Table of Contents
Previous Article
Next Article

 
Interview: Barbara Haber

Barbara Haber is the curator of printed books for Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library. She holds a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Wisconsin, a master's in literature from the University of Chicago, and an MLS from Simmons. Haber has also earned an international reputation as an historian of food. Her book, From Hardtack to Home Fries, was published this month by the Free Press at Simon and Schuster. She was interviewed for Library Notes on February 24.

LN
Congratulations on your book. Let's talk about the title.

BH
Thank you. Originally, the title was Who Cooked the Last Supper? —alluding to the fact that nobody ever asked that question. The answer, of course, is anonymous women. That working title suggested religion and world history, which are not the subjects of my book. What I am doing is looking at American women's history from a food perspective and seeing what stories come out. The book includes various episodes from American history, such as the Civil War—which is where the hardtack comes from. So the title of the book wound up being From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals.

The chapter on the Civil War is about women in both the North and South who worked in field hospitals and in diet kitchens. I got very interested in the food they served—and the rationale of the diets prescribed by surgeons. There was lots of whiskey, which was considered beneficial to recovering soldiers. And there was lots of drunkenness, often on the part of the doctors. The female nurses often wound up guarding the whiskey barrels.

LN
What were your best sources on the Civil War?

BH
Women's journals and diaries. I wanted to know what women were thinking at the moment they were writing. Memoirs are written later, and they're edited, so that often you don't get the immediacy of diaries. I was especially responsive to the everyday descriptions of their lives, for these often included food.

LN
Tell us about hardtack. What is it?

BH
Hardtack is a thick cracker, probably just flour, water, and salt, that came from factories. There is one in Milton, Massachusetts, still making it that has been in business since 1807—and they supplied the Union with hardtack. I have eaten those big thick square crackers. They don't generally get stale because they taste stale to begin with. They did get moldy and wormy and water-damaged, but soldiers were quite ingenious about stewing them and creating dishes that turned out to be substantial. They were issued a little meat—often rancid bacon—and a little coffee. Union soldiers got canned milk-commandeered from the Borden Company.

LN
Sounds grim and industrial.

BH
There were other Civil War dishes. Do you know about that mock apple pie that's made with Ritz crackers and cream of tartar? My assumption was that it grew out of the Depression. But it's actually a Civil War dish.

LN
With Ritz crackers?

BH
Just crackers. Not Ritz. But making a fake apple pie out of crackers and tartaric acid, and finding that it really tastes like apples is quite a stunt, and I had no idea before doing research for this book that the recipe went back that far.

LN
How long did you work on this book?

BH
It was probably two-and-a-half years of real writing, but I'd been thinking about it for about ten years. My ideas originated in talks I'd been giving at conferences on food history.

LN
Did you begin and end with the same reader in mind?

BH
I'm writing for people who are interested in history and interested in food.

LN
You write at length about Eleanor Roosevelt—among whose tremendous accomplishments I wouldn't ordinarily list anything culinary.

BH
I couldn't agree more, and that is what brought me to this topic. Blanche Wiesen Cook, a respected biographer of Eleanor Roosevelt, came to Radcliffe to give a talk about Eleanor during her White House years. Notoriously bad cooking was going on there, and Blanche believed that the serving of bad food was the result of Eleanor Roosevelt's passive-aggressiveness. That she was essentially a shy woman who got back at people by deliberately serving bad food. While I thought this explanation was rather ingenious, I felt it was dead wrong. I said, "Blanche, where does this come from? Wouldn't Eleanor have to know the difference between good and bad food in order to play a trick like this?" And she said, "Well, she did." And I said, "How do you know that?" And she said, "Eleanor used to take people to fancy French restaurants and compliment the chef." And I said, "Blanche, people of her class always did that. I'm not convinced."

We had a really friendly chat, and Blanche mentioned that Henrietta Nesbitt had written a memoir as well as a cookbook. I hadn't been aware of either, and immediately bought copies, and I started reading Nesbitt's memoirs. She and Mrs. Roosevelt had been Hyde Park neighbors, and Mrs. Nesbitt used to bake and sell cakes and bread from her home during the Depression when her husband lost his job. Eventually, she was hired to oversee the domestic side of the White House. FDR's children, friends, and cronies complained about Nesbitt's food, and FDR himself was quoted in the New York Times as flying into rages over some of her dishes. He also wrote a famous memo to Eleanor complaining that he'd been served chicken six nights in a row and he threatened to bite the leg of the French ambassador if it continued.

Mrs. Nesbitt's memoir was understandably defensive. She makes it clear that the White House during the Depression and then during World War II had to set an example of not eating high off the hog. Roosevelt was wheelchair-bound; he couldn't eat the buttery foods he preferred, and Nesbitt justifies pushing lots of vegetables on him. I was pretty much on her side at that point. Then I read her cookbook, and I thought, "Now I'm getting at the truth."

In the memoir, Nesbitt would say things like, "I don't trust people who don't cook with garlic." But in her recipes, there was scarcely any garlic—just salt and pepper. The cooking was awful—tongue and other cheap cuts of meat indifferently prepared.

I found that the cookbook was a far more authentic document than the memoir from which to judge who was right about the food in the Roosevelt White House. And it became for me a perfect illustration of how wonderful cookbooks are as sources of information—if you know how to read them.

The conclusion I reach in this chapter has to do with the friendship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Henrietta Nesbitt. They were very, very loyal to one another. Eleanor could leave the White House, which she frequently did, and know that the household would be fed, maybe badly but meals would turn up on time. And Mrs. Nesbitt knew that she would have a job at a time when many were out of work.

LN
In your work at the Schlesinger Library, you are responsible for a large culinary collection which has, at times, been controversial.

BH
People may not realize that the library, a women's history library, has had cookbooks almost from the start. Past directors must have understood that there was a lot of women's history inherent in cookbooks because they had been collected. But, during the second wave of feminism, kitchens and cooking were seen as counterproductive to the political aims of bringing visibility to women's accomplishments in the public arena. Now that women's history is well-established as a discipline, the study of women and food is no longer fraught.

LN
You worked on the book under a grant from HUL's Extended Professional Development Opportunity Program [EPDOP]. Did it make a difference to you?

BH
It was a lifesaver. At the time it was awarded, I had a draft of the book finished, was going to various Harvard libraries during my lunch hours, and using nights and weekends to finish research and work on polishing the manuscript. The HUL program gave me a summer off to work steadily instead of piecemeal on the book. The book was due with my publisher January of 2001, and I wanted to turn it in on time.

LN
Speaking of deadlines: there's one on May 1 for the EPDOP program [Click here]. Any comments or suggestions for potential applicants?

BH
"Go for it." I think that library people can be shy about applying for things.

LN
Your EPDOP project was quite far along when you applied for support. Do you think that's necessary?

BH
No.

LN
Are you working on another book now?

BH
I have a contract for an edited volume on women and food with the University of California Press. The working title of this book is After Eve Ate the Apple, making the point that knowledge has been a good thing for women.

LN
You have a propensity for good titles.

BH
Thank you.

LN
How has life at the Schlesinger changed after the Harvard-Radcliffe merger?

BH
The Dean of the new Radcliffe Institute is Drew Faust, a historian of women specializing in the American South. She said that when she decided to accept the position, one of the drawing cards was the Schlesinger Library. So, I'd say that we're in pretty good hands.

Table of Contents | Previous Article | Next Article



Last modified on Thursday, April 18, 2002.