Cookbooks Past and Present: A Story of Sharing

by Lorene Sarne

When I was ten years old my mother gave my two sisters and me her cookbook so that we could make a marble cake for her bridge party. The recipe was simple and if followed exactly, foolproof. We made an eye-popping Technicolor marble cake and I have been baking ever since.

The last time I looked, the small, local library in Rockville, MD had 19 cookbook-filled shelves. Cookbooks fill the area’s bookstores’ cooking shelves, and the choices on the Internet seem to be endless. Where did it begin? Cookbooks have been around for hundreds if not thousands of years. A clay tablet from ca. 1700 BC Babylon contained recipes for some elegant meals and is believed to be one of the oldest on record. 

Cookbooks are collections of recipes handed down from generation to generation. My grandmother gave her recipes to my mother, who passed them on to me. But depending on the recipe, a reader might have a difficult time trying to figure out what the cookbook author meant. The recipes might not have used the standardized measurements we are used to today. For example, I had to watch my mother make some of my grandmother’s recipes to learn the proportions of ingredients to use. Further, cookbooks published during the 15th and early 16th centuries, reflected the assumption that the chef knew the proper proportions of ingredients and cooking times. In those days, recipes did not include the details we are familiar with today, like recipe titles, ingredient lists, temperatures, and cooking times.

A 16th century recipe for sugar cakes (what we know as cookies) for example, reads something like this: Take a pound of butter and wash it in rose water, and halfe a pound of sugar, and halfe a douzen spoonefulles of thicke Cream, and yelkes of 4 eggs, and a little mace, finely beaten, and as much fine flower as it will wette, and worke it well together then rolle them out very thin, and cut them with a glasses, and pricke them very thicke with a great pin, and lay them on plates, and so bake them gently. 

Cookbooks that were published up until the 18th century were generally only used in wealthy households. The mistress of the household would read the recipe to the cook who prepared the mixture; servants in those times were not supposed to be able to read.

Cookbooks came to Colonial America from England in the 1700s, but it wasn’t until 1796 that Amelia Simmons published the first American cookbook, American Cookery, when cookbooks began to be written for the middle class and were being used in their homes. One of the most successful and popular cookbooks was produced in the U.S. in 1896, when Fannie Merritt Farmer took on the editorship of The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook. Farmer was the first to standardize the methods and measurements of her recipes, assuring reliable results for her readers. 

A well-written cookbook provides a cook with guidance to make a dish fit for a king or just plain delicious. On the other hand, a cookbook that is confusing or unclear would make cooking a chore rather than an opportunity to provide sustenance and pleasure. If cooking is a challenge, trying to figure out what a “pinch of thyme” means could put off an aspiring cook. And when it comes to baking, with its even more tightly controlled chemical reactions, the difference between the cake batter overflowing the pan rather than just rising to the top could be a mere one quarter teaspoon of baking powder.

Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook, published in 1950, guides the beginning cook through soups and souffles, to creating sauces that cover meat and fish. The unexpected hint of nutmeg hiding in a white sauce that blankets a poached salmon tantalizes the tongue as it enhances the salmon’s taste. Americans’ desire to expand their cooking repertory exploded with Julia Child’s TV appearances. Her down-home style allowed viewers to imagine cooking the recipes she prepared on TV in their own kitchens. Her co-authored cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, first published in 1961 and reprinted 11 times, was designed to inspire cooks to enjoy producing “something wonderful to eat.  This cookbook focused on French culinary techniques, but at a detailed-enough level that inexperienced cooks could use. I still use this cookbook despite the additional hundreds of recipes in my collection.

These days the “Food Network,” “America’s Test Kitchen,” and “Milk Street” are just three of multiple television programs that focus on food preparation by bringing in drama and excitement, and highlighting the art and science associated with cooking. Not to mention the myriad of blogs and podcasts published by home cooks and chefs sharing their recipes and cooking techniques on the internet: YouTube is rife with these. Many of the featured chefs have become national celebrities. However, for me, while being able to see how the cooks prepare the food on TV is valuable, I still prefer a printed cookbook: I don’t have to try and memorize the recipe or frantically jot it down.

When I was beginning my career as a chef, my teacher told me that the best book to learn about cooking was Madeleine Kamman’s The Making of a Cook. In her book Ms. Kamman said, “…cooking is a creative activity, too little practiced and too little enjoyed,” and implored her readers to explore the inherent fun and creativity in cooking and to share these feelings with the food they prepared.  Perhaps this is why I have always experimented on my guests.

My father passed away shortly after his 80th birthday, and while his illness made our celebration bittersweet, my sisters and I recreated that multi-colored memory of our youth by making pink, green, blue, violet, yellow, and white meringues for him; his esophageal cancer preventing him from eating anything more substantial. Cooking was one way we shared our life’s journey; inviting our guests to laugh about our first Technicolor dessert.

Bibliography

Foodpairing Blog, http://blog.foodpairing.com/2015/09/inspired-by-the-oldest-clay-tablet-cookbook-in-the-world-1700-bc/

Francine Segan, Shakespeare’s Kitchen, Renaissance Recipes for the Contemporary Cook, Random House, York, 2003 p. 203

The Cook’s Palate, http://www.cookspalate.com/cookbook-history.htm

Simone Beck, Louisette Bertholde, Julia Child, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Random House, New York 1996Madeleine Kamman, The Making of a Cook, Atheneum, New York, 1971, p. xi.

2 thoughts on “Cookbooks Past and Present: A Story of Sharing

  1. I immediately recognized the picture of the cookbook you included. And indeed I do own it! It was an inheritance from my mother-in-law, a phenomenal chef who worked alongside her mother in the kitchen at The Trocadero restaurant in San Fransisco many years ago. Thank you for reminding me to get it out and use it!
    (My edition in 1964.)

    Like

  2. Dear Darleen, Thank you for your comment and sharing your memories. I hope you enjoy cooking the recipes from your legacy.

    Like

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