University of Denver cookbook archive helps students discover new passions

The Cookery and Foodways collection at DU features more than 10,000 works on food

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For students at the University of Denver with an interest in cooking, Carol Helstosky’s course Think, Eat, Write: Food History is an eye-catcher in a long list of class offerings.

But while classes discussing the role food plays in culture, gender roles and even the language of cookbooks lead to a new level of knowledge, it is the university’s archives that really open up the world of cooking.

Jacob Thielen, who took Helstosky’s class this semester, said the class “just kind of jumped out at me.” Most of the grade came from a final paper that required students to spend time researching in the archives. He was happy, he said, to see a professor revolve her class around a great resource for which student tuition helps pay.

“This is a resource I never would have come across if I hadn’t been in this class,” Thielen said.

About the archive

The Cookery and Foodways Collection at DU first got its start in 1985 when the university received a surprise shipment of books from a local cooking school, Helstosky said. The books had seen a chain of owners before landing at DU. The original owner was Margaret Husted, a Virginia native who collected cookbooks from across the country. When she died in 1980, the Boettcher Foundation purchased her collection and donated it to the cooking school. When the cooking school closed five years later, the books made their way to DU.

Since then, three other major cookbook collections from Coloradans Helen Dollaghan, Katie Stapleton and Betty Carey have been added. All three women were avid cooks. Dollaghen was food editor at the Denver Post from 1958 to 1993. Stapleton hosted a radio cooking show.

Having the collection at DU has been a draw to other organizations or individuals looking to donate cookbooks, said Katherine Crowe, curator for special collections and archives in the DU library.

“As soon as you have a collection that people know about,” Crowe said, “you get lots of small donations.”

Although Crowe said Cookery and Foodways is far from the largest cookbook collection in the country, the university has amassed a unique group of works. Some are more specialized, such as a set of publications from the American Diabetic Association that focus on diet and nutrition. Others are works people may not be able to find anywhere else — handmade cookbooks from nonprofits or other organizations selling recipes as a fundraising avenue.

But unlike other special collections, where people need to wear special gloves or handle the books under limited light, Crowe said she likes to keep the books as accessible as possible to students and members of the public who set up appointments.

“It’s a really great collection for teaching,” Crowe said. “We try and make it so there’s very few barriers to access.”

‘Creating your own history’

For students, this can make all the difference in their final projects. Every time Helstosky teaches the class, Crowe said, students come in with ideas that help special collections staff find new hidden gems in the archive.

For Thielen, it was a book of ration tickets from World War II.

“I’m a little bit of a World War II nut, so that was such a cool experience to get to see it and touch it,” Thielen said.

Laynie Smith, another student in Helstosky’s class, said she would often get distracted by the variety and spend a lot of time perusing the shelves. To her, the collection is a hidden gem.

“I feel like more people should know about the archives at DU,” Smith said. “No one knows that it’s there.”

For Smith, the archive was also a window into culture — how people cooked, what equipment they used, what foods were popular at the time.

“Because so much of the archives come from donations, it was really interesting to see what kinds of cookbooks people were collecting or what was popular over the years,” she said.

It was also a view of what hasn’t changed over time. Smith’s paper focused on the history of cake. Through the archive, Smith found that while some technology changed over the years, cake recipes themselves changed very little.

Helstosky is a history professor at DU. Since Think, Eat, Write: Food History is offered as an advanced writing course, she said she often gets a mix of majors in the classroom. Smith is studying geology and Thielen studies finance. Most people take the class because they are passionate about food, Helstosky said. Some of the more specific topics students want to research lead down new paths.

“Sometimes, they’ll pick a topic that is ... very specific,” she said. “It’s fun because there aren’t sources that are written about this and so you’re creating your own history as you’re going along.”

Thielen took the class for personal reasons. He enjoys cooking at home. And he doesn’t want his life to solely revolve around his career.

“If you only ever pursue that and ignore the things that give you joy,” he said, “you’re not as well-rounded as a person.”

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