Helen Bullock

Joan Nathan - October 1990

Food Arts presents its October 1990 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Helen Duprey Bullock, who, years before food historians sprang up around the country, was single-handedly pioneering the discovery of America's culinary past. Later trends were established by Bullock's The Williamsburg Art of Cookery; it was first published in 1938, and sold almost 200,000 copies.

According to Bullock, now 85, the book "just happened by itself" while she was researching the original wall covers for the restoration of Williamsburg in 1926. "While leafing through correspondences between Virginians and their relatives abroad, I came across tidbits like, 'We didn't put such and such in a fruitcake because we were saving it for the soldiers' or, 'A Virginian put sugar in the bottom of a mint julep glass, pounded it, and made strong men weep as they hadn't since they saw some damn Yankee put sugar in their cornbread.' " These comments helped her put together the puzzle of the past.

Born in Oakland, California, Bullock graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1925. Her interest in cooking was fueled by her French grandmother, who raised her after her mother died. After graduation she married Orin Bullock and the two moved to Williamsburg where he was an architect for the town's restoration.

Although the marriage did not last long, Bullock's interest in food history did; she continued on as archivist at Colonial Williamsburg from 1929 to 1939, when she became a DuPont Fellow in American History at the University of Virginia. There, she catalogued Thomas Jefferson's papers and became an expert on his interest in food. From 1941 to 1950, she catalogued the Abraham Lincoln papers at the Library of Congress. In 1942 she authored My Head and My Heart: A Little History of Thomas Jefferson and Maria Cosway, which received rave reviews.

From 1950 until her retirement in 1972, Bullock held every food historian's dream job. At the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C., it was her task to run around the country advising local groups on the preservation of their treasures, which often included the contents of old kitchens.

In later years she was senior editor of the Historic Preservation's quarterly publication, and was consultant to many cookbooks including the American Heritage Cookbook, (1965), and the Time-Life American Cooking: Creole and Acadian (1971).