From the Archives: Foodies Go Historical for Holidays

Enjoy vintage recipes and cooking tips from Duke University Archives

"Rice Apples" is a recipe available through the Rubenstein Library Test Kitchen and one of many historical culinary takes to spice up holiday food.

With fall in full swing, minds may have drifted to crisper evenings and changing colors, but it also carries another meaning for many of us – food.

Thanksgiving reigns supreme on each fourth Thursday of November, but other “holidays” – from Sandwich Day (Nov. 3) to Homemade Bread Day (Nov. 17) – beg for the kind of culinary adventurousness and attention celebrated each Nov. 8 on Cook Something Bold Day. Lucky for chefs of all skill levels, with some help from Duke University Archives, there are plenty of ways to prepare classic dishes for family gatherings and holiday parties. 

“What’s fun for modern cooking is to go to these recipes from 1890s or 1940s and experiment to figure out how to make it work today,” said Ashley Rose Young, a Duke Ph.D. student in history, focusing on food, and the David M. Rubenstein research services intern at University Archives. “What better way to connect to history with friends and family than in the kitchen?”

As you prepare dishes to share with friends and family on Thanksgiving and beyond, consider these takes to add a little historical flair to holiday helpings.

Blast From the Past 

On its Flickr page, Duke University Archives features a collection of 15 recipes saved from Duke’s kitchens, including one for congealed apple and cottage cheese salad from 1949 – complete with an addendum to make it appropriate for Christmas.

If that doesn’t sound appealing, there’s also undated recipes from the Woman’s College for French and Russian dressings and cranberry and orange relish. With only a few steps, they’re perfect for quick preparation.

For large gatherings, recipes for main dishes from the college’s “Homemaking Course” offer an easy fix for French Beef Hash and Barbecued Meat Balls

There are also sweets, with an original recipe for Duke Toll House Cookies, brought to Duke in 1946 by former food services director Ted Minah, who acquired the recipe while acting as a commissary officer with the Navy during World War II. As the name suggests, it came from the Toll House Inn in Whitman, Massachusetts, which inspired the creation of the famous Toll House chocolate chip cookie.

The recipe was shared with donors during a 1988-89 Duke Annual Fund campaign.

Kitchen Tested, Librarian Approved

Ashley Rose Young took this photo of her prepared gumbo recipe.
Ashley Rose Young took this photo of her prepared gumbo recipe.

If making new recipes from old records isn’t your thing, Duke Libraries’ staff has you covered. For more than a year, employees have taken turns creating dishes from archived recipes as part of the Rubenstein Library Test Kitchen

Recipes go as far back as “Rice Apples” from 1777, but plenty of more modern options exist from recent decades, too. Every post includes a recipe and commentary from Duke Libraries’ amateur chefs, like Young, who recently made a 1916 recipe for Shrimp Gumbo File.

“I tend to focus on gumbo recipes because it’s such a diverse dish and each neighborhood in New Orleans has their own distinct recipe,” said Young, the Duke Ph.D. student and David M. Rubenstein research services intern at University Archives. “I love cooking different versions of it because each time can be so different.” 

See the full list of Library Test Kitchen recipes here.

Traditional Turkey 

In this undated photo, presumably from late 1951, a Duke Dining employee shows a collection of turkeys roasted as part of a study for the National Turkey Federation. Photo courtesy of University Archives.
In this undated photo, presumably from late 1951, a Duke Dining employee shows a collection of turkeys roasted as part of a study for the National Turkey Federation. Photo courtesy of University Archives.

For those keeping things a little simpler for the holidays, Working@Duke investigated in 2013 the secret to cooking the perfect turkey

As part of a study in 1951, Duke Dining partnered with the National Turkey Federation to test different cooking strategies to get the most portions out of a 24 or 25-pound turkey. After cooking dozens of turkeys, which were served in Duke dining halls, Duke offered up a solution: Roast a turkey at 300 degrees while basting several times, leading to a cost of about 20 cents per two-ounce serving of meat. The length of cooking will vary by size of oven.

Find out more details of the experiment and a photo of the turkeys from Sampson County cooked for the tests in this story.