Digital Humanities and the Art of Cooking

When I was told to write a blog post on an area of digital humanities that I found interesting I was unsure how to begin, so I just started googling “digital humanities” plus various topics I find interesting. After what felt like my 400th search (but was probably actually my 8th or 9th) I stumbled upon a powerpoint talking about a digitization of recipes project. In and of itself this sounds relatively mundane; digitizing recipes would just entail digitizing more books, a concept that seemed to pop up at least twice in every Google search I had tried. The difference here was that this was not the digitization of cookbooks but recipe cards.

Like socks, recipe cards always seem to disappear when you actually need them: someone accidentally threw them out, coffee was spilled on them, the card box was hidden somewhere odd, or they just flat out disappeared. From a basic practicality standpoint, then, the digitization of recipe cards makes sense. It’s a lot harder to lose an iPad full of images than a three by five-inch card. More importantly however taking recipe cards and putting them into a digital format helps preserve  culture.

Food plays an integral part in our society, we use it as a way to socialize and connect; there are even television shows and an entire television channel devoted to food today. Thus the making of that food, and the recipes used for it, are also important. Looking at this from a historical standpoint, older recipes give us perspective on past relations between people and food: which foods were considered everyday fare, which were considered “fancy” dishes, what ingredients did people commonly use, which foods were considered luxury items or treats, the list goes on.

Using solely cookbooks for this task is somewhat like looking only at the houses that colonial restoration societies have dolled up in order to understand how all of colonial society lived their day-to-day lives; you get an idea of what was happening, but it is only a partial snapshot. Cookbooks represent mainly what was considered more “popular” or “recommended” for eating (if you look at cookbooks even today most require more ingredients than many people have time or money for and making the recipe takes at least an hour). You never see recipes in cookbooks called “Mom’s soup that’s partially a recipe, partially whatever’s in the house, you’re not quite sure exactly but it does wonders when you have a cold”. You miss the alterations that people might have made to improve on other recipes, based perhaps on what ingredients were available or what ingredient substitutes were preferred. These are the sorts of things that cookbooks miss that appear on recipe cards, in all their easily-lost glory.

The digitization of recipe cards thus helps to create a historical record of food and its place in society over time, as well as perhaps being a more practical way to save recipes today for future use in one’s own home (or for referencing by future historians). The question I am left with in concluding this however is in digitalizing everything from books to index cards, will we lose some of our humanity? The feeling of an actual book cannot be replicated on an iPad, and there is something pretty adorable about a cookie tin full of coffee-stained recipes…

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