If your home is anything like mine, you have way too many unfinished knitting (or some other craft) projects, more books than you can read in this lifetime, and cookbooks collecting dust on a shelf because you don’t really like to cook (at least, that’s my excuse for not using them).
With the upcoming release of the first book in a new series about a recipe box and its contents that are handed down through generations of a family, I thought some history about recipes might be interesting.
The first recorded cookbook is on four clay tablets from around 1700 BC in Ancient Mesopotamia. Unlike a few ingredients scribbled on the inside leaf of a notebook or a scrap of paper or even the other side of a grocery list, whoever wanted to save this particular recipe went to a lot of trouble. Dig the dirt, make the mud, write the hieroglyphics, bake it or let it dry in the sun, then carry it around in a sack of some kind and hope you didn’t drop them. These early recipes gave instructions for preparing a series of meaty stews.
For the next 3,000 years or so, recipes were stored on whatever was at hand. As you can imagine, not many remain today in their original form. There are some Egyptian tombs that carry what is thought to be ancient recipes, but that’s about all that we might find where they were “published”. Recipes also survive from Greece, China, and Persia.
|Photo source: http://collection.hht.net.au/images_linked/48266.jpg
Recipes were often saved on bits of leather, papyrus, early paper, or perhaps even carved into stone. However, once the printing press came on the scene, collections of recipes were often compiled for kings and royalty. One example is the 1390 edition of The Rules of Cookery, in which southern European ingredients such as saffron, sugar, almonds, and pasta are included. Servants, too poor to purchase these items for their own cooking, instead prepared them into delicious meals for the rich.
If a king could publish a cookbook that demonstrated the luxury of their banquets, this was a challenge to others in the peerage to present similar feasts. Chief stewards often couldn’t memorize all the new recipes coming out, so a cookbook was a great way to keep the recipes close to hand.
|the New York Public Library Digital Collections
In the 15th century, publishers sought to increase the audience for cookbooks. With public literacy increasing, cookbooks became less of a luxury. However, early on, each social class had its own cookbooks because of the differences in availability and affordability of ingredients. For example, The Poor Man’s Larder and Bourgeois Cooking wouldn’t be found on the same bookshelf. Eventually, new ideas formed about equality and democracy, and presenting certain books as best for rich or poor was no longer considered effective marketing.
In the 17th century, women’s roles within the household changed, with gentlewomen of landed gentry directed much of the activity on their husband’s estates, including cooking, brewing, baking, producing butter and cheese, making wine, dyeing textiles, and management of medicines. Cookbooks afforded them opportunities to use a variety of ingredients in cooking and baking.
However, in the 18th century, with more folks congregating in towns and depending on purchasing their food ingredients already partially processed from merchants in cities and towns, the recipes also needed to accommodate their needs, including differing forms of cooking ranges. Coal replaced wood as fuel, meaning many recipes needed adjustments.
Also in the 18th century, cookbook writers worked hard for greater precision regarding quantities of ingredients, cooking time, and temperature. It was at this time that an entirely new professional group—teachers in cooking schools and home economists—emerged, offering important lessons for housewives.
As recently as the late 1940s, following the second World War, food became about thriftiness, preservation, rationing, and efficiency. When industrialized, canned, and processed food gained popularity, cookbooks became more important. Coming up with cheaper dishes, or recipes with cheaper ingredients, became important, as did finding ways to use leftovers.
|Fannie Farmer: Cover of 1919 edition of The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book by Fannie Merritt Farmer Image courtesy of Smithsonian Libraries
In America, one of the first truly American cookbooks was published in 1896—The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. Filled with familiar recipes from a hundred years prior—such as Potted Pigeons, Creamed Vegetables, and Mock Turtle Soup—it also included concoctions that included cheese, chocolate, and ground beef. Cooks were introduced to recipes like Hamburg Steaks and French Fried Potatoes. Fannie Farmer’s methodical approach to cooking were precise, replicable, and perfect for Americans with newfangled gadgets like standardized cup and spoon measures. With families moving away from their families in ever-increasing numbers, there was no grandmother to learn from or mother to ask for advice. Fannie’s cookbook popularized the modern recipe format which we use today.
Thank heavens for visionaries like Fannie Farmer. Can you imagine trying to figure out how to make a cake using three pinches of salt, four handfuls of cake flour, a thimbleful of baking soda, and a ladle of sugar?
Nowadays, if you're anything like me, you find it easier to look up a recipe on your phone rather than digging through a book or a box of index cards. Still, there's nothing quite like a recipe on paper--complete with a stain here from butter or a fingerprint in molasses.
Happy cooking and baking!
About Recipe for Disaster: Book 1 The Recipe Box series, 1784
A spinster sister, left behind by her four younger sisters, feels unwanted and unneeded. But when three orphans and a wounded soldier turn up on her doorstep, her life takes on new meaning.
A man in search of his family—has he found them at last? But something isn’t quite right.
Can God weave these five lives into something beautiful for His glory, or will half-truths and missing memories create a recipe for disaster?
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A hybrid author, Donna writes squeaky clean historical and contemporary suspense. She has been published more than 60 times in books; is a member of several writers groups; facilitates a critique group; teaches writing classes; ghostwrites; edits; and judges in writing contests. She loves history and research, traveling extensively for both, and is an avid oil painter.
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Full of great resources: https://www.thefoodhistorian.com/historic-cookbooks.html