For that past 50 years, Barbara Ketcham Wheaton has been meticulously compiling the information of historical cookbooks in Europe, North America, and beyond, including ingredients, illustrations, and backgrounds about the people behind each morsel. That labor is now available for the world to behold in the form of the beautiful and old-school-style database known as the Sifter.
The website boasts a database of 5,000 historical cookbooks from Harvard University’s Schlesinger Library and others. Unlike modern-day data collection, which is predominantly digital and much more convenient then licking a page and turning it over, Wheaton had to take literal notes on paper, hunt down information with the help of her two children, and go through the famous Julia Child's cookbook collection.
It was a physically and mentally demanding task, and the strenuous nature of Wheaton's research shows in the Sifter. In simple numbers, Wheaton has compiled a database of a whopping 130,000 individual items, at least. The database is part bibliography, part crowd-sourced library — so if you're as passionate about the history of cooking and food as Wheaton is, she'd love to have you contribute to her gorgeous archives. Here's a delightful description of the Sifter in Wheaton's own words.
How Sifter works — The website, which went live on July 10, is described in the following words:
[The Sifter] is overseen by an advisory board of rotating members of the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery as well as other friends of food history. As with Wikipedia, it will be populated by its users. Entries will be made both in standard English and the language of the original document. It will be possible to enter data in over 150 writing systems.
Anyone is welcome to browse the Sifter, which carries cookbooks from the 1700s and even earlier. Some of these books are in foreign languages, and that's where the public's help is appreciated. If users can translate foreign text, Wheaton welcomes their contribution. Additionally, if you have access to a historical cookbook that you think would do well in Sifter's library, don't hesitate to reach out to the team. All you have to do is register and become a contributor after the team approves your status.
Give it a spin — Wheaton calls her library a cross between a Swiss army knife and a piano. At first, it sounds confusing. But she explains that much like a Swiss army knife, the Sifter has the ability to provide multiple uses: cooking measurements, how dishes became popular, ingredients, cooking techniques, what foods certain societies ate until it became taboo (hint: peacock), where certain food terms first appeared, and much more. Like a piano that creates notes when you strike a key, keys in Sifter yield a dizzying number of search results.
I personally gave it a go since I love simple cooking, hosting, and understanding the cultural, economic, political, religious, and other roots of food and drink. I searched for a painfully simple food item: "pie." The results I got went back to 1790 in a book called Housekeeper's Valuable Present by Robert Abbott.
The layout of the website isn't typically minimalist and sleek and it doesn't have touches of millennial pink and yellow peppered with inspirational quotes and succulents. Instead, the Sifter is old fashioned, a little slow when it loads, and sometimes clunky. None of these details make it unlikeable, though. Au contraire, Wheaton created a lovely library with refreshing warmth and charm to it.