Interested in trying terrapin? A handwritten recipe from the mid-1800s on how to stew those adorable aquatic turtles might just do the trick.
“Remember to remove the toe nails,” reads the weathered, barely legible recipe card.
The staff at the University of Iowa Libraries scanned and uploaded this recipe, along with thousands of others, from handwritten American and European cookbooks from the 1600s to the 1960s.
This is the latest effort by the University of Iowa Libraries to transcribe history through the power of the internet, and it’s a rare opportunity for both serious historians and food lovers alike to get a taste of bygone times.
All of the handwritten recipes were donated by the late Louis Szathmáry, the famed Hungarian-born chef and owner of The Bakery in Chicago.
Szathmáry also happened to be an avid book collector. His extensive collection was stored in 31 residential rooms above the restaurant before it was moved to the University of Iowa in the late 1980s.
“I remember the first book I bought within a year after coming to this country in 1951 with a small handbag and $1.10 in my pocket,” he wrote in a letter to the university. “It was at a Times Square bookshop in New York that I purchased, for 19 cents, a little volume by Ludwig Bemelmans. I never stopped buying books since.”
Colleen Theisen, an outreach and instruction librarian in the Special Collections department at the University of Iowa Libraries, was a part of the team that started the crowdsourcing project.
The library staff first experimented in crowdsourcing in spring 2011, with their Civil War Diaries and Letters Transcription Project. For the project, they created DIY History - a website that hosts high-res images of 19th century letters and encourages able bodies on the internet to transcribe them.
The site proved to be a smashing success. By the end of the year, more than 15,000 pages of handwritten Civil War-era text had been transcribed.
For Theisen, this isn’t just a fun experiment - it’s a project to preserve history. Every recipe transcribed becomes a legible and searchable copy in the digital age.
“What has been completely surprising and amazing has been just how these recipes seem to enrapture and inspire everyone who comes across them,” said Theisen.
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