A fascinating item in The Recipe Writer’s Handbook inspired this writing about the evolution of cookbooks and cookbook authors. As can be guessed, most of the few early cookbooks were written by men (from the late 4th to 14th centuries).
Around 1390, for example, a chef of King Richard II is credited with writing the first English cookbook (cookery book) called Forme of Cury. This book was actually a vellum scroll of recipes that included how to use exotic spices in everyday cooking. (The word cury is the Middle English word for cookery, and not a spice blend, I’m told.)
As literacy grew in the upper classes, women starting writing cookbooks and other running-the-household instructional books. These served to record the rich variety of food, tastes, cooking methods, eating habits, and even the local dialects. Some of the notable women cookbook authors through modern times have included:
Hannah Wolley (c. 1622-1674)
In 1661, she became the first female author to try and make money from writing and publishing a cookbook with her The Queen-Like Closet, or Rich Cabinet, which included easy-to-follow recipes.
Hannah Glasse (1708-1770)
Her The Art of Cookery was published in 1747 to assist the lower classes in cooking for their employers. Hannah wrote the book to help support her family, but ended up in debtor’s prison for a time. In 2006, she was the subject of a BBC documentary that called her the “mother of the modern dinner party.”
Elizabeth Raffald (1733-1781)
In her 1769 book, The Experienced English Housekeeper, Elizabeth’s 800 recipes have such clear directions and quantities, that you can still cook from them today.
Amelia Simmons (an American orphan)
American Cookery was published in 1796, and was the first cookbook to feature all-American ingredients (e.g. turkey, cranberries, cornmeal), and included recipes for hoecakes, cookies, and pumpkin pie. Her original work was often plagiarized relentlessly by less ethical cookbook writers.
Maria Rundell (1745-1829)
Publishing A New System of Domestic Cookery in 1806 was in response to a need for a domestic family cookbook (instead of one for large households or taverns).
Eliza Acton (1799-1859)
Her Modern Cookery for Private Families was aimed at the domestic reader instead of cooking professionals. She introduced the now common practice of listing ingredients and cooking times with each recipe.
Isabella Beeton (1836-1865)
The bestselling Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management in 1861 (aka Mrs Beeton’s Cookbook,) was a compilation about running a Victorian household and included recipes in a format still used today.
Fannie Farmer (1857-1915)
Her Boston Cooking School Cook Book of 1896 was the first cookbook to emphasize accuracy in measurements to obtain uniform results, which helped standardize the system of measurements used in cooking in America.
Irma Rombauer (1877-1962)
The Joy of Cooking, published in 1931, has become an American institution and one of the most influential cookbooks of the 20th century. It is an outstanding reference for preparing traditional American food.
Julia Child (1912-2004)
In 1961, her Mastering the Art of French Cooking became a best seller and one of the most revered cookbooks ever written by an American author. She became a television icon beginning in 1963 and paved the way for today’s popular food-oriented programing.
What I learned from this brief glimpse into cooking and cookbook history, is that cookbooks written by women have played an extremely important role in capturing the essence of a society at a particular era in time.
For an excellent commentary about this subject, read “Understanding Women’s Lives through Their Cookbooks” by Jean Robbins, from Virginia Culinary Thymes, Winter 2005.
A passage from Robbins’ narrative: “The cookbook heir and subsequent reader not only inherits a domain of cultural knowledge about cooking and household recipes, but receives a token of her female kin. A bond is created by possessing a kin’s physical artifact and is the means by which members of different generations become entwined with one another.”
When making your own cookbook, keep this concept in mind. You are preserving heritage not just for your own family, but for generations of others (perhaps non-relatives) who may one day see your cookbook as a window to life in the early 21st century.
Creating a cookbook is really recording history in the living of it!