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A Treasury of Kitchen Collectibles

Gadgets ancient and modern, cookbooks, and more stock a culinary archive in Rhode Island

A SQUARE ice cream scoop and a set of baker's rings from the ashes of Pompeii - these are among the 200,000 food and cooking items students may study at the harborside campus of Johnson & Wales University here. There's a gadget that removes two cherry pits at once; a straw-woven tube four feet long from South America that's used for drying potatoes; a breadmaking kettle with a hand-crank on top; gingerbread molds; cake pans; meat grinders; and thousands of wooden spoons from all over the world.

Bordered by row upon row of cookbooks, unusual cook stoves, restaurant furniture, posters, and neat displays in glass cases, are cartons of such cooking collectibles. They are not yet unpacked but part of an ongoing exhibit of the Culinary Archives and Museum, housed at this university, the largest foodservice educator of its kind in the world.

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The originator of this incredible culinary bonanza is Louis Szathmary, a Budapest-born chef, author, restaurateur, and food consultant, who retired last year after closing his landmark Chicago restaurant, The Bakery.

It took 17 trailer trucks to transport the collection from Illinois to the university, where it is available for study by researchers, food historians, food scientists, and special groups, as well as students. It includes the equipment and supplies from Szathmary's restaurant (yes, even the kitchen sink).

Chef Louis, as he likes to be called, came to the United States in 1951. He told about his early experiences recently at a museum lecture for a group of book lovers and collectors:

"I had $1.10 in my pocket and I knew five words of English," he told the group. "My first job was cooking for the Jesuits in Connecticut, and I also cooked nights at a second job.

"One of the things I remember about those days is a trip to New York City," Chef Louis continued. "We went to a large bookstore where every book cost only ten cents each. It was wonderful."

Since then, Szathmary has contributed much to food science and research in numerous projects, including food for space (when he was a vice president of Armour & Co.). His mania for collecting, and his life-long love of literature are evidently Szathmary family traits. "My grandfather was a great book collector and so was his father," says Chef Louis. The family has had a charge account at Maggs Brothers, rare book dealers in London, since 1800.

"Of course, I still collect. I've never met a culinary artifact I didn't want," he says. "I can never resist a second-hand book store or a yard sale or an auction."

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Szathmary is at the center of activity for this impressive "visual story of the history of food," commuting from Chicago to Providence each month. But Barbara Kuck, also a long-time cookbook and food-antiquities collector, moved from Chicago to Providence to be the museum's curator.

Curator Kuck, who is also a professional chef, says that the most significant segment of the collection is probably the material from United States presidents.

"Chef Szathmary is the only person who has collected presidential items about food, drink, and entertainment, and the autograph portion of our collection includes something about food from almost every [US] president," Ms. Kuck says.

"There is Dwight D. Eisenhower's recipe for beef stew. He is the only president who liked to cook," says Chef Louis [see recipe at left]. "We have ... dinner invitations to and from John Hancock and the Marquis de Lafayette." There is one of three original menus from Abraham Lincoln's second inauguration; a handwritten inventory of George Washington's china is also prized.

Contemporary chefs who plan to donate their papers and books to the museum include New York Times writer and chef Pierre Franey and New Orleans chef Warren Le Ruth. Chef Le Ruth plans to donate an original recipe written by the great French chef, Escoffier (1847-1935).

Old menus, cookbooks, and food magazines lead the culinary procession of available ingredients, the incorporation of immigrant cooking, and flashes of individual creativity that have shaped a distinctive American food style.

"Don't look at the editorials," Chef Szathmary says to a writer flipping through some of the magazines. "Look at the ads in the early magazines to tell what people were buying then. There's one that says 'Eat more lard.' "

There are food advertisements from the late 1800s to the present, menus from restaurants, clubs, and ships from around the world. There are antique prints and posters from the 19th and 20th century - filed and available for study.

"Everyone is interested in our old food trading cards," says Kuck. "They're similar to baseball cards and were popular from the 1850s to the 1920s. But for some unknown reason they went out of fashion.

"I think I like best the older antique pieces that show the changes in so many of our cooking tools," Kuck continues.

A bonus for special researchers is a reciprocal agreement with the University of Iowa, Iowa City, allowing for borrowing and an exchange of books with the library, to which Chef Louis made a donation in 1988 of 20,000 cookbooks from 1499 to the present.

"If you want to plan for the future, you must know the past and how it relates to today," says Chef Louis. Johnson & Wales plans to merge the culinary arts dining rooms, amphitheater, and lecture hall into a brand-new center for 1,800 students. Plans should be made final next fall.

How did Szathmary decide what to save? "It was easy," he says. "I saved everything."

Guided tours of the Culinary Archives and Museum can be arranged by appointment. No appointment is needed to view 20 special display cases. Contact Barbara Kuck in Providence: (401) 455-2805.

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