Cooking Up Columbia's Culinary History

Gary Shapiro
December 22, 2014

It’s well-established that a Columbia degree can be a recipe for success, but it turns out that a Columbia cook of the 1940s could also make any meal a success.

That’s clear by leafing through a spiral-bound cookbook called What’s Cooking at Columbia: A Recipe Book, originally confected during World War II and updated in 1948. Its light blue cover shows the iconic Alma Mater statue with a steaming cooking pot in one hand, a spoon in the other, and wearing a chef’s toque.

The year was 1942, and a committee of Columbia faculty wives supported the war effort by compiling recipes from soups and canapés to hot puddings and frozen desserts. Published by Columbia University Press, the cookbook raised money for the University Committee for War Relief. All proceeds for the book, as the Columbia Spectator noted at the time, went “to help cook Hitler’s goose.”

“The cookbook is like time travel,” said Columbia executive chef Michael DeMartino. He recreated several dishes from the cookbook in the new kitchen at Columbia’s Maison Française alongside New York Times food writer Melissa Clark (BC’90, SOA’94) on a December afternoon. The menu included Mrs. Nicholas Butler’s canapés and pies from philosophy professor John Dewey and Mamie Eisenhower, wife of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Columbia president who went from Low Library to the White House.

“It’s clear that the recipes come from a fairly sophisticated and fairly well traveled group,” said Priscilla Ferguson, a sociology professor whose research specialty is cooking and food. Tastes and cooking techniques were very different then, she pointed out. Cooks used canned vegetables instead of fresh, dishes were cooked far longer than they are today, and recipes regularly called for ingredients such as lard and offal (livers and gizzards).

“It’s a cookbook very much of its time,” she added, pointing to a recipe for chicken soufflé from Marie, the housekeeper of philosophy professor Irwin Edman. “The woman doesn’t even get a last name.”

Clark, who worked with Ferguson when she was an undergraduate at Barnard, tasted the dishes with DeMartino, including the anchovy appetizer, baked polenta, lamb and halibut. “I found the cookbook socially fascinating,” she said. “This is what people were cooking in the 40s, what they were putting on the table. You get a sense of who they were, what they were eating and living in a broader cultural sense.”

A recipe for vichyssoise, from Mrs. Ernest Hunter Wright (whose husband was then the English department chair) called for it to be served in a ramekin. The texture was far thicker than it would be today. “These flavors are intense,” said Clark as she took a spoonful. “It tastes really good, but the texture is like library paste.” DeMartino assured her that he cooked the dish exactly as the recipe called for.

There are some obvious differences in how we eat now versus then, of course. Today’s portion sizes are smaller, DeMartino pointed out. “Then it was more like, ‘Fill up the plate—dad’s coming home,’” he said, and the recipes reflected the custom of families gathering for heavy meals. “These weren’t grab-and-go dinners.” He also noted that food allergies, including gluten and lactose intolerance, “never came into play.”

The dishes also assume a certain level of cooking competence. “One thing that struck me was just how much skill the recipes take for granted,” Clark said. “They’d say, ‘pour it into a rich crust,’ and you’re supposed to know what that is. Today we’d have to walk somebody through each step of the recipe.”

Brought back to life in the pages of the cookbook, prominent figures from University’s past step off the page, including Enrico Fermi, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist on the Columbia faculty in the early 1940s whose experiments led to the first controlled nuclear chain reaction. His wife, Laura, contributed the family recipe for a chocolate dessert calling for a chain reaction of a different sort, with just three ingredients: bitter chocolate, sugar and eggs.

There’s also a recipe from Butler himself, for Jamaican pepper pot soup, suggesting a family fondness for spicy dishes.

The first recipe in the 1948 edition, for vegetable soup, runs two full pages and is notable for its extraordinary level of detail, including this: “Your vegetables should not all be dumped in at once. The potatoes, for example, will cook more quickly than the carrots.” The contributor? Eisenhower, former supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe, showing his flair for logistics and planning.

The distinguished cultural critic and former University Professor Jacques Barzun (CC’27, GSAS’32) contributed a recipe called Claret Cup á la Cotuit, a concoction of sliced fruit steeped in red wine to which he suggests adding a half teaspoon of gelatin, “merely to make the sauce a trifle languid.”

What’s Cooking at Columbia is one of thousands of such cookbooks that churches, synagogues, sororities, Girl Scout troops and other community organizations have published since the Civil War to raise money for various causes. In 1948, each Columbia cookbook sold for one dollar.

“It’s fascinating to see these names who were part of my college experience, and getting a sneak peek of what they ate,” said Clark