If you’re an avid home cook, you’ve probably got a stash of recipes that you refer to often when you cook or bake. The Maine Historical Society also collects recipes, using them to reveal not only how Mainers have eaten through the ages but also such things as what ingredients were available, how we responded to war and the advent of the electric stove, what medicines we once prescribed (our word “recipe” comes from “receipt” and was originally used by doctors for prescriptions).

Some of the society’s recipes are on display through May 31 in the small, eclectic and engaging exhibit “Sugar and Spice: Our Vintage Recipes.”

“Food has played an important role in history, period, but especially in Maine with our natural resources and economy being tied to food,” said curator Jamie Kingman Rice, the society’s director of library services. “We can sometimes live in a bubble at the Maine Historical Society. It’s all Maine all the time. But food and drink are fundamental to Maine.”

We chatted with Rice about calf’s feet jelly, whoopie pies and how our own recipes may look to future generations. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: The recipes you chose to exhibit are quite eclectic, ranging so widely both in time and type. What made you group this particular set of recipes?

A: I wanted to be able to show a range from different time periods, to go from the Federal period, where you have the manuscript (hand-written) recipes, up to the more modern period. Also, I wanted to demonstrate the breadth of our collections. A lot of people think a historical society has only older material. I wanted to emphasize to people that we have objects from the 20th century. The 1960s is still history. The 1990s is history. Everything is history – to show people that if they have things from these time periods, we’re still interested.

Q: Many of us keep collections of recipes we like to cook, in recipe boxes, in notebooks, on the computer. What would make a recipe interesting enough for the Maine Historical Society to want to archive it?

A: We really want to document Maine: Maine ingredients, traditional or regional recipes like brown bread, things that have been passed down in families, or even things that have become more modern regional favorites, especially with the boom Maine has seen from the restaurant industry and locally sourced foods. Going forward, I think recipe collections that document (locally sourced food) would be integral to our collection. So quintessential New England recipes, and not just old ones. What does it mean to be the quintessential New England recipe in 1975? I’m not from Maine. When I moved here, I never knew what an Italian sandwich was. Things like that. Or whoopie pies.

Q: Do recipes tend to have short, hard lives? They get well used in messy kitchens and are made of (fragile) paper in the first place. The gin recipe in the exhibit, for one, looked quite delicate.

A: That gin recipe is from the Prohibition period. The fascinating thing about it is that it came with the kit to make the gin. The gentleman (who wrote the recipe) was an officer in the Navy. Some of his recipes for illegal gin were on Navy stationery. I couldn’t display those because they were so tattered, they wouldn’t have (been legible). But we’ve kept them for the story they show: There was this officer using U.S. Department of the Navy Officer’s Club stationery to write illegal gin recipes during Prohibition.

Q: The old recipes, the ones written by hand, like the recipe for tomato ketchup, were so nice to look at; you feel a connection with the cook. Will archivists of the future miss handwritten artifacts?

A: We think about that on a regular basis. The older recipes were visually beautiful. Even with my limited culinary skills, the recipes I do make I make from the Internet. And I don’t even print them out. I bring my iPad right into the kitchen. As an archivist, I hope there is a way to capture those recipes for future generations. Maybe cookbooks? Cookbooks will be available in a lasting way. But it’s not the same as manuscripts. And recipes in those recipe boxes like the one I have from my husband’s grandmother? To me they are just as important and they are just as beautiful as something from the 1780s.

Q: While you were putting together the exhibit, did you come across any recipes where you knew instantly, that one is definitely going in the show?

A: The calf’s feet jelly was one that I think most of us were kind of “eew.” (Before commercial gelatin was marketed, women made it themselves from calves’ feet and then turned it into desserts that were precursors to Jell-O.) Also, World War I is a great interest of mine, so I found those really interesting. We made some of those, including the peanut butter soup. Surprisingly, it was pretty good. It tasted like a warm milkshake. We made some of the tea sandwiches, too, the peanut butter and pickle relish one, which wasn’t bad. And we made the Washington Pie from the Civil War. There was so much sugar in that cake. I love sugar, but it was too much for me.

Q: I was interested in the fact that as early as the Civil War, they’d named a dessert after George Washington.

A: George Washington was a celebrity almost as soon as he died. They also called it Lafayette Pie for Marquis de Lafayette (a French aristocrat who fought for the U.S. during the Revolution.)

Q: Fifty years from now, what will archivists and the rest of us make of the food we eat today?

A: The most off-putting (recipes we uncovered) were from the 1950s and 1960s. There are plenty of things I saw when browsing the really early ones that seemed good, maybe they needed a little more spice, but basically they seemed good. So I wonder if (our contemporary recipes) will fall into that same 1950s category where we think “Oh yikes.” Like French dressing on fruit salad – that seems so awful. It made me wonder, “What do we eat now that is so gross?”

RECIPE FROM YESTERYEAR

The recipe, on display at the Maine Historical Society, is from the mid- to late 19th century. Its author is unknown. Saleratus was a leavening agent, much like baking soda.

Steamed Brown Bread

For a boiler the size of ours. take a little more than a quart of Indian meal, 1 cup of molasses, 1 teaspoonful of saleratus dissolved, mix thin so that it will run, with cold water or milk, milk is preferable, to be kept in boiling water five or six hours. Have the boiler thoroughly greased. Do not fill it quite full, have about two inches for rising.