If you are standing in your own kitchen, the word “sifter” might bring to mind a flour sifter, first invented by Jacob Bromwell in 1819.
Instead, imagine “The Sifter” as a 60 year work effort by Barbara Ketcham Wheaton, a neighbor to the famous chef, Julia Child, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In the 1960s, newly married with children, she was searching for something meaningful to do in her spare time. Julia had lent her old cookbooks and Barbara had studied a variety of cookbooks in library collections, some written over 1,000 years ago. She decided to create a structural approach for her culinary research.
Barbara selected specific areas of analysis to describe for each cookbook she studied including: ingredients listed in each recipe, the kitchen layout of the time, meal menus, the cooking techniques and technologies necessary to make the recipe and the role of the cookbook in the broader society in which it was written.
“The Sifter” is a catalogue and multilingual database of more than 1,000 years of culinary history found in American and European cookbooks. This database has more than 130,000 items from her study of over 5,000 cookbooks. The range of her research starts with the medieval Latin cookbook, De Re Culinaria, published in 800 A.D. and ends with The Romance of Candy, published in 1938, in Great Britain describing British sweets. Barbara’s research ends with culinary history prior to World War II.
Go to the website, www.thesifter.org, to research your favorite recipes or ingredients. You can trace the history of specific terms and discover how trends in culinary history developed for over years. Barbara is now 89 years old and wants the project to continue for generations. You can add information you find in any pre-1940 cookbook by registering at the website to establish an account to enter your own data and there are over 150 writing systems available to use. The project has its own Board of Directors who will continue to maintain the scholarship and the website. Start “sifting’ through history with a glass of wine and some snacks.
Barbara Wheaton is now an honorary curator of the Schlesinger Library Culinary Collection at Harvard University in Cambridge.