Food for Thought

Iowa State University has cooked up one of the finest cookbook collections in the country.

Above: Cookbooks reflect their times and their target markets, including this effort to reach midcentury teens. 

Writer: Laurel Lund
Photographer: Duane Tinkey

It began with a phone call. 

In 1992, Iowa State University professor Diana Shonrock received a call from Robert F. Smith of What Cheer. With no prior premise, he simply said, “I have 12,000 cookbooks. Want ’em?” 

Intrigued, Shonrock learned that the retired U.S. Army cook had been collecting recipes and cookbooks for over 20 years, from 1946 until 1968. Even in his retirement, the World War II and Korean War veteran continued to collect them, adding two cookbooks he authored himself.

In that short telephone call, the seed for the Iowa Cookbook Collection was planted. With the approval of the university’s powers that be, Shonrock met with Smith in What Cheer. He led her to the second floor of a shed the size of a small barn. On pallets balanced on concrete blocks were thousands of cookbooks and recipes from organizations including churches, women’s groups, historical societies and libraries. In nearby barrels were loose hang tags and booklets with recipes from Iowa companies such as Maytag, Quaker Oats and Amana. 

All 12,000 pieces, including both cookbooks and cooking ephemera, were soon to find a new home in the ISU library. But not without first getting a good airing out. 

“Everything had to be fumigated,” Shonrock says. “Most items were dusty. Some were in disrepair and some were moth-eaten.” After unpacking and cleaning them, the inventory process began. Because the collection was Shonrock’s idea, she became, and remains, its bibliographer and historian. 

Duplicate book titles were put aside for a Christmas book sale, with proceeds going to the collection’s care as well as to the purchase of rare, first-edition cookbooks such as “The Joy of Cooking.” Items dating before 1975, some to the early 1800s, were placed into the Special Collection/Archives and do not circulate. The remainder are in the ISU general library collection. Some titles have since been digitized and are available online, such as the entire run of Kitchen Klatter magazine.

At about the same time of Smith’s donation, the collection grew even larger. ISU received hundreds more cookbooks from the estate of ISU graduate Ruth Ellen Church, known as Mary Meade, the longtime food editor for the Chicago Tribune.

Cookin’ Up a Collection

Today the Iowa Cookbook Collection consists of over 3,000 cookbooks dating back to the 1800s. “Except for a few antique American cookbooks, about 95% are Iowa cookbooks and about 75% are Iowa community cookbooks from some organization or company,” Shonrock says. 

All provide a mirror reflecting the state’s societal and cultural history through preserving and documenting our culinary and ethnic heritage. Grandmother’s cherry pie crust was so tender and flaky because she used lard rather than today’s lower-cal shortenings. Our relatives also used more sugar than today’s diets recommend, as sweet syrups were used in canning and molasses was used in place of brown sugar. These ingredients also upped the calorie intake of rural farmers, who needed those calories to survive long hours and back-breaking work.

“Farmers needed more food in the days before air-conditioned tractors were common,” notes Shonrock, a native of rural Osage. “And they used only the food they could produce. I had never seen broccoli or cauliflower before I went to college.“ 

Cookbook titles also document Iowa’s changing times. There were war rationing cookbooks. And such titles as “A Thousand Ways to Please a Husband,” “Miss Dine About Town,” “Pot Roast, Politics and Ants in the Pantry” reflect differing societal and gender roles.  

Recipe for Success

“Diana’s passion for collecting cookbooks is amazing,” says Edward Goedeken, collection coordinator. “For decades she has focused on identifying and obtaining countless older cookbooks from Iowa and from around the world. She has also actively acquired many new ones, some rare, from a wide range of publishing sources over the 40 years she worked at the ISU library.

“I can say with a great deal of confidence that the ISU library has one of the better cookbook collections in the country,” he adds. “And much of that treasure trove is due to the diligence and hard work of professor Shonrock.”

“I love the history of cookbooks and the history of Iowa and how they inform each other,” Shonrock says. “These books represent change.” 

Although Shonrock retired eight years ago, “I’m hanging on to this. I love what I do.”

How to Donate Cookbooks

If you have cookbooks or family recipe books you’d like to donate to the Iowa Cookbook Collection, contact Diana Shonrock at shonrock@iastate.edu.

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