If “Drinking With Jane Austen”, “The Rise and Fall of Tiki” and “The Whole Schmear: The Creation of Cream Cheese in America” just sparked your interest, The Culinary Historians of Southern California is a group you should know.
“Over the years we’ve had some fantastic events with great speakers,” said Charles Perry, the President and co-founder of the club, which he started in 1995 with Dan Strehl, a librarian at the Los Angeles Public Library. Perry, a retired food writer and restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times, as well as a translator and historian, has lectured on a variety of topics including “The 17th Century Roots of Hot Sauce”, “Eating My Way Across Uzbekistan” and “A Thousand and One Fritters: Food in the Arabian Nights”. “My tiki lecture was probably the most popular,” he said. “It sure brought out the Hawaiin shirt crowd.”
At its start, there were only a few other Culinary Historian groups around the country and Perry, Strehl and Jackie Knowles, another organizer, were thrilled when the first meeting drew about twenty people. Since then, the group has grown exponentially. Today, membership hovers between two hundred and two fifty, making CHSC the largest group in the country. Typically, the lectures are held the second Saturday of every month at the Central Library and are free and open to the public. There are also lectures given at other libraries and locations around town.
Chefs, cookbook authors, journalists, historians and experts have all lectured since the clubs inception. Over the years notables like Marion Cunningham, Marcella Hazen and Paula Wolfert have hosted events. And Joe Coulombe, the founder of Trader Joe’s, gave a talk. But it is also a place for local cookbook authors, historians and experts focused on a particular topic to lecture as well. “We have the famous and the not so famous, but there is growing number of people interested in food history and the events are always well received,” Perry said.
“And most importantly we have a very enthusiastic crew,” said Perry. With the Cook Bear as their mascot–the only other place he has appeared is in the Pan-Pacific Cookbook published in 1915–CHSC keeps to their mission statement, “Dedicated to pursuing food history and supporting culinary collections at the Los Angeles Public Library”, by taking the money raised from membership dues ($30 a year), fundraising dinners and regular cookbook sales (typically after the events) and giving it to the library. To date the group has donated over $100,000.
“We act as a support network for the culinary collections,” said Nancy Zaslavsky, Speaker Chair, who was asked to give a talk on regional Mexican Cooking nineteen years ago and has been a member since. “With budget cuts and positions being lost at the library, our group is able to help when times get tough,” she said. She maintains that being a member is worth the small amount of money because there are all sorts of perks, like an event last November at the Getty Museum’s “The Edible Monument: The Art of Food at Festivals” exhibit, which included a panel discussion with the curators, a private tour and a reception. “It was a real behind the scenes event and it was so informative.”
For Carol Penn-Romine, a long time member who recently moved to Seattle, the cookbook sales are her favorite part of fundraising because of the treasure hunt aspect. “Finding a book with Anne Willan’s bookplate in it, or an autographed book, or a 'from the library of..' inscription in a cookbook delights and inspires me,” she said. “And the messier and more worn it is, the better I like it. Maybe someday someone will be jazzed to pick up one of my donated books, and when they open it they’ll be greeted with a whiff of the vanilla extract I accidentally spilled in it.”
According to Stella Mittelbach, a librarian who oversees the Culinary Collection in the Science, Technology, and Patents Department at Central Library, the funds help replace classics, purchase expensive titles that may not be in the budget and invest in rare culinary titles. “It is a resource that chefs, students, teachers and just regular foodies use. We are constantly striving to make it better,” she added.
While cookbooks can be found in each of the 71 branches around the city, the Central Library alone has one of the largest culinary collections in the country, which includes 43,000 food and wine books. Some can be found in the Rare Books Department, which has over 2,000 American and European cookbooks and is considered one of the largest and most important in the country, while others are kept in the International Languages Department and Children’s Literature. There is also a large menu and food ephemera collection available for viewing.
While Mittelbach maintains a growing regional interest in food, the California Cookery collection is a particular point of pride. The L.A. Public Library contains the world's largest collection of cookbooks printed in California. This collection consists of more than 1,000 books, including “El Cocinero Espanol”, the first Spanish language cookbook printed in California, and “What Mrs. Fisher knows about Old Southern Cooking,” one of the earliest cookbooks written by an African American. Furthermore, LAPL is the only library to own all three of California’s first charitable books, which were all printed in 1872:
1. How to Keep a Husband, or Culinary Tactics
2. The California Recipe Book
3. The Sacramento Ladies Kitchen Companion
“There are amazing uses for the collection as well,” said Strehl, who discovered “Encarnacion’s Kitchen” in the rare book section and decided to translate it and have it published again through The University of California Press. “It is a great compilation of original Mexican recipes made in 19th century California kitchens and it is a great resource,” he said. It is the first cookbook written by a Hispanic in the United States and has one of the earliest printed recipes for “salsa”.
During Strehl’s time at the library, he also acquired many difficult books to get by attending book fairs in Mexico, like Feria Internacional del Libro Guadalajara. He said many of the books were only available there, making them an important part of the collection. “Mexican banks would publish special limited edition luxury books as holiday gifts for their rich clientele, and many were food oriented,” he said. A good example from the collection would be "Delicias de antano: historia y recetas de los conventos Mexicanos", published by BBVA.
Beyond attending regularly scheduled events, many of the group's members actively give talks around Los Angeles. Just a few weeks ago, Ernest Miller, a chef, historian, and five year CHSC member with an interest in regional California cooking and the preservation of food, performed two lectures in one weekend. “History is a really important aspect of food and it gives it a context,” he said before speaking about making rose water for the Picnic program at the Workman Temple Homestead Museum in the City of Industry and the History of Chili and Hot Sauce in Southern California at the Los Angeles Fire Department Museum and Memorial in Hollywood.
Special Events Chair Richard Foss, who also lectures regularly on a variety of food history topics, sees interest in the subject growing. “The Culinary Historians of Southern California is a club for anyone with any level of interest in food and food history,” said Foss, a journalist, food historian, and author of two books, “Rum: A Global History” and “Food in The Air and Space: The Surprising History of Food and Drink in the Skies”. "It’s as much about anthropology as it is about history and it’s really about food as a transmittor of cultural values.”
Below is a map made by Los Angeles Public Library showing the locations of local restaurants whose chefs have their cookbooks in the Central Library.