Cookbooks are a window into the heart of America's story. While textbooks and biographies shape our country's more scholarly history, cookbooks capture a different perspective, often speaking to the work of women, from cooking and feeding the family to entertaining.
Library director Ben Tri is in charge of building and cataloging the collection, which he has gathered alongside chef Nathan Sartain, a culinary instructor at the school. In addition to the books, the collection includes boxes stuffed with ephemera such as pamphlets, advertisements, booklets and mail-order recipes.
The compilation began as a modest community college library. That changed in 2019, when the closing Art Institutes International Minnesota donated its culinary library. Among the assets was the collection of Sue Zelickson, a longtime local food personality and James Beard Award winner, who had amassed thousands of books and gave around 1,500 to the Art Institutes.
"It was like sending my kids off to college," she said, remembering carting off a truckload of her cookbooks first to one school and then to their current home at St. Paul College. Through Zelickson and her organization Women Who Really Cook, more book donations rolled in, with Sartain visiting people's homes to retrieve prized collections.
Among them was celebrated St. Paul chef Jack Riebel. When faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis, Riebel wanted to share his collection of cookbooks with the school, his alma mater. Each book of his contains a bespoke sticker that cements his legacy — sharing his journey and knowledge with future culinarians. Riebel died in December 2021.
"You can see the evolution of his career through these books," Sartain said. "There are books on Irish cuisine from when he was doing the menu at the Half Time Rec. Charcuterie books were for opening Butcher & the Boar," the restaurant that would bring Riebel a James Beard Award nomination.
Riebel collected these books with the voracity of a curious mind who loved to mine food for stories and inspiration. And Sartain helped haul all 500 of them from the chef's home. Riebel's wife and mother were there with him at the time. "It's a nice gift," Riebel shrugged.
Sartain said Riebel's mom patted her son and, with the weight of the moment, added, "It is a very nice gift." Inside the collection: an unpublished work from Julia Child.
A variety of flavors
The culinary library is set up like any school library: lines of book stacks, many in plastic covers, all with Library of Congress codes taped to their spines. A student catches a quiet nap; people speak in hushed tones.
At the front, a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf faces the glass exterior wall. "This is where we keep all of our James Beard Award winners," said Tri.
Toward the side and the back of the room were more cookbooks: tomes by Escoffier, Bocuse, Boulud, Bourdain share space with niche books on bread baking, cooking with bugs, a Hershey's chocolate baking book and dinners for diabetics. There are also books about people who cook, memoirs and even a book of famous historical menus, including the brunch after Elvis and Priscilla Presley's wedding (fried chicken). The list goes on.
"There's a cookbook with recipes from every state, but it's so old that Alaska isn't included," said Tri.
Books spill from the shelves into his office, where boxes of items await his studious organization. (Tri rattles off Library of Congress classifications like some recall trivia.) The slim cookbook featuring Mountain Dew tickles him. He also launches into a summary of a book about the "Dorito-fication" of food, breeding out flavor so that manufactured tastes can be added back in.
The collection has already outgrown its physical space. Tri and Sartain are eyeing a nearby space like their own personal room of requirement: much needed quiet space for students to study (or nap) and plenty of empty shelves.
"We are working on pathways to create access to use this," said Sartain. "We're on Dakota land. I think we owe it to the people of this place who don't have a history of written language to include their stories and food traditions."
Beneath the school, facing a back parking lot, a storage room acts as a holding area for even more books. Some are more niche, others show the Eurocentric nature of older books. A 1968 Gourmet compendium contains an essay about adventuring through the streets of Japan seeking sushi that's accompanied by a cartoon image with xenophobic caricatures. A 1971 Better Homes and Gardens cookbook is geared toward weeknight cooking: Serving the family dynamic as divorce rates rose, women returned to the workforce and a generation of latchkey kids were raised.
Older books, with their tissue-paperlike pages, are devoted to keeping the home. Every so often, a smudge or a tattered magazine article is found carefully tucked inside, artifacts of the women who once owned these books. A weathered chocolate pie recipe is spattered with stains, a frosting recipe clipped from a butter carton keeping its place.
It's easy to get lost in the moment, falling into the pages of other people's memories.
And it's something that anyone with a Minnesota library card can do. All of the cookbooks are available to the public; cardholders can request a book through the online catalog to pick up at their local library's hold section.
As recipes have moved off the page and onto screens, this collection of Americana serves as a vital connection to our past. As gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin famously said: "Tell me what you eat and I shall tell you what you are."
Cookbooks tell us who we are and where we have been while we wonder where to eat next.
Not the only culinary library in town
St. Paul College's cookbook collection isn't the only impressive one in the state. Tucked inside the Magrath Library at the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus is the Doris S. Kirschner collection, which boasts nearly 6,000 pieces of food writing.
The collection, part of the Food Science and Nutrition Library, began with a gift from Doris Kirschner of Minneapolis, a graduate of the university's home economics program, who donated almost 3,000 cookbooks from her personal library. The culinary library was bolstered — and moved to a larger location — in 2019, after noted cookbook author Beatrice Ojakangas of Duluth added 2,000 books from her collection.
The library is open to the public, but books must stay on site. For more information — and to search the library — go to tinyurl.com/dnmfzhvv.