Student Spotlight: Master’s student co-curates culinary archives exhibit

While working on her master’s degree, Diane Ray helped curate “Art to Eat By: Cookbooks as Record and Expression,” a collection of cookbooks and manuscripts from the University of Iowa Libraries’ archives.


Grace Kreber

University of Iowa library studies graduate student working towards getting her masters Diane Ray poses for a portrait on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021. Ray has an art exhibit called “Art to Eat” on display now in special collections in the main library on campus, where she works.

Anaka Sanders, Arts Reporter

When University of Iowa graduate student Diane Ray was finishing up cataloging manuscripts from the Szathmary Culinary Collection, a cookbook collection in the UI library’s archives, the curator of archives Eric Ensley suggested she help fill the empty exhibit space in the library with her work.

Ensley asked her to co-curate the exhibit Art to Eat By: Cookbooks as Record and Expression with him because she had never done a formal exhibit before. 

The exhibit is focused on how food is shaped around public and private views and women’s roles regarding food. 

“Cookbooks could either be just for the family, but a lot of people published them,” Ray said. “That was often an early way women could be in the public face – think of those old famous cookbooks.”

The Szathmary Culinary Collection was donated to the UI by a chef who went around Chicago collecting thousands of manuscripts and cookbooks. 

Before curating the exhibit, Ray didn’t know a lot about cookbooks. What she discovered was that, throughout history, people have used cookbooks for more than just cooking.

“Women’s groups put out cookbooks to support political groups to raise funds even before they could vote,” Ray said. “Just think about the local power that cookbooks had.”

One of her favorite pieces in the exhibit is Le Quadragesimal Spirituel, published in 1521 and written entirely in Latin. 

The piece was described by the seller as a “work of cookery, mathematics, and mysticism for women.” It talks about what you should eat during lent and what you should buy if you’re on pilgrimage.

What Ray found the most fascinating about the cookbook was that it was printed under a woman’s name during a time when women were rarely mentioned in a text even though they were involved with the book. 

There is another piece in the collection that always catches her eye — two pop-up cow-shaped menus. One is bigger, for the main menu, and the other is smaller for the drink menu. For Ray, there was no other way to explain it other than, “they’re just fun.”

Ray said she tries to do too many things. She is currently earning her master’s in Library Science with a concentration in special collections. She is also working on receiving a certificate from the Center for the Book, along with volunteering there and at LGBTQ Iowa Archives and Library. 

With only a year left at the UI, another archive exhibit for Ray is unlikely, but she does hope to continue working with archives.

“I think this was a really good experience to learn how things are, and how it’s put together by someone who’s done them before,” Ray said. 

There are no plans set in stone yet, but Ray hopes to move back to where she grew up in Dodgeville, Wisconsin, and work in the archives there. 

Art to Eat by: Cookbooks as Record and Expression is available to see in the Special Collections and Archives Reading Room on the third floor of the Main Library.