Campus & Community

Barbara Haber brought books and cooks to Schlesinger Library:

7 min read

Made Schlesinger a home for good taste

Barbara Haber

When a young Barbara Haber accepted a part-time, low-paying position at a small library devoted to women’s history in 1968, her library school mentor was dismayed. She showed such promise, he thought, that she should pursue loftier employment leading toward the goal of one day directing a library.

In such an administrative career, while perhaps more prestigious, “I was thinking I’d never see a book,” said Haber. “I needed to be with ideas. I knew that about myself.”

Thirty-four years later, that little library – the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study – is a world-renowned resource for American women’s history.

And Haber, who retired earlier this month as its book curator, saw plenty of books: the library now boasts 80,000 volumes chronicling women’s history as well as women’s health, psychology, women’s studies, and fiction. Within the expansive collection lies Haber’s best-known contribution to the library, the Schlesinger’s 16,000 cookbooks and food-related books.

“What luck I’ve had. Two new fields have sprung up from under my feet,” says Haber, referring to the studies of women’s and food history. “I’ve been in a position to learn and contribute to both of those things.”

Radcliffe will fête Haber and her contributions on Jan. 27 with “Good Taste in Books: A Celebration of the Career of Barbara Haber,” a panel discussion followed by – of course – food, prepared by some of the Boston area’s best-known chefs.

Taking food seriously

Nancy Cott, Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the Schlesinger Library, lauds Haber’s inventive approach to collecting not just women’s history as written by historians, but also women’s writing in fiction, mystery, and popular psychology that give cultural context to history.

“She’s built a collection that is and will be a treasure trove for historians, of popular works that will give evidence of what the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s were like,” says Cott.

Haber calls herself an entrepreneur at the Schlesinger, pointing with pride toward some of the public programs she initiated to extend the library’s mission to a broader audience. In the early 1980s, she paired feminist Andrea Dworkin, who was calling for pornography to be illegal, with First Amendment defender and Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law Alan Dershowitz for a debate.

“I really like the idea of bringing issues that may have originated in the academy to the public at large,” she says.

Ironically, the cookbook collection for which she is known does the opposite, inviting ideas from the kitchen to enter academia.

Although cookbooks have always graced the Schlesinger’s stacks, the modest collection, like so many of the area’s culinary advances, got a boost from Julia Child. The grande dame of Cambridge cuisine facilitated a donation of 500 rare cookbooks from the American Institute of Wine and Food to the Schlesinger in 1989.

Buzz surrounding that donation as well as the Schlesinger’s collection of the papers of Child, food writer M.F.K. Fisher, and “Joy of Cooking” authors Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker, put the library on the map as an authority on food, cooking, and cookbooks.

But adding cookbooks to a feminist library was a challenge. Even some of Haber’s closest colleagues bristled at the idea that such tomes as “Good Maine Food” or “The Black Family Reunion Cookbook,” with its recipe for navy beans and pigs’ tails, should share shelf space with Betty Friedan’s papers or the records of the National Organization of Women.

“For some reason, cooking, more than any other household chore … was the symbol of the patriarchy,” says Haber. “But those of us in the know, know that of all the household chores, cooking is the most creative and gratifying.”

And cookbooks, as artifacts of social history, can illuminate the lives of people and culture in new ways.

“Social history is all layering,” says Haber. “My layer has to do with women and food.”

The strength of her convictions, and the quality of her collecting, steeled Haber against her critics. She established the Radcliffe Culinary Friends to support the collection, and tapped a growing network of Boston-area chefs and vendors to enliven the academic discussions of culinary history she mounted.

While not the only library with an impressive cookbook collection, the Schlesinger played a significant role in bringing credibility and gravity to the field.

“Because it was Radcliffe and the Harvard library, what we did counted,” says Haber. “Having a serious place like this research library taking food seriously had a ripple effect, I think.”

Food from the battlefield to the White House

Last year, Haber made a contribution of her own to the Schlesinger and the field of culinary history. Her book, “From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of America’s Cooks and Meals” (Free Press, Simon and Schuster, 2002), adds Haber’s food layer onto our nation’s social history, looking at Civil War hospitals, immigration, health and science, and African-American heritage through the lens of cooking.

She describes with a historical researcher’s glee how a cookbook helped her put to rest myths surrounding the legendary lifeless cuisine of the Franklin D. Roosevelt White House, one of her favorite chapters in the book. Henrietta Nesbitt, the White House housekeeper under Eleanor Roosevelt’s watch, is well known for the lackluster food she served to White House guests.

Haber turned to two sources, Nesbitt’s own memoir and her White House cookbook, to understand why. “I had a fabulous time analyzing them,” she says.

While the memoir described an adventurous culinary spirit, says Haber, the proof was in the proverbial pudding. “When I read the cookbook, I was appalled by the food,” says Haber. “It was really dreary.”

The memoir, Haber concluded, was Nesbitt’s glossed-up accounting of the cook she would have liked to be; the cookbook was closer to the truth. While Nesbitt’s cooking was likely not a manifestation of Mrs. Roosevelt’s passive-aggression toward guests she disliked, as one historian suggested, Haber believes it represented Nesbitt’s practical, efficient, but unimaginative approach toward feeding the White House during the Depression and World War II.

History, literature, and recipes, too

One month into her retirement, Haber finds herself busier than ever. Speaking engagements, writing assignments, and board activities for the International Association of Culinary Professionals fill her weeks. She’s starting a second book and hopes to land an assignment as a cookbook reviewer so a steady stream of new cookbooks continues to flow to her door.

Although she’s not organizing the “Good Taste in Books” event, Haber opened her Rolodex for the party’s academic, literary and culinary participants and guests. The range of her book interests – women’s history, popular culture, fiction, and culinary history – will be represented by a panel that includes novelist Anita Diamant (“The Red Tent”) and writer Wendy Kaminer. Restaurateurs and caterers who Haber refers to as “the Boston Mafia” will share their culinary talents; among them will be East Coast Grill founder and cookbook author Chris Schlesinger, whose grandparents are the library’s namesakes.

Looking back on her career at the Schlesinger, as her many friends and colleagues will do next week, Haber is most gratified to see that culinary history now has a seat at the academic table and cookbooks are no longer thought of as demon tools of the patriarchy.

“Historians are now getting interested in food,” says Haber. “We’re seeing feminist work with food at the center. Cookbooks as documents of history are being taken more seriously.”

Still, she stresses that the Schlesinger Library and the cookbook collection, housed on the third floor beneath the watchful eye of Julia Child, are open to anyone for any use. “If people want a recipe, that’s OK too,” she says.