Sunday, September 25, 2011

Serendipitous Discoveries & History Geeks

In my previous life as a historian my absolute favourite task was research. I loved nothing more than disappearing down the rabbit-holes of libraries or the internet to track down people or events, and these days I continue to get much satisfaction from researching recipes, books & their authors. I recently sold a 1937 set of menus from a guest-house in Marysville (sadly now lost like many others to the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires) and in the process of creating a history of them for their buyer spent hours on Trove reading newspaper articles and advertisements and sourcing contemporary photos.

Research like this is always throwing up surprises and serendipitous discoveries worthy of a work of fiction. With the guest house it was the discovery that an earlier proprietress went missing while bushwalking (although some newspaper reports suggested at an 'unsettled mind') and her remains not retrieved until bushfires in 1932 uncovered them. Soon after her estate was settled, her sister, who had taken over the running of the guest house, also died from self-inflicted burns. For me the serendipity here is that it was this particular guest-house whose menus came into my hands, rather than another with a less 'colourful' past. It is, rather fancifully I know, as if this story was waiting for someone like me to unearth it.

Today I had another of those moments while cataloguing a collection of early twentieth century cookbooks I had bought. In the collection is a very early edition of Household Cookery issued by the Emily McPherson College of Domestic Economy and compiled by Dorothy Giles who was a well-known teacher of cookery in Melbourne. So early is this edition that it was hand-typed and bound with one section bound upside down. While paging through it I noted a typo - the recipe "To Prepare Cake Dripping" called for 8ozs cod fat (rather than cold fat). Finishing that task I moved on to the small mountain of ephemera that has been sitting waiting for cataloguing for months. Amongst them was a gorgeous 1930s booklet for Bakewell flour and dried goods. On page 2 my eye was caught by the wording of the first recipe "To Prepare Cake Dripping" and, you guessed it, one of the ingredients was "8ozs cod fat" . Further checking revealed that yes this recipe was word-for-word the same as that in Household Cookery. So now the question for me is whether this is an uncredited work by Miss Dorothy Giles, who also authored several other advertising booklets, or did the compiler simply nick the cake dripping recipe from Household Cookery? Mmmm the fact that this is so interesting makes me officially a history geek!

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