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History of Cookbooks

Updated on July 4, 2010

Cookbooks go back to antiquity. They were used mainly by professional cooks until the end of the 18th century. The earliest traceable cookbook is a 9th century manuscript of the ancient De re coquinaria, believed to have had some connection with Marcus Gavius Api-cius, a Roman gourmet of the 1st century a. d. The first printed cookbook, De honesta voluptate (about 1475), by the humanist Bartolomeo de' Sacchi (II Platina), indicates the esteem in which cookery was held in Renaissance Italy.

Le Cuisinier franfais (1651), by Pierre Francois La Varenne, revealed the refinement French cooking had achieved. However, though the French were plainly better cooks than the English, they published comparatively few cookbooks compared with the large English output.

Cookbooks were written by men until the 18th century, when women began to write them, at least in England. Recipes continued to be sketchy until the development of the classic cuisine of the 19th century. This cuisine's elaborate procedures, which could be followed only by trained chefs, plus the increasing demand among the middle class for housekeeper-cooks (who lacked professional training as cooks), created a sharp division between cookbooks for professional use and those for use in the home. Eliza Acton, recognizing that home cooks needed explicit instructions, supplied such instructions in Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845). Probably the first basic cookbook, it gives exact quantities in each recipe, and specifies types of cooking dishes and exact cooking times. In 1859, Isabella Beeton published her Book of Household Management, devoted mainly to cookery.

Cookbooks in America

Except for Amelia Simmons' American Cookery (1796), the first cookbook by an American author, American cookbooks were reprints of English works until the late 1820's. Between 1828 and 1854, Eliza Leslie compiled the numerous volumes that established her as the leading American cookbook writer of her day. Her books contained the best of American regional cookery and such French recipes as she considered adaptable to American kitchens. From the outset, cookbook writing in America was dominated by women, including such 19th century leaders as Sarah Hale of Godey's Lady's Book and Lydia Child, Catherine Beecher, and Mrs. Horace Mann, who used cookbooks also to express their views on morals, temperance, and the need for pure food laws.

In the 1880's, cookbooks by cooking teachers brought better recipes to American cooks and, at last, began to print the exact quantities that Mrs. Acton's recipes had given English women 40 years earlier. The Boston Cooking School was probably the birthplace of this improvement; Maria Parloa, Mary J. Lincoln, and Fannie Farmer, principals of the school at different times, all sponsored this reform in their cookbooks. Standard measuring devices were the ultimate result. Mrs. Lincoln, in The Boston Cookbook (1883), was one of the first to tabulate ingredients at the head of a recipe. Fannie Farmer published The Boston Cooking School Cook Book in 1896. Now called The Fannie Farmer Cook Book, it is the longest-lived cook-book-4n America. Next in longevity is The Settlement Cook Book, first published in 1901.

American cookbooks proliferated in the 20th century. Many kitchens now have several cookbooks, but a basic one is essential. In addition to the Fannie Farmer Cook Book and The Settlement Cook Book, both continuously revised through the years and still among the best, excellent works include The Joy of Cooking (1931), by Irma Rombauer; The American Woman's Cook Book (1938), edited by Ruth Berolzheimer; and Picture Cook Book (1950), published by General Mills, Inc.

Cooks in search of inspiration for family and company dinners will find it offered in many books. Among these are The New York Times Cook Book (1961), edited by Craig Claiborne; Thoughts for Food, a volume of menus (1938); and Mildred Knopf's The Perfect Hostess Cook Book (1950).

Specialized Cookbooks

All national cuisines seem to please Americans today, but the favorites appear to be French, Italian, and Chinese, with gourmet cooks drawing heavily from the first two. Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961) by Simone Beck, Louisette Bertholle, and Julia Child, quickly became a classic in its field. Larousse Gastronomique (1938) is more an encyclopedia than a cookbook, but it is filled with gourmet ideas and gastronomical information. Italian cooking is covered expertly in The Talisman Cook Book (1950) by Ada Boni and The Art of Italian Cooking (1948) by Maria Lo Pinto. Chinese cookery, the ultimate in instant cooking, is clearly explained in a longtime favorite, How to Cook and Eat in Chinese (1945) by Pu-Wei Chao. An excellent work is Mrs. Ma's Chinese Cookbook (1961) by Nancy Chih Ma.

The cookout is typically American. Better Homes and Gardens Barbecue Book (1956) covers the subject well. Hazel Meyer's The Complete Book of Home Freezing (1953) is one of many books offering recipes and information on another American institution.

Cooking in small quantities receives special attention in Cooking for One (2d ed., 1964) by Elinor Parker and in Janet M. Hill's Cooking for Two (5th ed., 1951), first published in 1909, often revised and still a favorite. Special culinary arts are covered in such books as The Art of Cooking with Herbs and Spices (1950) by Mila Miloradovich, The Art of Fine Baking (1961) by Paula Peck, and Art of Cheese Cookery (1959) by Nika Standen.


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