Plaice & Thyme:
The History of the Cookbook
In this episode of Eat My Globe, our host, Simon Majumdar, shares things you didn’t know you didn’t know about the history of the cookbook from the earliest written recipes to the beginning of the 20th century.
So, if you want to know what was the first written recipe ever yet discovered, the daily eating habits of Medieval Europe, and about how the writer of one of the biggest selling cookery books of all time died penniless, come and join us on this episode of Eat My Globe.
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PLAICE AND THYME: THE HISTORY OF THE COOKBOOK
Did you know that Professor Stephen Hawking once wrote a cookbook?
No, I didn’t know that Professor Stephen Hawking once wrote a cookbook. What’s it called?
A Brief History of Thyme.
A Brief History of Thyme. You see T H Y M E. There you go.
They get better and better-er every week. Right, let’s. . . let’s do this thing.
Hi everybody and welcome to a brand new episode of Eat My Globe. A podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food.
And, on this episode, we’re going to be talking about items of which my wife claims I own far too many. They are items whose roots started nearly 4,000 years ago, and yet they are still created by the thousands in every language today. And in the United States alone, nearly 18 million of them were sold in 2017. It’s an item that I am asked almost every day if I’m going to create one. It’s also an item that, I believe, can tell you a huge amount about any culture, and the ingredients that they consider important, sometimes even sacred.
So can you guess what this item is?
Yes, today folks, I’m going to talk to you about the truly fascinating history of the cookbook.
Break music, break music.
Now, before we get going on this episode, I’m going to add a few caveats.
As I said, there have been thousands of cookbooks published, and it would be impossible to list them all, of course, or even try and touch on all of those that have had significant impact. I shall try and pinpoint some of the key books along the way and hope that it stirs you to go and do your own reading.
I also recognize that with a few important exceptions, most of the books I mention will be those that were written in the English language. This is not at all to suggest that books that were not in the English language were not vital to the development of the art of cookbook writing. Of course, many of them were. However, limits of time mean that I may not hit on some important ones. So forgive me in advance.
Also, as our good pals at the Department of History at UCLA pointed out when they commented on this episode, it is worth pointing out that many of the earliest writings about food were actually about creating methods of healing rather than just sustenance. While I shall mention some of those books during the episode, I shall primarily concentrate on books where food is viewed for sustenance and pleasure rather than for its medicinal benefits.
And finally – quite a lot of caveats for this episode – finally, I shall finish this particular episode as we hit the beginning of the 20th century. Not because of any lack of great cookbooks in the last hundred years or so, but because once again – the limitations of time. Perhaps the history of cookbooks in the 20th century onwards would be a great subject for an episode of its own. What do you think?
Anyway. Okay, so with all those points aside, let’s get on with today’s episode.
As always, I like to start by finding a useful definition of what a cookbook actually is. That should give us a great starting point to go back in history to look for its origins.
The definition from our chums at Merriam-Webster is quite a simple one.
“a book of cooking directions and recipes.”
Which is, as I said, not only a very simple definition, but one that tells us at least that the best way of searching for the history of cookbooks is to begin with the search for the items they contain: recipes.
In most of the early period of the ancient world, we generally have no record of recipes from that era although it would be fair to argue that most recipes were not written down. The truth being that even once writing systems began to be developed, writing was primarily for the scholars, and most cooks were probably illiterate. The ingredients and methods for preparing different dishes were probably passed on from cook to cook through an oral tradition. For example, in ancient Egypt, we might see depictions of food being processed in hieroglyphics, but they would tend to be used as depictions of everyday life, rather than as instruments of instruction or a recipe. Although it is interesting that some have tried to use such images to recreate recipes at a later date.
So, a lot of our knowledge of recipes and the diets of the early period of the ancient world would be down to the work of archeologists and their analysis of ancient artifacts. We see this, for example, with an ancient beer recipe that we believe came from China some 5,000 years ago. The recipe was recreated by a group of students at Stanford University. With their Professor of Chinese Archeology, Li Liu, they examined the residue lining the internal walls of pottery excavated from what they believed to be an ancient brewery. From that, they were able to recreate the beer, which was made with millet and Job’s Tears, a form of grass. The result was more an alcoholic porridge than the beers we might know now but was a useful indication of the use of grains in ancient China for beer making.
The earliest written recipes of which we now have on record, come from the ancient world of Mesopotamia. It was an area that covered primarily what is now modern-day Iraq, but also parts of Syria and Turkey. Some of the recipes date from around 1730 B.C.E. and were found on three Akkadian clay tablets. The recipes had been carved in cuneiform, the Babylonian system of writing of the ancient Sumerians. They were translated by a Frenchman, Jean Bottero, from the Yale University Babylonian Collection of about 40,000 pieces. Then, a group comprised of Assyriology experts, culinary historians and food chemists worked to recreate the dishes. One of them was for a lamb stew and read
“Meat is used. You prepare water. You add fine-grained salt, dried barley cakes, onion, Persian shallot and milk. You crush and add leek and garlic.”
Bottero himself argues that the request to “prepare water” suggests the use of a stock or a bouillon.
It’s interesting that much of what we would look for in a current recipe – in terms of ingredients and methods of preparation – was present in this recipe from nearly 4,000 years ago. Bottero, however, noted that the recipes were quote, “extremely compressed,” in that they weren’t very detailed.
In any event, if you do try this ancient Mesopotamian recipe, do let me know and send pictures. I’d love to see them.
It is not until around 400 B.C.E., that we encounter the person who has been described as arguably the first cookery writer in history. His name was Mithaecus or Mithaikos and he was from what was then the Greek colony of Sicily in the city of Syracuse, now in modern-day Italy.
We know little about his life other than that he is believed to have introduced the Greeks to the cuisine of the colony of Sicily, a cuisine that was later considered the beginning of Greek fine dining. He is mentioned – not terribly favorably – in Plato’s work called, “Gorgias,” as someone whose contribution to fine dining was not healthy for civilization. Also, according to “Dissertationes 17.1,” by Maximus of Tyre, he was also expelled from the city of Sparta because of the indulgent nature of his cooking.
Mithaecus’ Sicilian cookery book is the first that we are able to find in history by a named person. Unfortunately, the book itself no longer exists, and we only know about its existence because he is cited three times in a series of works called, “Deipnosophistai” or “Deipnosophists” or “The Gastronomers” by Athaneus, a series that discussed many aspects of ancient Greek life in the form of an erudite discussion between two people over the course of a great meal.
Athenaeus quotes a recipe of Mithaecus discussing how to deal with a ribbon-like fish known as Tainia. A fish that is still known in Greece today as Kordella. Athenaeus says,
“ ‘Mithaikos in his cookery book says “gut the ribbon-fish, cut the head off, ,wash it and cut it into slices and pour on cheese and oil.” ’ ”
Athenaeus also discusses many other food writers in ancient Greece, the majority of whose writing is now, sadly, lost to us. These included Chrysippus of Tyanna, who wrote a book on baking breads and cakes. Paxamus, who wrote a cookbook and a book on farming techniques. And, Simus who also wrote a book known as, “On Cookery.”
Perhaps most well-known of all was another Sicilian Greek, Archestratus. His poem, “Hēdypatheia” or “Life of Luxury,” is known to us, as with Mithaecus, only through Athenaeus’ quotations. The “Life of Luxury” is believed to have dated from 330 B.C.E. In its poetic form, it offers a guide for diners in the Greek world, and how fine ingredients could be brought in from across the Greek colonies and how they could be prepared. The 62 quoted fragments also include recipes, primarily on fish, which Archestratus argues should be cooked simply and not overwhelmed with added flavors. Quite right too.
Here for example is his recipe for bonito or tuna, which he calls, “Amia.”
“The Amia. Prepare it by every method, in the autumn, when the Pleiad is sinking. Why recite it to you word for word, for you could not do it any harm even if you wished to? But if you desire to learn this too, my dear Moschus, the best way to present this fish I mean, then in fig leaves with not too much origano is the way. No cheese, no fancy nonsense. Simply place it with care in the fig leaves and tie them with rush-cord from above. Then put into hot ashes and use your intelligence to work out the time when it will be roasted: don’t let it burn up. Let it come from lovely Byzantium if you wish to have the best, though you will get a good one if it is caught near here. The further from the Hellespont, the worse the fish: if you travel over the glorious salt ways of the Aegean sea, it is no longer the same fish at all; rather, it brings shame on my earlier praise.”
Yeah, I agree with Archestratus. I am not a great fan of cheese on fish. Unless it’s a fish pie, of course. So there.
The sad loss of not just these writings on food, but so many writings from ancient times is one of the things I ponder on a great deal as a history enthusiast. We only know about their existence, as we do here, with extracts from them in later works. I often dream what it would have been like to visit one of the great libraries of the ancient world, such as the famous one in the city of Alexandria, and see the treasures that have been lost to time. Although, I do wonder if they would have thought cookbooks too frivolous to be worthy of inclusion in their fine halls of study.
Anyway, enough of my historical fantasies, let’s get back to the subject in hand.
One cookbook that we very much do know exists has recipes that date from the period of ancient Rome. “De re Coquinaria” or as it translates, “The Art of Cooking,” is believed to have been compiled in the 4th century C.E., but is attributed to a rich Roman and gourmand from some four centuries earlier, Marcus Gavius Apicius. I have also pronounced that Apicius [Ed Note: Ah-PEE-shoos] in other episodes before. I’ve heard it pronounced both ways but currently, I think, Apicius [Ed Note: Ah-PICK-use] is the way that most people say that. So, bear with me.
There were actually three people mentioned in ancient writings with the name Apicius, and each is commented upon for their love of luxury and fine food. The notion might be that the use of the word, “Apicius,” might have been used to describe anyone who was considered a gourmand.
The first mentioned Apicius lived in the first century B.C.E. He is mentioned for his love of luxury by author, Poseidonieus.
The third one mentioned is an Apicius who lived in the 2nd century C.E. under the reign of Trajan and who is noted for devising a method of long-haul transportation of oysters while maintaining their freshness.
However, it is the middle one of the three, Marcus Gavius Apicius, who we need to concentrate on. Scholars believe he lived in the 1st century C.E. under the reign of Tiberius. And it is to him to whom the book, “De Re Coquinaria” is widely attributed.
In her essay, “The Art of Apicius,” author Carol A. Dery says that Apicius was
“Renowned for his inventive genius in haute cuisine, he came to be regarded as the archetypical bon viveur, to such an extent his name became proverbial for wealth and gourmandry.”
I would love to be proverbial for wealth and gourmandry.
In all honesty, we don’t know a great deal about him. Athenaeus, who we mentioned earlier in the episode, refers to a biography of Apicius written by Greek grammarian, Apion. It was entitled, “On the Luxury of Apicius.” Unfortunately, this is another one of those books that is now lost to history. However, its very existence suggests that Apicius’ life was grand enough for someone to write about his love of luxury.
We also do have a few other references to his life.
For example, in Seneca’s “Epistles,” the Emperor Tiberius ordered a mullet to be auctioned off at the market.
“Tiberius Caesar ordered a mullet of enormous size that had been sent to him to be sent to the market and put up for sale. Why should I not mention its weight and excite the palates of epicures – they say it weighed four and a half pounds. Caesar said, ‘Friends, I shall not be surprised if either Apicius or Publius Octavius buys that mullet.’ His conjecture exceeded expectation. The two gourmands bid, Octavius was victorious and he gained a great reputation amongst his peers, since he had purchased for 5,000 sesterces a fish which Caesar had sold and which not even Apicius had succeeded in buying.”
Pliny the Elder mentions Apicius a number of times in his work, “Natural Histories.” Referring again to the fish, mullet, he declares that Apicius believed that it was best if it was prepared after being drowned in a fish sauce.
I. . . I must say though, I have eaten grilled fish in the Philippines dipped in fish sauce and I understand why Apicius liked it that way. Very delicious it is too.
Anyway, Apicius, also according to Pliny, had a liking for the odd flamingo tongue or two.
“…the most gluttonous gorger of all spendthrifts, taught that flamingo’s tongue has a particularly fine flavour.”
And, Apicius was prepared to travel in search of the best things to eat. Athenaeus tells us that Apicius once sailed from his home in Campania all the way to the coast of Libya – I roughly figured out that’s about a six-day round trip – in search of some particularly large prawns. When he got there and was met by a fishing boat, he was so disappointed by what they had on offer that he turned his ship around and sailed home without even going ashore.
Unfortunately, as we find out from a number of sources, Apicius’ luxurious life and gluttony was to be his undoing. Not, however, with the ill health that one would imagine might be associated with such indulgences, but more with the impact they had on his wallet.
Roman poet Marcus Valerius Martialis, known as Martial, tells us of his demise in a pithy epigram of Apicius.
“Apicius, you had spent 60 million [sesterces] on your stomach, and as yet a full 10 million remained to you. You refused to endure this, as also hunger and thirst, and took poison in your final drink. Nothing more gluttonous was ever done by you, Apicius.”
So apparently, the thought of relative poverty without access to good food was too much for Apicius, and he took his own life rather than live with the thought of no more flamingo’s tongues.
Marcus Gavius Apicius is believed to have come up with some of the recipes within “De Re Coquinaria,” which he pulled from the two books he is believed to have written during his own life. One of which was on the making of sauces. However, these formed only part of “De Re Coquinaria,” and were compiled along with samples from other authors. These included domestic suggestions from a writer named Apuleius, and writings from a medic named Marcellus, who lived during the time of Nero.
It’s also worth noting that “De Re Coquinaria” was written in a form of “vulgar Latin” as opposed to “classical Latin,” which Alan Davidson suggests in his Oxford Companion to Food meant that it was probably used as an “aide memoire” for the kitchen staff of the ancient wealthy Romans.
The book comprises nearly 500 recipes split into ten sections, where each have Greek titles. These subjects included minces, vegetables, legumes, poultry and inevitably a section for the quote, “Careful Experienced Cook.”
Davidson calls them,
“… a businesslike collection of recipes, apparently for banquets at which no expense was to be spared.”
The oldest Apicius manuscript is believed to be the “Fulda Manuscript,” kept in Fulda, Germany. It was then copied around 830 C.E. in the Carolingian script, which copy is located at the New York Academy of Medicine Library. The second copy written in Turonian script is in the collection of the Vatican. Both are definitely worth a look if your interests stretch to peering through antiquated books.
There are also online versions of the texts translated into English, if you wanted to give some of the recipes a try yourself.
In the 10th century C.E., we begin to see the first cookbooks emerging out of the Arabic world. And according to my friend, Yale Professor and author, Paul Freedman, in his book, “Food: The History of Taste,” these were perhaps the first cookbooks of medieval times to appear anywhere.
The “Kitāb al-Tabīkh” – or, in English, “The Book of Cookery” – was written by Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq to record the widely regarded Abbasid dishes of the aristocrats of the time. It is one of my favorite cookbooks to read. It contains over 600 recipes from classical Arabic cookery, as well as giving us a unique view of Medieval Islam, with its poems and its anecdotes. The book also contains hints on how to elevate a recipe – making sure the ingredients are clean; the pots and pans and cooking utensils are also clean; and keeping separate knives and cutting boards for meat and vegetables. All very good hints. He also includes some medicinal recipes, including what the author of the English translation, Nawal Nasrallah, calls quote, “the ultimate hangover cure.”
This is a dish called, “Kishkiyya,” which involves chickpeas, meat and vegetables with the addition of a product called, “Kishk,” which is a product made of fermented milk and whey.
As translated by Nasrallah, Al-Warraq also helpfully suggests,
“You need to know that drinking cold water first thing in the morning is recommended only for people suffering from … hangovers . . . . However, they should avoid drinking it in one big gulp. Rather, they need to have it in several small doses and breathe deeply between one dose and the other.”
Given that we all had a few to drink last night before we recorded this episode, that’s very good advice.
We actually see another culinary work of the same name, “Kitāb al-Tabīkh,” appearing in the 13th century. Despite the identical titles, this latter work is a different manuscript that was written in 1226 by Muḥammad bin al-Ḥasan bin Muḥammad bin al-Karim al-Baghdadi – how many points do I get for that in Scrabble – otherwise known, helpfully, as “Al-Baghdadi.” It is a book that is, perhaps, more personal than the previous book bearing this name and includes about 160 recipes of dishes that he personally enjoyed – including a very early version of that Greek classic, Moussaka.
Although not the earliest, the later “Kitāb al-Tabīkh” was a book that was to go on to have various revised versions and to have a long lifespan in use. It’s believed that copies of it were kept in the libraries of the Ottoman Empire into the 18th century.
As we move into the period known in the west as the “Medieval Period” – which stretched from the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 C.E. to the 14th century – and the flowering of the period known as the Renaissance, we begin to see cookbooks of a form begin to emerge from many nations across Europe, of which over 100 still remain today.
Some of these cookbooks would have been handwritten manuscripts and added to medical and pharmacist guidebooks. Others would have been elaborately done manuscripts with decorations. But most would have been in the form of a codex or book. And initially, these would have all been on parchment.
It would be impossible as I said to list every cookbook that appeared in the relatively short time we have for this episode, and perhaps not desperately interesting anyway just to parade a list of books. So, if you don’t mind, I am just going to highlight some of the books that I believe were most important from that time.
Hi everybody, this is Simon Majumdar, the creator and host of the Eat My Globe food history podcast. Now, those of you have been listening to the podcast since we began almost two years ago – nearly 50 episodes so far – will know that we have never sought out sponsorship for the podcast. It’s very much been a labor of love. However, along the way, a large number of people have approached us suggesting they would like to support the podcast. And so, we have opened up a page on Patreon dot com to allow those of you who listen regularly to do just that. Any support we will get will allow us to purchase research materials, buy ingredients for recipes, and maybe, when we can, get out and about to bring you some very special in-the-field reporting. But, this is not just a one-way street. For varying levels of membership of our Patreon club, there will be access to fantastic Eat My Globe swag, including that incredible chopping board that so many of you have written to me about, recipes based on the historical periods about which we chat each week, video shout outs, signed pictures, and even along the way, some very special episodes just for members. So, if you have enjoyed the podcast of Eat My Globe you’ve listened to so far, and would like us to make many more into the future, do head over to www dot Patreon dot com slash Eat My Globe and consider taking out a membership. Any support will be much appreciated. Remember, that’s www dot Patreon dot com slash Eat My Globe. So thank you very much, and keep on listening.
One of the earliest manuscripts known to have existed in Europe, is a collection of Northern European recipes entitled, “Libellus de Arte Coquineria.” It is a book that was published in four different versions including Old Danish, Icelandic and Low German in the 13th century, although it is believed that the material with in the work dates further back to the 12th century. And it remains one of the earliest culinary works known that is in the vernacular languages.
In France, we find a book known as, “Le Viandier,” or to give it its full name, “Le Viandier de Taillevent.” Now, according to my translation app, the word, “le viandier,” means “the meat maker.” The writing of the book was for many years attributed to a Guillaume Tirel, who was also known as Taillevent, which name means “wind slicer” and was given to him in the royal kitchens. There are only a handful surviving manuscripts of “Le Viandier,” including two from the 15th century and one from the 14th century, the latter of which is during Taillevent’s lifetime. However, a recent discovery of a manuscript in Sion in Switzerland contains not only many of the same recipes as those in the “Le Viandier” attributed to Taillevent but this recent discovery was also written in the 13th century – some years before Taillevent was likely born. It suggests that he perhaps later copied part of this existing work for his own uses.
Taillevent was probably born around 1315 and died in 1395. As a boy in 1326, he began his culinary career turning spits in the kitchens of Jeanne d’Evreux, the queen of France and wife of King Charles IV. Taillevent gradually rose through the ranks serving the Dauphin de Viennois as well as the Duke of Normandie, who later became Charles V. In around 1380, he became the Chief Cook or “Premier Écuyer de Cuisine” under Charles VI.
Given his elevated culinary status, the recipes in “La Viandier” exemplified dishes literally fit for royalty and other aristocrats. This can be seen in the use of and some more unusual and rare proteins such as cranes, swans and sturgeons.
In later versions, printed in the 15th century, we also see the importance of patés and tarts in French cuisine documented for the first time.
At the end of the 14th century, we also see the first of the great cookbooks of Medieval England. “The Forme of Cury: A Roll of Ancient English Cookery” was published in 1390, making it the oldest cookbook in the English language. The word “cury” – C U R Y – as used in this title, does not have any relation to the word, “curry” – C U R R Y – as we might use for food related to India. Instead, it is the Middle English term for “cookery.”
The book is believed to have been put together by the master cooks for Richard II, and the work begins with a statement that it has been given,
“assent and avysement of Maisters and phisik and of philosophie þat dwellid in his court.”
The book contains 196 recipes. They range from those that
“First it techiþ a man for to make cŏmmune potages and cŏmmune meetis for howshold as þey shold be made craftly and holsomly.”
That is, simple dishes for the household.
And it ranges to,
“curious potages & meet and sotiltees for alle manĕ of States bothe hye and lowe.”
That is, more extravagant dishes including sotiltees or subtleties, which were large and often ornate sculptures usually made with sugar, jelly or wax, and were placed on dining tables at the beginning of the meal.
Some of the more unusual dishes – even for that time – include ingredients such as seals, porpoises, cranes and whales. Also, this book is notable as it is the first time we see ingredients such as olive oil, cloves and mace mentioned in an English book.
At this point, if you will allow me, I want to skip away from Europe, and look at a book that appeared at this time in the East.
In 1330, Mongolian Emperor Tugh Temür received a cookbook. It was known as the “Yinshan Zhengyao,” which translates as “Proper and Essential Things for the Emperor’s Food and Drink,” written by a court nutritionist named Hu Sihui.
The book contains a combination of both culinary and medical recipes meant to provide healthy nutrition as well as reflect the international culinary influences of the court’s cuisine. Again, I think it shows us just how inextricably linked food and medicine have been in so many cultures across the ages. The recipes came from far afield including Turkic, Chinese, and from the regions in what is now Iraq and Iran.
Back in Europe, as we leave the Medieval and Renaissance periods and enter the period that is known as the “Early Modern Period,” which ranged from 1500 to 1800, a plethora of cookery books began to be published. This includes the 1597 publication of what is believed to be the first known cookbook authored by a woman – Anna Wecker, a German widow whose work was published posthumously by her daughter and son-in-law.
In addition to Wecker’s tome, many more cookbooks followed during this time period, in part, because of the arrival of the printed word in Europe. A period that began to see the movement of not just cook books, but all books away from the handwritten versions to printed ones.
In the mid-1450s in Europe, Johannes Gutenberg had first created the movable type press – which is an idea that had developed in China. As the idea spread across Europe and printing presses increased in number and developed in efficiency, their impact on the western world was incalculable. Many claim that this is one of the most defining moments in the history of mankind, as it took the spread of knowledge out of the hands of the few elites to at least a wider scope of society.
As Henry Notaker, author of “A History of Cookbooks: From Kitchen to Page Over Seven Centuries,” notes,
“When printing technology granted them the ability to reach a broader audience, they [publishers] began putting out cookbooks with gentlemen and their housewives in mind, not just kings and princes.”
These tended to be people who had their own estates and servants to tend them. These guides to household management and cookbooks were aimed at offering “vital” information on dealing with issues that might arise and the problems one might find with servants.
These books include such fine examples as, “The English Housewife,” published in 1615 and written by Gervase Markham. The book’s tagline included,
“The Inward and Outward Virtues Which Ought To Be in A Complete Woman.”
Ahem. That was Markham, not me, by the way. So, bear that in mind. No nasty letters.
In 1660, we have “The Accomplisht Cook, or The Art and Mystery of COOKERY,” which was written by Robert May at the ripe old age of 72. He wrote it after many years working in the kitchens of aristocratic families. It was published in a year that saw the Stuart monarchy restored to the throne, after two decades of civil wars and government without a monarchy, and consequently contains the sort of exuberance that one might expect from a country that had recently been deprived of much jollity.
The book contains “Bills of Fare” for each season of the year, including specially sumptuous indulgences for Christmas, a celebration that had, to all intents and purposes, been banned by Parliament in 1644. It also contains 21 ways to prepare an egg and a few recipes for Haggas or Haggis if you really want to give it a try.
Perhaps my favorite of this period’s cookery books, not just because of its wonderful title, but also because of the character behind it was, wait for it, takes deep breath,
“The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie, Kt. Opened: Whereby is Discovered Several Ways for Making of Metheglin, Sider, Cherry-wine, &c. Together with Excellent Directions for Cookery: As also for Preserving, Conserving, Candying, &c.”
Sir Kenelm had an interesting life. His father, Everard Digby, had been executed for his part in the Gunpowder Plot – an attempt to blow up the English Parliament in 1605 that is still commemorated every November the 5th as “Bonfire Night” in Great Britain. Sir Kenelm spent time as a privateer or pirate attacking French ships for their treasure. He fled from France after killing a French lord during a duel, promoted the use of quote, “sympathetic” powder, which he believed to have healing properties, and he was acquainted with the likes of Hobbes, Descartes and Galileo. Along the way, he made two contributions to food history. He wrote this book. And, in one of those “Eat My Globe” special facts that you can bore people with at dinner parties, he also designed the shape of the wine bottle that we still use today. Quite a chap.
Primarily, these books were authored by men. However, as we enter the 18th century and into the 19th century, we begin to see more books being authored by women. These were books that were to speak to the wives of the burgeoning middle class who lived more modest lifestyles than the elite classes, with smaller homes and fewer servants, but still had aspirations to emulate the lives of the aristocrats.
These included titles such as “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy,” which was published in 1747 by Hannah Glasse in part due to some previous poor financial decisions. Although almost forgotten now, this book was one of the very best sellers of its day and went through many editions and was in publication for almost a century. Unfortunately, this success was no great help to poor Hannah Glasse who had to sell the copyright of her book to her publisher in 1754 to pay off debts that had caused her to declare bankruptcy. She wrote two other works, but none were as successful as one of the most successful cookbooks of all time. We do have a few other episodes mentioning Hannah Glasse, including our episodes on “Fish and Chips” and “The History of Sugar.” So make sure to check them out also.
Another title in a similar fashion was “The British Housewife: Or The Cook, Housekeeper’s and Gardiner’s Companion” authored by Martha Bradley in 1756. The book came from a series of documents she wrote on a month by month basis, with discussions of what was in season and how to cure common illness.
And, moving into the 19th century, we would see published a title that I think is arguably the most famous British cookbook of all time – “Mrs. Beeton’s Cookery Book and Household Guide or Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management.”
Mrs. Isabella Beeton was born in 1836, and although she is actually portrayed as an older woman, was a mere 21 years old when the book was first published in 1861. She died at the young age of 28 while delivering her fourth child. She wrote her now famous book at a time when the Industrial Revolution was altering Britain immeasurably, and people were moving from a primarily rural economy to one that was based in the rapidly growing urban centers. And, her recipes – again many of them taken from earlier works by other authors – gave a clear and concise way of running a household and preparing everything from simple meals to grand celebrations. It was also the first cookbook to format recipes in the way we seem them now.
However, I think what is most interesting about Mrs. Beeton is the way that she was to become one of the first truly marketed food writers in history. Once she had passed away, both her publishers and her husband were determined not to let the success of her book fade away and did not even reveal to the public that she had died until much later on. A character was created for “Mrs. Beeton” far removed from the vibrant woman who had created the book, but instead portrayed as a matronly character with many years of wisdom and experience. It is a vision of Mrs. Beeton that is still used and marketed today.
If you want to learn more about Mrs. Beeton, we also talked about her in a few of our episodes including, our episodes on “The History of Breakfast Cereals,” and where I interviewed my good pal Mr. Alton Brown and challenged him to name five forgotten heroes of food history, amongst others. Please do go and listen. He selects Mrs. Beeton as one of the forgotten food heroes and the conversation that follows is definitely a very fun one.
These successful cookbooks in Britain would definitely have made it to the colonies in America and what became the United States of America. They would have been used well past the point at which the United States declared independence from Great Britain in 1776. Eliza Smith’s “The Compleat Housewife; or, Accomplished Gentlewomen’s Companion” was published in England in 1742, and was soon reprinted in Boston, New York and Philadelphia. However, it was not until some twenty years after the declaration of independence that what could be described as the first American cookbook was published.
Amelia Simmons’ “American Cookery” or to give it its full title, “American Cookery; Or, The Art of Dressing Viands, Fish, Poultry, and Vegetables, and the Best Modes of Making Pastes, Puffs, Pies, Tarts, Puddings, Custards, and Preserves, and All Kinds of Cakes, from the Imperial Plumb to Plain Cake, Adapted to this Country, and All Grades of Life” was published in 1796 and is the first cookbook written by an American and in the United States of America. The recipes within use American ingredients such as cornmeal. There are recipes for Johnnycake and Indian pudding as well as the very first recipe for serving cranberries with roasted turkey.
It was the beginning of a period at the beginning of the 19th century which would see a number of strands to the publishing of cookbooks in America, both seeing the publication of cookbooks from Great Britain, often with adaptations to make them more suitable to a U.S. audience and the publication of cookbooks by Americans for Americans.
It was a period that saw many cookbooks published including Mary Randolph’s “The Virginia House-Wife” in 1824, the first regional American cookbook, and a period that The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America calls
“the domination of the field by an influential and remarkable group of women who were not only recognized culinary authorities but also were active in all the major cultural and societal concerns of their day.”
I also want to take the opportunity here to mention the publication of the first cookbooks by African American authors.
In 1827, “The House Servant’s Directory: A Monitor for Private Families” by Robert Roberts became the first book written by an African American to be commercially published.
Roberts was born in 1780 in South Carolina. We are unsure whether he was born free or as a slave. He was also an abolitionist and opposed sending free African Americans to the then colony of Liberia in Africa. He worked as a servant in the United States, England and France. And his employers included Nathan Appleton, a Boston entrepreneur, and Charles Gore, a United States Senator and a Governor of Massachusetts. Roberts wrote his book during his employment with Gore.
The book was a guide for polite society in the pre-Civil War era, and contains tips and recipes including in the very first lines,
“In order to get through your work in proper time, you should make it your chief study to rise early in the morning; for an hour before the family rises is worth more to you than two after they are up.”
And even a tip for helping one’s employer recover from a hangover.
“Make the person that is intoxicated drink a glass of vinegar, or a cup of strong coffee without milk or sugar, or a glass of hot wine. Any of those articles are a most safe and quick remedy to recover a person from intoxication.”
The book was a great hit and was reprinted three times.
For many years it was believed that the first commercially published cookbook written by an African American woman was “What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking” written by former South Carolina slave, Abigail Fisher, and published in 1881. However, after considerable research by culinary historian Jan Longone, we now believe that it was preceded by a small thirty nine page pamphlet in 1866. It was written by a free woman of color, Malinda Russell, and entitled, “A Domestic Cookbook.”
Both books are available online and well worth reading. Abigail Fisher’s book shows some recipes that she probably learned cooking in plantation kitchens. For example, she notes that her recipe for blackberry syrup was
“an old Southern plantation remedy among colored people.”
The book also contains recipes for breads, broiled meats, croquettes, cakes, pickles, pies, puddings, preserves, roast meats, salads, soups and even food for nursing small children.
Malinda Russell’s book is much briefer, and the recipes inside are mainly for cakes and pastries, as she declares that she ran a pastry shop in Tennessee. Perhaps more interesting is her own self told story in the introduction of the book, which was a tough one, to say the least. She was robbed several times, flooded out of her property and faced with many challenges. It is even believed that most copies of her book were lost after a fire in her then-hometown of Paw Paw, Michigan.
Now, before we leave the subject of cookbooks, we have one more stop. As I am sure we’re all aware these days, many celebrity chefs publish cookbooks. Nearly all of my good colleagues on the Food Network have written at least one, and sometimes several cookbooks.
This might seem a relatively standard concept, but before I leave you, I wanted to mention two people who were the OG, shall we say, of today’s celebrity chefs, and whose books are too important to leave out of an episode on the history of cookbooks. They are Marie-Antoine Carême, and the one and only, Auguste Escoffier.
I have talked about both of these gentlemen in some depth during my episode on the life of Escoffier in season one of Eat My Globe, so I won’t go into detail about their lives now. But, please do go and listen to that episode if you get the chance. It’s one of which I am particularly proud.
To return to their books, however, Carême, the original of the celebrity chefs, wrote a number of works including “Le Pâtissier Pittoresque” or “The Picturesque Pastry Chef” in 1842 and “Le Maitre-d’Hotel Français, Traité des Menus à Servir à Paris, à St-Pétersbourg, à Londres et à Vienne” or “The French Head Waiter: A Selection of Menus to Serve in Paris, St. Petersburg, London, and Vienna” in 1842. However, his finest work is perhaps “L’Art de la Cuisine Française au Dix-Neuvième Siècle” or “The Art of French Cooking in the 19th Century.” It is a massive five volume work that defined French cooking and influenced western cooking techniques.
And finally, Georges Auguste Escoffier. The chef who perhaps, more than anyone, formulated the way that western kitchens are run today, and whose methods are still at the very heart of the teachings of modern culinary schools. It would be impossible to produce an episode on the history of cookbooks and not to mention at least some of his many works. If you have not yet read his books including “Le Guide Culinaire” or “The Complete Guide to the Culinary Arts” first published in 1903 or his very personal “Ma Cuisine” or “My Cuisine” first published in 1934, you are missing out on two truly important and influential works.
And, I think with mention of books by arguably the greatest chef of them all, that’s a good time to bring this episode to a close. So I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode. It was a great deal of fun to work my way through the pages of so many of these wonderful books and I hope it will inspire you to check out your own bookshelves and let me know if you have your own personal favorite cookbooks.
So I’ll see you next time folks.
Do make sure to check out the website associated with this podcast at www dot Eat My Globe dot com where we will be posting the transcripts from each episode, along with the references and resources we used putting the episodes together, in case you want to delve deeper into each subject. There is also a contact button, so please do let us know if there are any subjects that you would like us to cover.
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Thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar, we’ll speak to you soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE: Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Food.
The EAT MY GLOBE Podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions”
and is created with the kind co-operation of the UCLA Department of History. We would especially like to thank Professor Carla Pestana, the Department Chair of the Department of History and Doctor Tawny Paul, Public History Initiative Director, for their notes on this episode. Also, a huge thank you to Sybil Villanueva for her help with the research and the preparations of the transcripts for this episode, which can be found on the website.
Published Date: October 19, 2020
For the annotated transcript with references and resources, please click HERE.