Most NYU students have walked past the door on the third floor of Bobst that reads “Fales Library and Special Collections.” But very few of them ever venture further and into the fascinating array of books and artifacts that make up the library.
“I was struck most by how much history was in such a small space,” said Sydney Maynard, one of the students visiting the collection. ”It really hit me when we saw the book signed by Julia Child.” Maynard was referring to Food and Cookery Collection, which features over 25,000 volumes. These include a first-edition copy of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” signed by Julia Child, the author often credited with introducing French cooking to the U.S.
The cookbook collection is a more recent addition to the collection. The library started as the private collection of DeCoursey Fales, who donated more than 60,000 volumes to NYU in 1957. Currently, the collection includes the rare books donated by him and other artifacts donated to the university in the years since.
These range from 14th century cuneiform tablet and papyrus scraps to more than 10,000 linear feet of archives in the library’s Downtown Collection, which focuses on preserving the culture of New York in the ’70s and ‘80s. The Food and Cookery Collection also started as someone’s private library. In this case, the first donation came from Cecily Brownstone, a food writer for the Associated Press.
“She built her own research collection, because libraries weren’t collecting cookbooks,” said Marvin J. Taylor, the library’s director. “She had about 7,000 volumes in her cookbook collection and we acquired that.” Taylor and his staff have added to the collection throughout the years, including books from the libraries at the James Beard House and the now-defunct Gourmet magazine.
The wide variety of international cookbooks in the collection intrigued Shivani Ishwar. “I think it’d be really interesting to come back and research how different countries’ cookbooks vary,” she said. The Food and Cookery Collection represents just how broad the definition of a “cookbook” is. From 18th-century tomes that detail running a household to more modern books more suited to the coffee table than the kitchen, Fales has a little bit of everything.
After visiting, Elana Rubin was had a new appreciation for cookbooks as historical artifacts. “When we looked at cookbooks from the early 20th century that basically ask you to pour out beans, it says something about how people were eating,” she said. “It would be interesting to study the hows and whys of food culture evolving through cookbooks.”