The University of Alabama Libraries recently received one of the largest collections of African American cookbooks in the country – some 450 volumes covering the period from 1827, when the first book with recipes by an African American was published, through the year 2000. When David W. Lupton, a distant cousin of former UA president Nathaniel Thomas Lupton, was considering a permanent home for his collection, the University of Alabama seemed to offer the ideal context both geographically and institutionally. His widow, Dorothy R. Lupton, finalized arrangements for transferring the volumes this summer.
The collection will be known as the David Walker Lupton African American Cookbook Collection and will strengthen the Libraries’ holdings in African American history and culture. It will be housed in Hoole Special Collections Library on the UA campus. David Lupton, who collected and published in several areas, put this collection together through intensive effort over a period of 10 years. Simultaneously, he compiled a comprehensive bibliography of African American culinary literature, which is in the final stages of publication. Mrs. Lupton, who resides in Oriental, North Carolina, recently stated, “David had a deep conviction that cookbooks compiled by individuals in America of African heritage needed to be identified and preserved.”
“The Lupton Collection is a significant addition to the Libraries’ resources for many reasons. First of all, the collection is a treasure trove of rare and obscure books, many of them not widely published, that too often pass ‘under the radar’ of what research libraries acquire,” said Clark Center, Curator of the Hoole Special Collections Library. “In the last twenty years or so, cookbooks have received scholarly attention and interpretation as literary texts, with the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University and Tulane University Libraries among the leaders in recognizing their importance,” he added. Significantly, The Southern Foodways Alliance, an affiliate of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, chose as the subject of its 2004 symposium a focus on food and race relations.
Professor Amilcar Shabaaz, Director of the UA African American Studies Program, said, “This collection will make possible the kind of creative research in food and ethnic identity that has lately become the focus of numerous university press publications.” Culinary texts yield far more than recipes when closely scrutinized. They are written from the point of view of an individual or a community and, as such, have much to say about ethnic identity, family and community life, social history, the roles of women and men, values, religion, and economics, as well as the more obvious fields of diet and nutrition, use of agricultural products, the food supply, and general food history. “Cookbooks are widely accepted among scholars both as documents of history and works with literary interest,” commented Professor Elaine Martin, Professor of German and authority on food in film and literature. “Their study can illuminate the lives of people in new and innovative ways,” she explained.
Browsing the titles of the Lupton Collection, one is made aware of several interesting aspects of the relationship between food and African American history and culture. Well before the popularization of “soul food” and before the advent of celebrity media chefs, there were the countless talented African American chefs who were responsible for the elegant cuisine in fine restaurants, hotels, clubs, and dining cars across the country. Rufus Estes (Good Things to Eat, originally published in 1911) presided over the luxurious private dining car of a railway executive and later was head chef of the subsidiary companies of the United States Steel Corporation in Chicago. In this collection one finds the first edition of The Historical Cookbook of the American Negro (1958) by The National Council of Negro Women, possibly the first African American cookbook to link in a deliberate manner culinary heritage with social, cultural, economic, and political history. Also present is the slim volume of recipes by Clementine Hunter (Melrose Plantation Cookbook, published in 1956), internationally collected folk artist sometimes called the Black “Grandma Moses,” who late in life turned her talents from the kitchen to the canvas.
The beginnings of the soul food movement in the late sixties are well documented and traced through the many subsequent volumes extolling dishes that can now be found in trendy restaurants in most states. Many of the cookbooks are community-based fund-raisers from churches, women’s clubs, and sororities. Such books can often be the most difficult to identify and locate because they usually do not receive wide publicity or distribution beyond their contributors.
Almost every title in the Lupton Collection suggests more than recipes: food is linked with music, humor, social satire (see the underground classic, Vibration Cooking, by Vertamae Grosvenor, published in 1970), cultural and religious celebrations (several Kwanzaa cookbooks, for example), and almost every other aspect of life. There are plenty of celebrity recipes: Muhammad Ali’s favorite recipes and cookbooks by Johnny Mathis, Pearl Bailey, and Mahalia Jackson among others.
“The Lupton Collection was avidly sought by more than one institution, and we are honored that the Lupton family has entrusted the result of David’s creative vision to us,” said Louis A. Pitschmann, Dean of Libraries. “We are eager to add to the Collection,” added Pitschmann, “and are hopeful that the arrival of this important gift will encourage people throughout Alabama and the Southeast to consider contributing their African American cookbooks and recipe collections to the Hoole Library.”