The Alexandra (Sandy) Michell Collection

This exhibition celebrated the gift of valuable seventeenth to nineteenth century French and English cookbooks made by Alexandra (Sandy) Michell, beginning in 1988. Sandy has also made generous financial donations to the Library with which the collection has been developed and expanded to include a fine collection of early Australian cookbooks, and a selection of twentieth century material.

The exhibition was seen  from  22 March 2011 - 31 May 2011 at the Rare Books Exhibition space, Level 1, ISB wing, Sir Louis Matheson Library, Clayton campus, Monash University.


Alexandra Michell

The Monash Cookbook Collection is quickly becoming an important one worldwide, many thanks to Richard Overell and his dedicated staff in the Rare Books section in the Matheson Library.  It now covers a large range of books from mainly France, England and Australia, dating from 1654 to the present day.

Why should cookbooks be considered an important resource?  In essence, it is one of the few ways we are able to access the private domain. Unlike the public sphere, this area remains relatively secret and impenetrable.  Because we must eat to live, food is therefore an absolute daily necessity, as well as the way in which we celebrate friendships, gatherings, and all sorts of special events.  Cookbooks aid us in its preparation, whether it is for the family or something more elaborate.

Therefore, cookbooks document the history of food, giving us an insight into its availability and popularity at different times and in different cultures.  One prime example of this was the reluctance of Parisians to eat potatoes until extreme food shortages in the 1790s and the persistence of the authorities, forced them to do so.  Life without bread was for them unthinkable.  Parmentier set about making bread from potatoes instead of wheat flour.  At the same time, Madame Merigot brought out a small cookbook dedicated solely to the preparation of that much maligned vegetable, in the hope of increasing its acceptance.

Cookbooks document fads, fashions, shortages, new cooking equipment and methods.  One only has to think of the shortages during and after World War II when butter and eggs were a luxury, and recipes for cakes without them were treasured.  Many of us grew up without tasting garlic, many spices and herbs, vegetables such as capsicums, eggplants, zucchini and rice.  In the kitchen, life has been simplified by the advent of the food processor, and even the microwave, another relatively new arrival, has its place.  Fashions such as cuisine nouvelle and cuisine minceur resulted in tiny delicate portions on huge plates.  Now we unfortunately appear to be following the American example of enormous servings.  At other times there is a return to favourite recipes from the past – traditional stews, lemon sponge pudding and pavlova.

Cuisine is now a global interest and cookbooks reflect that.  In the 1980s, for example, it was difficult to buy books on Thai, Vietnamese, Indonesian and Moroccan cooking in English.  Now they dominate the shelves in bookshops.  Cooking shows on TV have also added to the proliferation of local cookbooks for sale.  The ability to travel has increased the interest in other cuisines, and food has become very much a part of the holiday experience. Now the world of the printed book is being threatened by e-books.  Will books become a thing of the past?  We hope not.  In any case, collections such as this one are helping to preserve the history of food and cooking.