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On Transcribing the Recipe Books by Carla Burgos

April 20, 2020

This blog post was written by one of our student clerks, Carla Burgos.

I am a graduate student at The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), working in the John Peace Library’s Special Collections Department. Currently, I am transcribing a few of UTSA’s vast and impressive collection of cookbooks; numbering in the thousands. I transcribe word-by-word being careful to keep the recipes as close as possible to the original. The few I have been lucky to read and even touch are the lovely, tiny bound journals. Some are lined in faint blue or pencil to guide where to write on, and some have faint, striped watermarks which are noticeable on the pages inside books written in the eighteenth century. The pages have elegant penmanship; handwritten in calligraphic cursive with black or brown ink, or pencil. Sometimes I would notice two or three different handwriting styles in a recipe book: rounded, spidery, or surprisingly like modern block. I think recipe books kept in the families hold  different women’s penmanship over the years. The spelling and handwriting styles are typical of the era in which the book was written according to what was taught and was popular at that time. Some examples of words are cilantro that is written as culantro, revuelve (stir) written as rebuelber, aceitunas (olives) as aceytunas, zanahoria (carrot) as zanaoria, harina (flour) as arina, and so on.

I am currently transcribing a recipe book written by Manuela Heredia y Cervantes in 1886.  I included an image of one of the recipes, “Relleno del Pastel,” below to observe how the lovely penmanship is so well executed.

A close up of text on a white background

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Image 1 of a recipe, “Relleno del Pastel.”

Another fascinating observation is about the richly decorative and colorful inside covers of the tiny journals. The inside covers are called double-side endsheets which are folded and pasted in place. The beautiful patterns of the endsheets are created by dipping the paper in ink baths. These bound and decorative journals are made by local printing companies in Mexico. Some of these books still have the little stickers to indicate where these journals were bought. I added two images of lovely blue marbled end sheets found in a Mexican family cookbook written by a mother with love for her daughters in 1888.

I would like to think a journal, newly bonded, freshly-dried end sheets with crispy white pages was purchased by the Señora of the house, wrapped in brown paper and tied tightly with a string to be taken home for the cook to painstakingly record hundreds of family recipes, handed down by generations. Some recipe books have 100 pages and sometimes more than 250 pages with hundreds of recipes painstakingly and meticulously written as recipes of delicious meat dishes such as Guisado de Albondigones (Meatball Stew) or Croquitas de Carnero (Mutton Croquettes). Some of the recipes have the family member’s name added in with a particular favorite recipe to the Señor (patriarch) of the house or to the Señorita, his daughter.

The careful labeling of each ingredient such as  green peppers, tomatillos, saffron, toasted sesame seeds, ginger and plenty of butter to fry or sauté shows the culinary influences from Spain and the Middle East.  The cooking instructions are careful to keep the recipes consistent on how to cook the savory dishes ranging from head of a tender calf, pork loins, chorizos, rice, and the ubiquitous jitomate, a popular fruit that is used in most dishes. Sugar is also a very popular ingredient and is used in almost every dish.

These elaborate recipes seem to come from wealthy households with large and fully-equipped kitchens because these ingredients are exotic, expensive and not easily found in typical marketplaces. Some recipes for special feasts call for enormous quantities. One hundred eggs, ten pounds of flour to six pounds of sugar, for example. The large amounts could leave enough leftovers to feed a large family for several days. This wealth of information shows fascinating glimpses of a bygone era in Mexico.

I hope you enjoyed reading my blog about my transcribing job and what I experience in reading those lovely journals. They are certainly significant in the history of the UTSA’s collection of cookbooks. I included resources at the end of the blog on two cookbooks I am transcribing and about paper marbling for further reading.

Further Reading:

Mexican Family Cookbook Manuscript: Recipes that my mother wrote with love for her daughters in 1888: https://digital.utsa.edu/digital/collection/p15125coll10/id/16107

Mexican Cooking Notebook: Manuscript Manuela Heredia y Cervantes: https://digital.utsa.edu/digital/collection/p15125coll10/id/12094/rec/1

Suggested resources to look up on the subject of marbled endpapers:

The Unsung Delight of a Well-Designed Endpaper: https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/best-endpapers-design-history

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