2017-12-14 / Front Page

Capstan Street author honored with Marquis’ lifetime achievement award

BY RYAN GIBBS


Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald released their third book on New England cooking, “United Tastes,” in the same month he was given a lifetime achievement award. Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald released their third book on New England cooking, “United Tastes,” in the same month he was given a lifetime achievement award. Do you know who’s who in your neighborhood?

For homeowners in the Jamestown Shores, it’s Keith Stavely, that’s who.

A food historian from Capstan Street who just finished his third culinary book, Stavely has been given the “Marquis Who’s Who” lifetime achievement award. Named in honor of founder Albert Nelson Marquis, the accolade recognizes Americans who have “demonstrated leadership, excellence and longevity within their respective industries and professions.”

“It’s quite an honor,” Stavely, 75, said. “I guess I’m old enough.”

“Marquis Who’s Who” was first published in 1899 as an American counterpart to the British publication. The goal is to compile biographical data on prominent people of a country and use that information for databases and reference publications. Stavely, who has been listed since 1992, said the lifetime achievement award is “quite the honor.”

“The icing on the cake,” he said.

Stavely’s career as an educator, librarian and writer spans nearly 50 years. He received his doctorate in English literature from Yale University in 1969 and immediately was hired as an English professor at Boston University. Five years later, he moved across town to Boston College, where he remained throughout the 1970s.

During the next decade, Stavely’s focus shifted from higher education to pursue a master’s degree in library science from Simmons College in Boston. He switched careers because he thought, as a former teacher, he could bring a unique perspective to the job. He embraced the library as “the people’s university.”

“I liked both the informality of the public library and their openness to all people,” he said.

With his new degree, Stavely worked in the Massachusetts library system for the next 28 years, including stints in Watertown and Somerville. He was named assistant director of the Fall River facility in 1992 and became director in 1999. During his tenure, he oversaw the restoration of the library’s main building on North Main Street, which was completed in 2003. Stavely said he was fortunate to receive the promotion during the “most dramatic phase” of the construction.

“That occupied the first half of my time as director,” he said. “The renovation was very successful. Everyone loved it.”

Stavely retired from the library in 2008 to focus on his writing career. He has written three books with his wife and co-author, Kathleen Fitzgerald, all of which focus on the history of New England cuisine. “America’s Founding Food: The Story of New England Cooking,” from 2004, details origins of the region’s most popular dishes. “Northern Hospitality: Cooking by the Book in New England,” published in 2011, features hundreds of historical recipes dating from the 17th century.

Their latest book is “United Tastes: The Making of the First American Cookbook.” Published this month by the University of Massachusetts Press, it examines the legacy of “American Cookery” by Amelia Simmons, a 1796 publication widely considered to be the first cookbook written by an American author.

Stavely’s culinary curiosity stems from his affection for Puritan culture, including the writings of British poet John Milton. That was the subject of his earliest work, including his Yale Ph.D. thesis in 1968 and his first published book, “Puritan Legacies: Paradise Lost and the New England Tradition,” which was released 20 years after his university paper. He focused on comparing Milton, “this quintessential Puritan writer,” with the society in which Puritanism was the biggest factor.

Stavely’s research eventually led him to the kitchen because of the cuisine’s roots in Puritan culture. Also, his wife shared a common interest. While growing up, Fitzgerald’s Irish-American family survived on several staple New England foods, from baked beans to brown bread to chowder.

“She kindly allowed me to join her,” he said, “and that led to our first book.”

The couple’s books often touch on the culinary traditions of Rhode Island, their adopted home state. For instance, “America’s Founding Food” highlights the work of Thomas Robinson Hazard, a Narragansett man who wrote a food column for the Providence Journal in the late 19th century. He later penned a book titled “The Jonny-cake Papers of Shepherd Tom.”

“It was full of all of this nostalgia,” Stavely said. “Slightly whimsically but half-seriously, he talks about all these different Rhode Island food items, but especially jonnycakes. We draw on his writing quite a bit.”

Stavely’s favorite part of researching New England food is that the topic ties into other facets of the region’s culture, including politics. He also has enjoyed discovering the nationwide complexity of New England cuisine, such as chowder. Those dishes, he said, gained prominence after they were highlighted by the Colonial revival in the early 20th century.

“They made people forget about all these other dishes that are really gastronomically more interesting,” he said.

The couple maintain a blog that features vintage recipes or their own reproductions. One of Stavely’s favorites is plum cake, which is featured in their latest book. The treat is similar to a fruitcake, but the recipe calls for eggs and yeast.

“We might think of it more as like a breakfast pastry nowadays,” he said. “But it was considered at that time, coming from the English food tradition, as a most elaborate, elegant and refined type of cake.”

Despite his long career in the northeastern United States, Stavely is not a native. He was born in New Jersey and raised in Terre Haute, Ind., before moving to New England in the mid-1960s to study in Connecticut. He met Fitzgerald in the 1970s while working at Boston University. They married in 1978 and moved to Jamestown in 1996. Like her husband, Fitzgerald also has had a long career as a librarian. She currently is director of the Willett Free Library in Saunderstown.

‘United Tastes’ examines role of first American cookbook

The Library of Congress has designated “American Cookery,” the 1796 publication by Amelia Simmons, as one of the 88 books that shaped the nation. Its recognition as the first American cookbook has attracted an enthusiastic modern audience of historians and food journalists, yet until now, “American Cookery” has not received much scholarly attention.

Jamestown’s Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald are the co-authors of “United Tastes: The Making of the First American Cookbook,” a 2017 book that fills the historical gap with a detailed examination of the social circumstances and culinary traditions that produced Simmons’ American classic.

Situating “American Cookery” within the post-Revolutionary era to develop a distinct national identity, Stavely and Fitzgerald demonstrate the book’s significance in cultural and culinary terms. Ultimately the separation between these categories dissolves as the authors show the formation of “taste,” in matters of food and material expressions, which was essential to building a consensus on what it was to be American.

“United Tastes” explores multiple histories — of food, cookbooks, printing, literary culture and region — to illuminate the meaning and affirm the importance of America’s first cookbook.

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