A history of cookbooks

A history of cookbooks

It never occurred to me that to discover the origins of, for example, the staggeringly successful Jamie’s 30-Minute Meals by Jamie Oliver (the fastest-selling non-fiction title of all time in the UK) I would have to scramble up the dusty sides of the hill of Sheikh Abd el-Qurna, outside Luxor in Egypt. For there, in a tomb carved into the limestone mountain, can be found the beginnings of food publishing, albeit not as we know it. 

These days, publishing a recipe is pretty simple. A few strokes of the keyboard and one’s blog is updated, there to be disseminated, hopefully, to the masses. But around 4,000 years ago the only place recipes were being written down was in the tombs of the nobles. Those pleasures that they wished to have replicated in the afterlife – happy experiences, rituals, good memories – were painted onto the walls. So it is our good fortune that Senet, either the wife or mother of a senior Ancient Egyptian official, loved her flatbreads so much that their making was painted carefully and in great detail onto the wall of her burial chamber. 

The dissemination of recipes became a little less elitist as time went on, however, with recipes being carved onto stone tablets. These then gave way to scrolls of parchment, but the concept of the cookbook was still far in the future. Recipes appeared in poems, for example. The Sicilian foodie, Archestratus, recorded his findings in classical Greek hexameters. Or food was mentioned in more worthy tracts. In 160BC, Cato the Elder, a moralistic Roman official, detailed how to salt ham in his tome De agri cultura (On Farming). It appears adjacent to a note on how much a slave’s rations should be reduced should he be so audacious as to fall ill. 

It is also in Rome that we see the first ever collection of recipes published, albeit quite some time after Cato’s preachings, in AD10. Marcus Gavius Apicius’ De re coquinaria (Of Culinary Matters) is a bumper read of some 500 recipes and stems from a time when Rome reached its zenith. Apicius endowed a school of cookery and was a master of sauces. His recipes show the vastness of his larder, which would have hung with hare, pork, lamb and endless fowl.  

He had a vast fortune but gradually lost it as his spending outstripped his income. Down to his last few million sestertii, he threw one final epic banquet and poisoned himself during the last course. It is an extraordinary testament to his recipes that his book is still in print today.  

As the centuries marched on, more and more recipes were being written down around the world, but not in a form that we would be familiar with today.  

Written in manuscripts, on vellum scrolls, The Forme of Cury, for example, from 1390 and written by the “Master-Cooks of King Richard II”, is more aide-memoire to the cook than a practical cookbook. But it does reflect the gargantuan feasts and banqueting excesses that were par for the course in medieval times. Provisions are recorded, for example, for a feast given by the king and the Duke of Lancaster on 12 September 1387. One hell of a shopping list, it includes: “14 oxen lying in salt… 120 carcas of shepe fresh… 140 pigges… 210 gees… 400 conyngges [large rabbits]… 12 cranes… 11 thousand eggs…” On and on it goes: it must have been quite a catering operation. 

It was the same in France. In 1420 Chiquart Amiczo, master cook and party planner extraordinaire, in his Du fait de cuisine, includes a recipe for Parma tarts. It calls for three or four pigs, 300 pigeons, 200 baby chickens, 100 capons and 600 small birds. 

Early cookbooks did not solely feature recipes: food was only ever just one aspect. Mrs Beeton’s late-19th-century Book of Household Management was not novel in detailing everything from how to calculate your income tax, apply a bandage or deal with bad dreams alongside ideas for roly-poly jam pudding and veal olives. Thomas Dawson’s The Good Huswife’s Jewell of 1596 explains how
“to restore speech that is lost suddenly” (you push a concoction of herbs up your nose) and includes an early diet plan – “For to make one slender” merely requires the brewing up of some fennel tea. 

In the French 1392 work Le Ménagier de Paris (The Good Wife’s Guide), the anonymous writer – an elderly gentleman – in addition to many recipes, included advice for a young wife: “Protect him [your husband] from holes in the roof and smoky fires, and do not quarrel with him, but be sweet, pleasant and peaceful with him,” is one helpful hint. Another being: “Make certain that in winter he has a good fire without smoke and let him slumber, warmly wrapped, cosy between your breasts, and in this way bewitch him.” 

But such manuscripts had a small distribution. The first, large-scale printed cookbook came in 1475 from Rome-based writer Bartolomeo de Sacchi. His De honesta voluptate et valitudine (On Honourable Pleasure and Health), was credited with dragging cooking from the medieval dark ages into the enlightened Renaissance. With its 250 recipes, it was revolutionary in everything from ingredients to technique. His recipes heralded the birth of modern Italian cooking and were translated into at least four European languages.  

But the book also heralded another major trend: plagiarism. All but ten of his recipes were copied word for word from a manuscript by Martino de Rossi of Como written ten years previously.  

Likewise, the contents of the first ever printed English cookbook, published in 1500, This Boke of Cokery, were mainly lifted from the 1440 manuscript the A Boke of Kokery. In 1746, Hannah Glasse published her famous tome, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. People might say that she was the original domestic goddess. What they don’t tell you is that 263 of her 972 recipes are copied word for word from a 1737 title called The Whole Duty of a Woman. Worse still, in 1783 John Farley, chef of the London Tavern in Bishopsgate, published his London Art of Cookery complete with 798 recipes – all but one lifted from the manuscript of a woman called Mrs Raffald.  

It seems the trend has not abated. Recipe theft is today prevalent on the internet, with one editor of the US food site epicurious.com saying, “People steal our recipes. Our content shows up in places we never agreed to.”  

When books weren’t being written simply as thieving enterprises they were promoting the endeavours of the author. Edward Kidder’s 1739 The Receipts of Pastry and Cookery promoted his cookery school, which was in London’s Cheapside; Marthe Distell’s 1895 La Cuisinière Cordon Bleu did similarly, as did the 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cook Book by Fannie Farmer and Darina Allen’s 2001 Ballymaloe Cookery Course. But as brands grew over the course of the 20th century, so did books published to promote them. There were books from: Oxo in 1908, US chocolate makers Walter Baker & Co in 1916 and Campbell’s soup in the same year. Likewise promoters of new kitchen technology churned out cookbooks to encourage the uses of fridges and ovens – the charmingly titled The Radiation Cookery Book servicing the latter.  

Such books as these claimed to be assisting in the ongoing liberation of women. But since the new-fangled kitchen tools involved were replacing servants, women actually felt more chained to the kitchen than ever.  

Cooking became a drudgery and it took the likes of Elizabeth David, with her 1950 A Book of Mediterranean Food, to bring some glamour to the kitchen, celebrating delicious ingredients and the spirit of warmth from sunnier climes. 

Half a century on, Nigella Lawson was practising a similar game with her 2000 book How to be a Domestic Goddess. As she encouraged women to get baking, she claimed to feel liberated by the feel of dough in her hands. Critics screamed that Lawson was actually encouraging servitude. It is just “a short step from baking to domestic enslavement,” wrote one critic in the Daily Mail.  

But while some argued for and against the joys of cooking, other food writers struck a more serious tone, suggesting that the increase in consumerism was damaging the planet. The first book to put the case for the environment was Diet for a Small Planet in 1971. “What was heresy, what was fringe when I wrote [the book],” author Frances Moore Lappé later reflected, “is now common knowledge.”  

Her book is heralded as a publication that revolutionised the way many Americans eat and served as a turning point for how many people viewed food consumption and production. 

Many have followed in her wake. Joanna Blythman exposed the “shocking power of supermarkets” in the UK in 2004 with Shopped; Felicity Lawrence revealed “what really goes into the food on your plate” in Not on the Label in the same year. Andrew Whitley slated the industrial bread-making process in Bread Matters (2004), in which he detailed the emulsifiers, preservatives and enzymes in mass-produced loaves.  

Of course, the past ten years have seen an explosion of books linked to TV series, with the one promoting the other. With most books by a Gordon Ramsay or Jamie Oliver linked to TV, one might think it impossible for anyone else to get a look in. Yet today, perhaps more than ever, food books are being written by a burgeoning new generation of food writers. There are the likes of James Ramsden (Small Adventures in Cooking), Felicity Cloake (Perfect) and Alice Hart (Alice’s Cookbook), for example. And vitally, all of these new writers are fully engaged in the blogosphere and Twitter to promote their work.

Four centuries ago, it helped if you had a tomb if you wanted your recipe written up for posterity. Now all you need is a website. 

William Sitwell is the author of A History of Food in 100 Recipes, published by Collins