkids. I've also been saving the favorites in a digital format, to make them easier to share. I like the scanned copies best though, it's nice to see the notes and comments that Mom and Grandma left with some of the recipes.

    December 2, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  3. Jo

    What a good idea. I've just done a few. It's quite interesting reading the journal entries too, getting a picture of life back then.

    December 1, 2012 at 1:33 am |
  4. Dot

    I too love collecting cookbooks and have more than 200. The most precious recipes though are the ones on pieces of paper that were found in our old home about two years ago. I discovered that some of them were recipes written at the wedding shower of my mother in 1934 by her friends and relatives. She died in 1941. One recipe is from my father's mother who died before I could know her and it was for cormeal mush. She was a pioneer woman in South Dakota working hard all her life and bearing 14 children. It was so typical she should give my mother a very basic and practical recipe.

    November 30, 2012 at 10:34 am |
    • Maria

      I several of my mothers recipes. I framed them and have them hanging near the ceiling around my kitchen walls

      November 30, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
      • Dot

        You have good ideas.

        November 30, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
    • Patty Sankey

      That is why I don't give away nor sell my Mother in Law's cookbooks

      December 1, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
  5. C. Lord

    I was struck speechless when I saw that recipe for vanilla wafers. That is my mother's handwriting and she was born in Iowa, educated at Iowa State College in the 1920's and majored in Home Economics. I'm looking frantically for a sample of her handwriting.

    November 30, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • Colleen Theisen

      The cover of that recipe book is the quizzical cook painting featured above. The whole cookbook is here:

      November 30, 2012 at 11:27 am |
  6. IronLady

    What a great idea to transcribe all these old recipes! If you're interested in old recipes, I follow this fun blog that makes all kinds of weird recipes from past decades.

    November 30, 2012 at 9:22 am |
  7. nstgerma

    I have my grandmother's handwritten cookbook. She was a great cook. The book is falling apart – held together with rubber bands but I could never part with it.

    November 30, 2012 at 6:10 am |
    • NatX

      Please put it on the internet so it won't disappear!

      November 30, 2012 at 9:16 am |
    • Maria

      Take your cook book to a framing store. Michael's craft store do great work. Buy acid paper and place between each page. Keep your book in a acid free box. Photo copy some of your favorites. Have them framed and hang in your kitchen.

      November 30, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • SixDegrees

      It would be wise to have them scanned, photographed, or at least photocopied. The originals will continue to deteriorate with age. Also, with scanned digital copies, it may be possible to enhance faded writing that is no longer legible to the eye, although now we're talking about a serious investment of time and possibly money.

      December 1, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
    • Pat Vang

      I have my great grandmothers and Grandmothers and mothers cook books .I would not part with them either ,

      December 1, 2012 at 7:21 pm |
  8. S.

    The vanilla wafer recipe looks like my mother's handwriting & I want to compare the two to see if I'm right.
    (Trying to without success to copy the photo file of it ... copying it seems to be blocked....any help with this ... or, another source to this file?)

    November 30, 2012 at 12:29 am |
    • Annie

      S., you may want to try contacting the Univ. of Iowa Libraries directly. It sounds like that is where the original photo was uploaded from.

      November 30, 2012 at 7:13 am |
      • Colleen Theisen

        Here's the transcription site:
        And the wafers are page 18 in "American Cookbook, 1920s-1930s"

        November 30, 2012 at 7:39 am |
        • Colleen Theisen

          If it helps with your identification, the image of the puzzled cook seen above comes from the cover of this cookbook and it would be amazing to find out some back story behind this one. That image is a big favorite.

          November 30, 2012 at 9:56 am |
    • Matthew Butler

      Here is a link to a higher quality version of the vanilla wafer recipe

      November 30, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • rc

      Right click and save the file to your computer/desktop. If that doesn't work, take a screenshot of it. On Windows hit the Print Screen button and then paste into a Word document or a graphic program. On Macintosh it's better/easier: hold command-shift and press 3 to take a screenshot of your whole screen, or command-shift 4 gives you a little crosshair (+) on your screen, click and hold and draw a box around what you want a picture of. Let up on your mouse button and it will take the screenshot. In both cases (for Mac), it will save your screenshot as a graphic file on your desktop.

      November 30, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  9. Hadenuffyet

    Recipe for lambas?

    November 29, 2012 at 11:23 pm |
    • meredithinmalta

      You, good sir/madam, are awesome. If you ever get that recipe, be sure to wrap and store them properly. And then share your exploits – I'm embarking on a very long quest soon, and I'm not quite sure that I shall return. I'll need some.

      November 30, 2012 at 3:49 am |
    • moribundman

      I always thought lembas bread was something like a simple Bavarian style gingerbread: ground nuts and figs, eggs, sugar spices. It tastes good (until day 33 of the journey), can be kept for months, and it has high calorie content.

      November 30, 2012 at 5:44 am |
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