The Joy of Reference

I am new to librarianship, but I’m also new to cooking. I recently took part in a strict elimination diet to help me get back on track with healthy eating and to break the habits I adopted in grad school. Basically, I was a garbage nightmare person with an apartment full of takeout containers and an empty fridge. Also new to my life: a patient and kind significant other who loves cooking and who has helped me broil, brown, spiralize, and spice my way into a beginner’s practice of wholesome cooking.


I’m not just a librarian; I’m also a library user. Cooking and the library go together like peanut butter and jelly. If you’ve ever been to the third floor of our Central Library, you may have gotten lost in the seemingly endless rows of cookbooks, filed under the call number 641. But just across the way, on the south side of the third floor, there’s another treasure trove for the food-minded in Reference Services.


First, our Reference print collection has some very handy titles for the novice cook. For one, The Visual Food Encyclopedia offers a wealth of information about food: some recipe ideas, but also nutritional information and how to buy, prepare, cook, and store almost any food you’ll find in a typical supermarket. I’ve been eyeing Substituting Ingredients: The A to Z Kitchen Reference, which will help me learn how to make do when I forgot or couldn’t find That Thing at the grocery store.


Even though I’ve never taken to cooking, I have weird fascinations with the art. For one, I like watching professionals cook. I maintain that I would not have gotten my master’s degree without binging on The Great British Baking Show. I may never make a macaron, but at least watching is a low-carb affair.


I’m also fascinated by older cooking traditions. One of my guilty-pleasure movies is Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia, which interweaves two threads of cooking lives. One thread illuminates the origins of exuberant kitchen goddess Julia Child and the other follows aspiring food blogger Julie Powell. Julie vows to spend one year cooking her way through Julia’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in all its buttery glory and some of its butchery grossness.


Julia Child is an American icon, but not all her recipes are timeless. There is a particular scene in Julie & Julia when Julie tries to prepare Julia’s aspic. What’s aspic? I’ll let The Food of the Western World answer:


French and English for a savoury jelly made from fish or meat stock sometimes thickened with gelatine. The name comes from the herb espic or spikenard, the original word for aspic, which was put in with the knuckle of veal or calf’s foot to make the jelly.


That sounds like a Throwback Thursday in which I will not be partaking. I found a July 1945 issue of Gourmet with an article called “Caught in Aspic,” which sings the praises of fish aspics as the perfect dish for a summer buffet. I challenged my own long-standing beliefs by making a low-fat vegan queso out of broiled eggplant and almond milk. Still, I don’t see any of my culinary challenges including aspic in any way, shape, form, or mold.


Reference Services is also home to DPL’s periodical collection. We have contemporaries like Cooks Illustrated, but our historical collection serves as a wondrously accessible time capsule. I went to DPL's oldest issues of Good Housekeeping, which date back to 1909. I found a list of “Good Eatables for February: Lists of Seasonable Foods, Arranged According to Food Value, with Menus, Clear Directions for Choosing Other Palatable and Well-Balanced Meals.” Alongside it was a two-week menu plan mixing different types of foods like “hearty tissue-building foods” and “light, heat-giving foods.” Brussels sprouts? Yes, please. Stewed prunes? Hard pass.


While we in the Internet era can share our food-prep labors instantaneously, the concept of meal prep dates back at least to the Roosevelt administration—Teddy Roosevelt, that is. This slice of American life is fascinating for more than just its recipes: preceding the menus is an article about changes to food labels made as a result of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act. As a new member of the Block the Grocery Aisle While Compulsively Reading the Label Club, it’s stunning to remember that the original Pure Food movement wasn’t about testing for gluten sensitivity, it was about protecting people from being poisoned by companies.


Now that my diet is over, I’m at war with myself. Part of me is sick of feeling like my whole life revolves around my kitchen. But also, I feel better and I’m happy to be eating things that are tasty and healthy. My reminders to myself as I take it one casserole at a time: Julia Child didn’t start cooking until she was thirty-seven, I’m not trying to become America’s next cooking icon, and I don’t have to cook to gourmet tastes. I may not master the art of French cooking, but I think I can settle for mastering the art of my brand new Crock Pot/Valentine’s Day gift.


If you’re a local foodie (or you know there are days where you can’t face your kitchen), be sure to join us on Facebook on Friday, February 23, from 9-6. Your foodiest DPL librarians will be on deck for a special Restaurant Week version of our Facebook Three-For-All. And don’t forget, if you’re participating in Winter of Reading in English, this is one of the brochure activities that will bring you closer to your fabulous prize!

Written by Lauren on February 22, 2018



"Julie and Julia" was a terrible movie! But the food parts were good.