Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Recipe Reboot

August 8, 2023
Illustration of a man holding a yeast sandwich, a can of spam, a sandwich how to book, a women signaling "two" with her hands, a garden plot, and a hand reaching for an apple in a tree.

Illustration by Michael Eugene

Way before the advent of the internet and reality cooking shows, California-born Julia Child was sharing traditional French recipes on her television show The French Chef, which aired from 1963 to 1973.

As a cooking show pioneer, Child was well-loved in America and around the world. A big part of her appeal was the fact that anyone who enjoyed cooking — or eating — could relate to her as a person. She had no airs or graces, and her audience saw her as a humble home cook, spontaneously and excitedly experimenting in the kitchen, sharing her love of food with anyone who wanted to learn. Today Child’s lighthearted, trial-and-error approach to cooking continues to influence cooks in the digital age who are working hard to preserve obscure recipes from the past.

When the internet became mainstream in the early 1990s, the way people shared food and cooking knowledge began to change. Able to receive feedback from fans and critics almost instantaneously, online cooks developed a more interactive and dynamic relationship with their audience, and the content they created sometimes took on a life of its own.

One of Child’s greatest fans was American food writer Julie Powell, who started blogging on the news and opinion website Salon in 2002 about her attempts to cook all the recipes in Julia Child’s book Mastering the Art of French Cooking. In 2005, Powell’s posts were compiled into a cookbook titled Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen. Powell’s journey — which had a profound impact on her own personal growth — was adapted in 2009 into the Nora Ephron-directed film Julie & Julia, starring Amy Adams as Powell and Meryl Streep as Child.

Thankfully, Powell’s legacy, and that of Child, lives on. Today home cooks around the world have adopted their educational and exploratory cooking styles, using different online platforms to raise public awareness about historical recipes, stories, cooking methods and practices.

Through Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, podcasts, websites and newsletters, internet cooks are connecting with a wide audience to preserve foods from the past.

Sandwiches of History

The sandwich is probably one of the most convenient and frequently eaten foods around the world, and Silicon Valley-based Barry Enderwick has made it his mission to find as many historical sandwich recipes as he can.

In December 2018, Enderwick began creating a video series called Sandwiches of History — where he makes historical sandwiches with recipes submitted by fans — sharing them on YouTube, Instagram and TikTok. The idea for these videos came to him after he received a copy of Eva Greene Fuller’s 1909 book The Up-to-Date Sandwich Book from a friend that year.

Ever curious about how people’s tastes and cooking methods have evolved over time, Enderwick said he particularly loves sandwiches for their portability and possibilities. “Between two slices of bread, you can have a portable meal that can tap into all kinds of textures and cuisines,” he said.

Fans usually contact him to share sandwich recipes that their grandpa used to make or their mom loved. “It has been eye-opening to see how many folks think their particular relative had oddball tastes, only to see that same or similar recipe submitted by dozens of other people,” he added.

Though Enderwick is presently working on a print cookbook, he admits that he finds the immediate interactivity of social media more fun. He also sees online content as a great way to test the waters before entering the world of traditional publishing. “I love printed cookbooks and own close to 60, but with a print cookbook, you work on it for a year or so, it’s published and you hope it sells,” shared Enderwick. “But if you don’t have a built-in audience, it is destined to fail. By posting on social, I get to build up a base of passionate sandwich fans first, and by doing so, I get to understand what they would value in a book.”

Victory Kitchen

Maryland-based writer Sarah Creviston Lee views cookbooks in a similar fashion to Enderwick. She agrees they are a great tool for meal planning and inspiration but thinks sharing stories and recipes online is a more dynamic way to spread knowledge that is always changing and growing.

Creviston Lee said there are a lot of food communities that specialize in foods like sourdough, vintage foods or cooking from scratch. “There’s so much value to be gained from these platforms and communities,” she said.

Anyone curious about historical foods and what and how people ate during World War II will appreciate Creviston Lee’s podcast and blog. She writes, produces and hosts the Victory Kitchen Podcast, which is all about American food rationing during the war, along with its companion Substack newsletter. She also writes about the history of food in her blog History Preserved and engages with followers on Instagram for both of her online passion projects. A private Facebook group, Wartime Rationing, Recipes, & Cookbooks, connects Creviston Lee with members from around the world as well.

“Right now on the Facebook group, we are learning about global World War II rationing,” said Creviston Lee during a February 2023 interview. “Since the United States and the United Kingdom tend to get the majority of the focus when most people discuss World War II, in February we are looking at Australia for a change. Future months will include Canada, Mexico and Ireland and other countries.”

Creviston Lee thinks it’s a shame how so much of historic food culture is locked away in old books or newspapers and magazines sitting in private collections or in museums or in a box in someone’s basement. “Some of the really old stuff is now in public domain, but not all of it is available online. The easiest and best way to make these foods and recipes available to people today is to digitize them, which is what I am doing. And the best way to make foods of the past come alive is to recreate them. Food is such a powerful way to connect people through time and across cultures,” she said.

Illustration of a man and woman in front of a camera cooking a meal, old fashion whiskey and bitters, two hands clinging wine glasses, a hand giving a thumbs up, a spread of toppings for a sandwich, and a tablet propped on a stack of cooking books.

Illustration by Michael Eugene

LeGourmet TV

In June 2020, YouTuber Glen Powell further fueled this powerful connection during a period in history when most were feeling isolated and disconnected. He’s the man responsible for making netizens around the world pay attention and try out a 1932 recipe for Depression-era peanut butter bread. During the early days of the pandemic, a video of Powell baking this six-ingredient bread, which he found in a vintage Canadian cookbook, went viral — proof of the internet’s power to bring new life to old foods.

Powell formerly worked in television advertising, launching his YouTube channel LeGourmet TV in 2009 while he was still working in advertising. He used his cooking skills and film production knowledge to start the channel and play with ideas that he could bring back to his clients. He soon realized, however, that he could make his YouTube channel his primary job and leave advertising behind.

Powell has been an avid collector of old cookbooks since high school and owns thousands of community, church and professional cookbooks that were published from the 1600s to the late 1940s. “I use this massive resource to show how recipes evolve over time as ingredients, methods and technology change the way we work in the kitchen,” he said. Because he had access to the equipment and a studio, as well as a desire to explore the internet as a medium to share his passion, video seemed like the most appropriate medium to clearly show the process of executing a recipe.

Like Sandwiches of History’s Enderwick, Powell appreciates how quickly he receives feedback on his work through online comments and how encouraging this can be. “People love to share how their family made the dish that I’m making. Or they might share that their grandmother had made it before but the recipe got lost and now they are happy they have a chance to revive that piece of their past,” he said.

Powell thinks that with globalization, multinational companies are creating a more homogeneous food landscape. We are in danger of losing what makes local foods local as well as variations in recipes and cooking methods.

His hope is that by recording and presenting these recipes to the masses, he and the growing online community of homegrown culinary historians will help keep them alive.

By 22Carrots

This post was adapted from an article in the Summer-Fall 2023 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.