Early Cookbooks and Recipes: Background information when reading The Cookbook Collector

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The Cookbook Collector

A Novel

by Allegra Goodman

The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman X
The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2010, 416 pages
    Paperback:
    Jul 2011, 432 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Cindy Anderson

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About this Book

Beyond the Book:
Early Cookbooks and Recipes

Print Review

In The Cookbook Collector, George purchases a large collection of old and rare cookbooks - all of which exist in real-life.

Cookbooks have a wonderful and interesting history. The earliest surviving recipe collection in English are the 200 or so recipes known as the The Forme of Cury ("The Rules of Cookery") which is believed to have been written on vellum around 1390 by King Richard II's chefs, but was not put into book form until 1790. Below is a sample recipe from that volume, along with my own modern translation:

Caboches in Potage (Cabbage Soup)
Take caboches and quarter hem, and seeth hem in gode broth with oynouns ymynced and the whyte of lekes yslyt and ycorve smal. And do (th)erto safroun & salt, and force it with powdour douce.

Take cabbages and quarter them, and soak them in good broth with minced onions and the whites of leeks that have been cut into small pieces. Add saffron and salt, and enrich with sweet spice.

The recipes compiled by Taillevent, head chef to Philip VI of France, in his 1395 volume Le Viandier ("The Food Provider"), are fancier than those found in The Forme of Cury - peacock, stuffed pig, eel soup, and swans "reclothed in their skin" were all featured on the royal menu.

Whereas the court chefs of earlier centuries were creating a record of what they had prepared, when women started to write cookbooks in the 16th century, they were practical texts for other women. Two such books mentioned in The Cookbook Collector are Eliza Smith's The Compleat Housewife (1727); and Hannah Glasse's The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747). For her audience of "gentlewomen," Smith included standard recipes as well as instructions for preserving, pickling and creating medicinals. Glasse's volume, on the other hand, was addressed to any domestic servant "who can but read."

Because writing, even of cookbooks, was not considered a proper activity, women tended to write anonymously even into the 18th century. In fact, the first edition of Glasse's highly popular book was simply signed, "By A Lady."

The first cookbook written by an American, American Cookery by Amelia Simmons, was published in 1796; before this American cooks used British cookbooks. Simmons' book was both popular and highly influential in developing a new style of cooking that utilized indigenous foods.

By the end of the 18th century, it was no longer uncommon to see a female author's name on a cookbook published in either the USA or Great Britain.

Images: Top: Woodcut from a 15th century German cookbook. Bottom: 1st Edition of The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy

Article by Cindy Anderson

This article was originally published in August 2010, and has been updated for the July 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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