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Food History at the Rubenstein Library

Rubenstein Test Kitchen

Librarians and archivists at the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library have enthusiastically participated in the Rubenstein Test Kitchen, a project that seeks to bring food history back to life. Participants comb through our historic cookbook collections to find a particularly compelling recipe. After preparing the dish, they blog about their experiences and the history behind the meal they prepared. This is a fascinating and fun window into the dynamic cookbooks in our collection.

Hoppin’ John (1847) – Rubenstein Test Kitchen blog post by John W. Hartman Center Intern, J. Peter Moore.


Collections of cookbooks, diaries, menus, advertisements, and diverse ephemera document the culinary history and cultures of America, in particular. Holdings are particularly strong in published cookbooks, but also present are manuscript cookbooks and ephemeral materials that speak to the production, distribution, and consumption of food. The bulk of the collections are from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, although some touch upon the colonial and modern periods as well. This is not an exhaustive list; it is meant to offer an overarching sense of our diverse holdings on culinary cultures throughout history. The guide is organized by the centers and departments at the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

If you are seeking a particular cookbook or a collection with food-related materials, search Duke's catalog by its title.

Highlights from our Collections

This section features one item/collection from each of the above-listed centers and departments at the Rubenstein. These sources are staff "favorites" and are meant to highlight some of the more intriguing and unique items that we hold in our collections.

Digitized Cookbook Collections Outside of the Rubenstein Library

These links will lead you to online databases of cookbook and menu collections.

The Value of Cookbooks

Cookbooks are much more than collections of recipes. Culinary historians carefully study the introductory essays, images, recipes, and suggested menus contained in cookbooks to understand topics like community formation, consumer culture, technology, and economic development. Further, these sources touch upon major historical categories of inquiry such as race, gender, ethnicity, class, and age.

For a detailed guide to the in-depth study of manuscript and published cookbooks, see Janet Theophano's Eat My Words: Reading Women's Lives Through the Cookbooks They Wrote (2002).