The Sifter.

The Sifter is a multilingual historical database of cookbooks:

The Sifter is a public database, free to all users. It is a tool for finding and comparing historical and contemporary writing on food and food-related topics. It is overseen by an advisory board composed of members from The Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery as well as other friends of food history. As with Wikipedia, the Sifter will be populated by its users. All entries will have an English translation, enabling users to search languages they cannot read. Soon, we will have over 100 languages represented. Registered users will be able to make corrections and add new information. Future releases will include a data visualization component. We also plan to include more resources linking to digitized photographs, artworks, television and film. With the aid of this tool, it is our hope that what has been invisible will come into focus.

You can read more about it at Reina Gattuso’s Atlas Obscura article:

Now, the public can enjoy the fruits of Wheaton’s 50 years of labor. In July 2020, Wheaton and a team of scholars, including two of her children, Joe Wheaton and Catherine Wheaton Saines, launched The Sifter. Part Wikipedia-style crowd-sourced database and part meticulous bibliography, The Sifter is a catalogue of more than a thousand years of European and U.S. cookbooks, from the medieval Latin De Re Culinaria, published in 800, to The Romance of Candy, a 1938 treatise on British sweets.

The Sifter isn’t a collection of recipes, or a repository of entire texts. Instead, it’s a multilingual database, currently 130,000-items strong, of the ingredients, techniques, authors, and section titles included in more than 5,000 European and U.S. cookbooks. It provides a bird’s-eye view of long-term trends in European and American cuisines, from shifting trade routes and dining habits to culinary fads. Search “cupcakes,” for example, and you’ll find the term may have first popped up in Mrs. Putnam’s Receipt Book And Young Housekeeper’s Assistant, a guide for ladies running middle-class households in the 1850s. Search “peacock” and you’ll find the bird’s meat was sometimes eaten from the 1400s to the 1700s in courtly England. […]

The story of The Sifter’s genesis similarly reveals the connection between gender, labor, and prestige. When Wheaton got started as a culinary historian, as a young mother 60 years ago, “I couldn’t have a PhD, because there wasn’t a PhD in the field until we invented it,” she says. At the time, there was a split in the academy around the study of domestic labor, such as cooking. On one side, traditional historians—predominantly male—considered the history of food to be unimportant, even vulgar. “Food history has been a bit of an embarrassment to a lot of academics, because it involves women in the kitchen,” says Joe Wheaton, a professional sculptor and member of The Sifter’s advisory board.

I was just complaining to my wife about the wretched job dictionaries have done with food-related terms (none of my Russian dictionaries had the common dish жаренка, meat and potatoes fried with mushrooms). Thank goodness things are improving on that front, and I wish The Sifter every success!


  1. John Emerson says

    When I read Flaubert’s half-page description of the ridiculous hat which definitively proved that young Charles Bovary was a hopeless oaf, I found that the Le Petit Larousse only had definitions of about a third of the hat terms he used. Is an “otter hat”made of otter pelts, or is it just otter like in some way? — etc. So it’s not just food.

    I suppose that Le Grand Larousse would have been better, but who knows ? (But I woll blame Flaubert regardless).

  2. David L. Gold says

    @John Emerson. This is presumably the passage you have in mind:

    C’était une de ces coiffures d’ordre composite, où l’on retrouve les éléments du bonnet à poil, du chapska, du chapeau rond, de la casquette de loutre et du bonnet de coton, une de ces pauvres choses, enfin, dont la laideur muette a des profondeurs d’expression comme le visage d’un imbécile. Ovoïde et renflée de baleines, elle commençait par trois boudins circulaires ; puis s’alternaient, séparés par une bande rouge, des losanges de velours et de poils de lapin ; venait ensuite une façon de sac qui se terminait par un polygone cartonné, couvert d’une broderie en soutache compliquée, et d’où pendait, au bout d’un long cordon trop mince, un petit croisillon de fils d’or, en manière de gland. Elle était neuve ; la visière brillait

    You will find an 11-page analysis of it here:

  3. To me a жарёнка is a crispy tidbit from the bottom of a pan. Never heard it refer to a dish (but I’m a heritage speaker).

  4. If not for food, a lot of second-language learners of French would take a lot longer to become familiar with some of the meanings of à.

  5. Amazing! I’m working on a translation project right now that quotes recipes dating back to the Middle Ages, and it’s fascinating to see how the very approach to writing them changes over time. It would be a shame to turn all those different voices into stylistically homogeneous contemporary English, but I’ve been putting off the task of hunting through old cookbooks for useful turns of phrase because I didn’t even know where to start. Now I do! Many, many thanks for posting this.

  6. Many, many thanks for posting this.

    My pleasure! I’m always delighted when my posts are of actual use to somebody.

  7. The Sifter: in my humble opinion a very confusing search/browse interface.
    Once I managed to get a couple of Dutch books, but I couldn’t repeat my results.
    But I remembered that the first time I only got two books with a link to the HathiTrust Digital Library.
    I couldn’t download a whole book without a “partner institution account”.
    Yeah, right, how useful!

    Much more productive for Dutch language cooking literature is a site search with e.g. Google or Duckduckgo, like:
    DBNL: Digitale Bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse Letteren.
    In the DBNL one can find nice cooking books like “De volmaakte Hollandsche keuken-meid” (The perfect Dutch kitchen maid).
    And many more complete scans of old Dutch books, in many cases with OCRed text.

  8. From the Gattuso article:

    But Wheaton had a problem: The scope of her ambition outstripped the technology at hand. She envisioned a sweeping catalogue of cookbooks, like a landscape seen from a satellite, that would allow her to map the contours of culinary history—the shifting trade routes, the fickle food fads, the new technologies. Researching her book in the late 1970s, Wheaton used a system of stacked cards with punched holes around the edges, each precise formation of holes representing particular categories. When she wanted to see all the works in a particular category—say, books that mentioned peaches—she slipped a knitting needle through that series of holes. “Which is useless for more than eight pieces of information,” Kaufman says.

    In the late 1970s, when Wheaton was working on her book, the cutting edge in computing was the Boston Computer Society, which had been founded by a 13 year old. By the time Savoring the Past was published, IBM had finally come out with a computer that could record information with French accent marks. Wheaton began logging her notes digitally. It took almost 30 more years—until just this July—for Wheaton’s database to launch.

    Today, The Sifter’s lengthy spreadsheets and clunky search functions may admittedly seem less than flashy to younger people, who never had to use a knitting needle to perform a data search. But once you get the hang of it, the website’s 130,000 references—each one painstakingly entered from Wheaton’s notes—are little bursts of light shone on the past.

    So yeah, it’s clunky. Take it for what it is. (If and when my Russian Literature Chronology ever gets published, I guarantee people are going to complain about the formatting. Let them compile their own!)

  9. Lars Mathiesen says

    That knitting needle sorting method was not a nonce invention, I remember reading about it back in the seventies. I’m pretty sure you could have more than 8 bits, maybe as many as 80 (after all, Hollerith punch cards could have 80 columns and remain stable enough for automatic processing). That would allow you to sort on 16 letters or 20 digits. Or more if you went all the way around the card.

    (The check sorting machines at the bank clearing facility where I had my “job experience week” in 1974 could only separate according to one magnetic-ink digit at a time — run a stack through, collect output stacks in order, repeat for next digit. I don’t remember why they had to sort them, maybe so that they could operate on sorted information off a magnetic tape and output another sorted one).

  10. John Cowan says

    Radix sort. Unlike other sort algorithms, it does not involve comparison and so is able to operate in O(n) time (technically O(nw) where w is the length of the key). Which is to say, very fast.

  11. Lars Mathiesen says

    Most steps in automatic data handling processes back then were linear, because the amount of cards or checks you could handle in a data center room held vastly more information than you could afford tape drives for. And little paper rectangles almost force a once-through approach.

    Related to “never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon filled with magnetic tape.” Though that presumes the data are on tape already, the bandwidth from disk to tape might well be below network speeds these days.

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