LU collection archives 500 years of culinary history
From the cauldron to the microwave, the Dishman/Justice Collection in the Lamar University Archive documents nearly five centuries of food preparation and recipes.
“It’s a unique collection that most people don’t know that we have,” said Penny Clark, Lamar University archivist. “This is something really special. It’s sort of a hidden treasure.”
The collection, which is available for viewing by appointment through the archives department at the Mary and John Gray library, includes more than 500 volumes and was donated to Lamar in 1979 by Herbert and Kate Dishman, Beaumont philanthropists who made several donations to the university, including funding for the creation of the Dishman Art Museum.
The Dishmans received the collection after their friend Phillip S. Justice died.
Justice was originally from Philadelphia. His family lineage can be traced back to the Quakers and he has also been associated with William Penn, according to Charlotte Holliman, library associate for Lamar University archives.
Justice was an executive for Sun Oil Company (now Sunoco), an Ohio-based petroleum company started by Joseph Newton Pew Sr. in 1886. The company expanded to Texas when oil was discovered at Spindletop in Beaumont in 1901 and one of the largest gasoline distribution companies in the United States today.
Justice began his career with the company in the early 1920s. He married Luetta Wiess, daughter of a prominent pioneer family from Beaumont in 1923 and came to Beaumont, where he held various positions with the company.
“He was a local executive for Sun Oil, which was big in those days,” Clark said. “He loved to hunt and so he would get all this game. And he wasn’t going to just throw it away. He wanted to learn how to cook it.”
Justice became well known for his seafood gumbo, which he often cooked in a 150-gallon kettle 5 feet in diameter, Holliman said.
Unbelievably enough, at a Ducks Unlimited Benefit Justice cooked for in 1953, that kettle of gumbo wasn’t enough for attendees, as they almost ran out. At the benefit, Justice offered a recipe for his gumbo that included a suggestion: “Pour one jigger of Scotch into chef no less than five times and Pour 1 jigger of Scotch into each guest twice.”
Clark said that Justice received a cookbook as a gift and decided to begin a collection, which he compiled in the 1940s and 1950s.
“He wasn’t just going to collect anything,” she said. “He wanted landmarks in culinary history.”
WorldCat, a union catalog that itemizes the collections of 72,000 libraries in 170 countries and territories, places some of the books in the Lamar collection in the extremely rare category, according to Clark.
“A lot of these (books), we’ve got the only two or three in the world,” she said. “Some of these go back to the 1500s.”
“De Re Coquinaria” by Coelisu Apicius is printed in Latin and is the rarest item in the collection.
“It shows you what foods were available at that time — different sauces and things,” Holliman said.
Besides sharing recipes from the 16th century, the book also told an interesting story about a Roman man who refused to live without the finest things in life — literally.
“(The author) is telling the story of this Roman man who was so addicted to high living, that he was either going to live big or he was going to commit suicide. He was addicted to very fine foods and wine,” Clark said.
“Because he was about to run out of money and was afraid he was going to starve to death, he killed himself because he couldn’t face being without this fancy food,” Holliman said.
According to Clark, many of these volumes are not mere recipe books but contain information regarding etiquette, childcare, medical remedies, gardening, household supervision and social advice as well.
“Even though we call it the cookbook collection, it goes way beyond cookbooks,” she said. “(Some books) from the 1600s talk about ways they were hoping to beat the plague. Can you imagine how frightening it would be if your family was dying and you had no idea how to heal them? You’re looking for any possible way to save yourself and to save the family. These (remedies) are just desperate attempts and probably do not have a lot of effectiveness.”
Other milestones of the collection include several books by Fannie Farmer, an American culinary expert whose 1896 “Boston Cooking-School Cook Book” became a widely used culinary text and is still available for purchase today.
“Her contributions to cooking included the standardization of measurements into cups, tablespoons and teaspoons instead of vague notations such as ‘butter the size of a walnut,’” Clark said. “Farmer also instituted the practice of listing all of the ingredients at the head of a recipe.”
The Dishman/Justice Collection also contains two books that were published in London during the 18th century. One 1739 publication contains more than 100 pages of home remedies to cure everything from a “consumptive cough” to the “bite of a mad dog,” according to “De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum: The Justice/Dishman Collection,” an article Holliman wrote about the Lamar collection.
“The Virginia Housewife or Methodical Cook,” is another book that stands out and is the first Southern cookbook published. Its author, Mary Randolph, was a direct descendant of Pocahontas, a cousin to Thomas Jefferson, and also was related to George Washington’s stepson,” Holliman wrote.
Some of the books in the collection contain more modern styles of cooking.
“One talks about a microwave,” Clark said. “They really do cover a lot of different (time periods).”
Clark said that she plans to have the cookbooks digitized and placed on the Web.
“It’s a very labor-intensive process, and we do use a very expensive piece of equipment,” she said. “Our goal is to scan these, hopefully once, (to reduce handling); these are old and fragile. We’re planning to do an online exhibit. People throughout the globe could use them, and we really want to make them available.”
The online exhibits will not be replacing physical exhibits, Clark said, but will be beneficial in that they will be available to people outside of the area who cannot travel to the university.
Clark said that other future exhibits include one on Thomas Jefferson’s epicurean adventures.
“We have several cookbooks that talk about Jefferson and how he was very interested in cuisine,” Clark said. “They said he was as careful writing down recipes as he was writing down treaties. He went to Belgium and he bought a waffle iron because no one had had waffles in America. He discovered (cuisines) and introduced them to America.”
For more information on the Justice/Dishman Collection, contact Charlotte Holliman at (409) 880-8660 or visit vmlibweb.lamar.edu and click on departments, special collections, and “There’s No Disputing Good Taste.”