From Zero to 55,000: How NYU Amassed the Largest Collection of Food Books in America
Cecily Brownstone’s party for Joy of Cooking at her NYC home, circa 1951. Her personal collection was Fales’ first food studies acquisition.
By Kristine Jannuzzi (CAS '98)
Tucked away on the third floor of Bobst lies what many would consider a hidden gem: the Fales Library, the primary repository of rare books and special collections at NYU. In addition to its impressive holdings in literature, American history, and downtown NYC art, Fales houses an extensive food studies collection that ranges from cookbooks featuring every cuisine imaginable to the personal papers of some of the most influential figures in American food culture. And thanks to a recent gift of some 21,000 books and other food related materials from the private library of restaurateur George Lang, the food studies collection at Fales is now the largest of its kind in the country.
The collection was started in 2003 at the prompting of Marion Nestle, Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at NYU’s Steinhardt School. Nestle had learned that Cecily Brownstone, the Associated Press food editor for nearly 40 years, was eager to find a home for the cookbooks and other materials relating to American cookery that she had amassed throughout her career. Nestle approached Marvin J. Taylor (GSAS ’97), Director of Fales, who also recognized the need to add food materials to the library’s special collections, and the two visited Brownstone’s apartment on Jane Street, which was “crammed to the gills with books,” according to Taylor. Shortly after their visit, thanks to an anonymous donor, NYU acquired Brownstone’s diverse array of cookbooks, photos, pamphlets, postcards, menus, recipe boxes, and more.
“It was like buying 60 years of somebody curating a collection of cookbooks,” explains Taylor. “Not all of them were in the best shape, because she had used them for work, but it meant that we went from zero to 7,000 titles with one acquisition.”
Since then, other donations began steadily flowing in, and the food studies collection now includes the papers of such well-known figures as James Beard and Betty Fussell, in addition to thousands of cookbooks and printed materials, restaurant menus, matchbooks, announcements, and other ephemera. More recently, Fales acquired Gourmet magazine’s 3,500 volume library at the eleventh hour after the magazine folded in 2009, through a gift from author and food consultant, Rozanne Gold. The collection has become so vast that Fales imposed a temporary moratorium on books coming in as they work to process the 32,000 volumes they have not yet catalogued.
“It’s an ‘only in New York’ story, that you could build a collection so quickly,” says Taylor. “There was clearly a need, and there were a lot of people out there with collections who wanted them to be used for research.”
The collection at Fales is an important resource for students in Steinhardt’s Food Studies program, which was launched fifteen years ago. “When we started Food Studies at NYU in 1996, we knew we were breaking new ground in offering undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral degrees in a field that did not exist. Now, it does,” explains Nestle. “The New York Times wrote about the programs the week after they were granted state approval, and we had potential students in our office with clippings in hand that very afternoon.”
The programs initially focused mainly on food and culture, but have grown in scope to encompass food production and consumption, as well as local and regional food systems. Those who complete degrees in food studies can pursue a wide variety of career paths when they graduate; as Nestle points out, food is a business that brings in more than a trillion dollars a year in the United States alone. “I run across graduates of our programs doing things they love and for which they were well trained: writing for publications, cooking on TV, running food businesses, editing magazines, running school food programs, teaching at every possible level, running farms, running farmers’ markets and CSAs (community supported agriculture), working for government food agencies – I could go on and on.”
Taylor adds that, while at one time “there was a prejudice against food as not an important topic – somehow it was women’s work – that has changed pretty radically in the last ten years.” Food studies is now almost universally recognized as a legitimate and important academic discipline with far-reaching implications and real relevance to everyday life.
“Everybody eats,” says Nestle. “Food studies examines critically important issues in society, in this case using food as a focus. I can’t think of very many current issues in society, economics, or politics that do not involve food production or consumption in some way. Consider, for example, climate change, immigration policy, education policy, globalization, international conflict, and obesity, to name the most obvious ones.”
It makes sense, then, that students with a wide range of specialties have occasion to tap into the food studies resources offered at Fales. Taylor cited frequent visits from performance studies majors, historians, sociologists, and even an English major who was examining the significance of place settings in Jane Austen novels, as part of her research into the Silver Fork School of literature that emphasized etiquette and high society in the nineteenth century.
The collection at Fales is also open to scholars from other institutions and to private researchers across the globe. “These books and papers, many of them irreplaceable, will be available to researchers in perpetuity. They are already used widely, which also reinforces their value now and in the long term,” says Nestle.
She adds, “We were lucky to be ahead of the curve. With food studies programs opening up in colleges all over the country, many libraries are collecting food materials like mad. It has all gotten terribly respectable.”
For more information about NYU’s food studies programs, visit steinhardt.nyu.edu. For more information on Fales, visit www.nyu.edu/library/bobst/research/fales.
With food studies programs opening up in colleges all over the country, many libraries are collecting food materials like mad. It has all gotten terribly respectable.
– Marion Nestle