The American Cookbook Project


The Smithsonian Institution is running a traveling exhibition called Key Ingredients: America by Food. The exhibition is touring the country until 2013, gathering regional food history and customs as it goes. It doesn’t seem to be coming to New York, (I guess our food culture is adequately cataloged, compared to say, Maryville, Tennessee) but it is in Woodbine, NJ, now through August 31.

The most interesting part of the exhibition is the American Cookbook Project, which you can access online. It’s like those self-published family cookbooks, writ large. Anyone can contribute a family recipe and the story behind it.

On the website, you can sort by course, heritage-type, state or story-type. And it’s all a little jumbled, in a good way. Under “Rites of Passage” you find oyster pie supreme, from a Maryland woman who hated oysters until her uncle made her eat them raw on the seashore, New Jersey breakfast, a pork roll, egg and cheese sandwich that the author claims is better than the best Philly cheesesteak, the Huffman-Fenton family’s recipe for Iowa fried pheasant and squirrel, and Kentucky boiled custard, a rich, creamy drink dosed with bourbon.

I’m drinking the kool aide on this one. There is something really beautiful about gathering all these different family recipes together. They’re like capsules of information that allow you to share an experience with someone you’ve never met.

For instance, I’ll never meet Jackie Gilich, but I could make her father’s recipe for Hrstule, Yugoslav bow-tie shaped pastries that her father made for the family on Christmas Eve. Or, for that matter, Iowa fried squirrel.