What I remember most from my archives class at Emerson College is a short video clip that our professor, Natalie Dykstra, showed at the very beginning. The clip was from a nature program showing a fox jumping high in the air and swan-diving into a plain covered with snow. The fox jumped and dived over and over and over again—until it came up with a small rodent between its teeth. She told us that we should keep this image in mind while searching through the archives, and one day we’d understand.
The video, while entertaining, seemed a little odd, and as I looked around the table with a mix of furrowed brows, smirks, and tilted heads—I was sure some of my classmates agreed with me.
To be completely truthful, I took the archives class on a whim. I needed an elective to fill a time slot in my class schedule and the class time fit. So I thought, why not?
My first glimpse of archival work began when we visited Harvard’s Schlesinger Library. The curator had pulled a series of collections to look through, and I got interested in a collection of antique cookbooks.
Up to this point, I had yet to combine my writing with my passion for baking and cooking, at least not in my poetry. And as a poet, I was finding that the task of using primary materials in my writing a big hurdle.
The class couldn’t have come at a better time. I was in my “overly self-critical and too much in my own head” phase of MFA program. I was doing the typical second-year-of-grad-school shuffle, where I didn’t think I had a strong enough “voice” compared to my obviously more talented peers.
I decided to go back to the Schlesinger and see if the collection might help with my final project (and I didn’t even know what that project was going to be yet). That second trip, with the help of my classmates, led to Fannie Merritt Farmer—the mother of level measurements.
Natalie talked a lot about the magic of the archives and how every researcher inevitably has her own moment in the stacks, or the reading room, or with the microfilm machine when she gasps and says, “Oh my.” I felt it the first time I saw Fannie’s handwriting in a set of letters in a collection of her correspondence at the Schlesinger, and again, when I found her grave at the Mount Auburn Cemetery.
This woman, who I found out was confined to a wheelchair for a good portion of her life, was a pioneer in standardizing measurements and created her own cookbook after her time spent at the Boston Cooking School. Throughout my work with her papers, I felt very close to Fannie—like I owed it to her to try to tell her story—a story that I felt was little told. I even called her by her first name in my head.
The precision in her work led to a precision in mine. I paid more attention; I focused on detail; and I tried to find a balance between too little and too much. It stretched my writing muscles and forced me to play with voice (as in point of view), sound, and most importantly—form. A few of the poems in my final portfolio were in the form of recipes. Others used lines from Fannie’s cookbook as epigraphs, and a few of the poems I wrote from Fannie’s perspective. Here is a favorite:
KEEPING THINGS LEVEL
for Fannie Merritt Farmer
From my chair I balance a piece
of butter the size of an egg
in my palm—raise, lower, raise,
to feel its weight. Place the chunk
on a scale, eye the tick mark,
add it to my notes. While the neighborhood kids
run through the front yard, I dream
a minestrone soup:
4 cloves garlic
2 stalks celery
1 large carrot
1 pound green beans, trimmed.
Jot the recipe on an
index card as I watch a girl skip
down the sidewalk. At the table
I slip my newest vision into the box.
For salt, it’s better to use one-eighth
teaspoon instead of a dash.
Not everyone’s pinch is the same.
A class that I took on a whim, turned out to be one of the most eye-opening class in my grad school career. It even helped produce a handful of poems that appear in my final thesis. And I have Natalie, my classmates, the Schlesinger Library, and Fannie to thank for that.
Alice Bradley Papers. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College.
Encyclopedia of World Biography, “Notable Biographies: Fannie Farmer.” Accessed March 20, 2014. http://www.notablebiographies.com/Du-Fi/Farmer-Fannie.html
Farmer, Fannie Merritt. Food and cookery for the sick and convalescent. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1904, Farmer, Fannie Merritt.
The all new Fannie Farmer Boston Cooking-School cookbook. Boston: Little, Brown, 1959. Hopkinson, Deborah
Fannie in the Kitchen. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2001.
~Rebecca Thill, MFA, Emerson College, 2014. Find her on Twitter @bibliobecs.