Jennifer Brannock 2015-10-06 06:04:03
A Digital Humanities Project Using Community Cookbooks In Mississippi, food is king. From shrimp etouffee and gumbo to catfish and comeback sauce (a local condiment), Mississippians love their food. To help preserve this culinary culture, Special Collections at the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) has been collecting cookbooks from around the state, particularly focusing on community cookbooks. USM history professor Dr. Andrew Haley and Special Collections kicked off the Mississippi Community Cookbook Project (http://mscommunitycookbooks.usm.edu) in 2014 to give the public a glimpse into the ways Mississippians ate. The cookbooks also go beyond food—they highlight how the organizations that compiled the books thought about their hometowns, state, and even the world and touch on issues such as race relations, economic development, and the influence of international cuisines and life on Mississippians. Special Collections has been an integral part of the development of this project by contributing the use of our collections and digitization expertise. The Process Bringing cookbooks into the collection requires searching and outreach. The collection development approach includes gathering cookbooks at estate sales, working with used book dealers, and soliciting copies from community members. Community cookbooks are often considered outdated or are unwanted by current generations, so promoting the value of these cookbooks as research tools has become a key element in acquisition. After obtaining the books, the collection curator facilitates the cataloging and processing of the materials. Cookbooks are cataloged prior to digitization so that the metadata from the catalog record can be incorporated into the digital record. At USM, Special Collections uses ContentDM as the digital collection management system. Once the cookbooks have been cataloged and digitized, the items are placed in the Mississippiana Digital Collection for retrieval. Prior to the Mississippi Community Cookbook Project, few books were fully digitized and included in the Digital Collections, primarily because of copyright issues and the curators’ digitization priorities. The curators previously primarily focused on government publications and Civil War pamphlets due to a lack of copyright issues. The project created an impetus for curators to make cookbooks a priority and to closely examine the materials to determine any possible copyright infringements in digitizing the books. Fortunately, most of the cookbooks are no longer under copyright restrictions. While the digital lab scans and places the images in the digital collections, they also run the images through an OCR program. Because of specific formatting issues of recipes and the fact that many cookbooks were handwritten, these OCR records are in need of serious editing. With the assistance of student workers and anyone else who can be convinced to help, the files are cleaned up to reflect the content and formatting of the cookbooks. There has been discussion about crowdsourcing the transcription of the images, but those talks are still in the early stages. An Insight into Mississippi Life While Special Collections works with cataloging and the digital lab to process and provide access to the cookbooks, Haley focuses on the creation of the web page to showcase his research. The Mississippi Community Cookbook Project site includes cookbooks, essays, and announcements sections. The cookbooks section provides ways to access the books; users can view lists of the cookbooks by title, author, date, and the front cover. The lists primarily focus on the cookbooks digitized and available online via the Special Collections’ Digital Collections. Under the titles sections, links direct users to essays that discuss how the cookbooks provide insight into the books’ authors. For instance, the page for Coahoma Cooking: Everyday and Sunday Too, which was produced by the Coahoma Woman’s Club in 1952, looks at the history of Coahoma, Mississippi, and the Mississippi Delta and gives a description of the cookbook and its recipes. Coahoma Cooking’s “story” focuses on adherence to antiquated thoughts on Southern life and racial stereotypes. The naming conventions of recipes in Coahoma Cooking seem to distinguish e ks between submissions belonging to the African American women who worked in white homes and the matrons of those households. This book is somewhat unique in that regard; in community cookbooks, it was customary to attribute the names of the recipes to the submitter, and white housewives typically claimed ownership of the recipes of the women who worked in their kitchens. In Coahoma Cooking, there are recipes titled Mrs. Wooton’s Jam Cake, Mrs. Vaught’s Paradise Pudding, and Mrs. Elmer Morgan’s Pecan Cake. There is also a series of recipes that designate African American cooks as the owners of the recipes and omit the courtesy titles. Examples of these include Fannie’s Mints, Ila’s Baking Powder Muffins, Daisy’s Toasted Cheese Boxes, and Keesee’s Scalloped Oysters. For many African American women in the early to midtwentieth century, their recipes were often considered their main assets, especially when trying to find employment. Student Assignments Haley also will highlight the writings of his students with the Mississippi Community Cookbook Project. During the spring semester, Haley taught a history and interdisciplinary studies class focusing on community cookbooks. Each student was assigned two cookbooks and wrote short essays on each book, highlighting how the book represented an aspect of the Mississippi community that produced it. Those essays will be added to the website later this year. Reaching Out and What’s to Come To promote the Mississippi Community Cookbook Project and to present Haley’s research on Coahoma Cooking, Special Collections—in collaboration with the history department’s student group— sponsored a potluck and lecture. Librarians and students prepared dishes from the cookbook to serve as refreshments; some of the biggest hits included Ann’s Macaroni Loaf, Stuffed Dill Pickles, and Shrimp Puffettes. To publicize the event, the library created posters and pushcards, which are effective in promotion because potential attendees have a postcard-sized takeaway to remind them of the upcoming event. These are particularly helpful when reaching out to community members, because the cards can be placed around town for people to pick up. Response to this event was extremely positive. Not only did attendees enjoy the food component, but they also found Haley’s talk informative. Haley produced pushcards about the Mississippi Community Cookbook Project for the event so the forty-five attendees had information about the initiative to take home. This project is ongoing with new purchases and donations continually being added to the collection. Special Collections also is sponsoring a lecture by Haley this fall to highlight another cookbook from the collection. In light of the positive reaction to the previous event, the reception food will be selected from the cookbook featured in Haley’s talk. As with the previous events, the library will create posters and pushcards to promote the talk in addition to highlighting the lecture on social media. To promote the lecture, the project, and October as National Cookbook Month, the library will curate an exhibit held in the main library on campus, featuring cookbooks and culinary ephemera from the collections. The success of the Mississippi Community Cookbook Project has been evident, thanks to the interest and support from scholars and the community. Many digital humanities projects tend to engage academics more than the general public. With cookbooks as the focus of the project, the reach is endless. This especially rings true in Mississippi, where food is a key component to our local culture. This information was originally shared during the Professional Poster Presentations at ARCHIVES 2015.
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