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History of Cooking

Updated on April 24, 2011

The most important factor in the early development of cooking was the discovery and control of fire. The first cook probably made his discovery by accident. A bit of raw meat probably fell into a fire, and man, realizing it was tastier and easier to chew, became the only animal to cook his food.

The first method of cooking was broiling. An animal or bird was placed on the end of a stick and held over a fire until it was considered sufficiently well done. Later it was discovered that food tasted better when, before cooking, the covering of fur or feathers was removed and the insides of the beast or bird were taken out and replaced with a stuffing of grain and herbs. Man next discovered that food cooks more quickly and evenly on a spit, or metal rod, that conducts heat to the inside. Roasting on a spit was important until 100 years ago. It is still used in outdoor barbecues.

Another major advance in cooking was the use of a heated flat stone for frying and baking. This method was also the earliest way of baking bread. As metals came into use, the flat stone was replaced by a sheet of iron or copper. A later development was the oven, which at first was probably a hole in the ground that was lined with stones and filled with fire. When the fire had burned to ashes, food was put in and covered with large leaves. This method of cooking is still used by some primitive peoples. Early brick or stone ovens were also filled with hot coals, but the coals were raked out before the food was put in. The food cooked while the stones cooled.

Before food could be boiled, it was necessary to have a vessel that could hold boiling liquids. Animal skins, closely woven baskets, soapstone containers, and kettles made of bark served this purpose long before pottery was used. Since these vessels could not be placed over a fire, they were filled with water into which heated stones were dropped.

As various methods of cooking developed, man became interested in controlling his sources of food. At first all food was provided by nature, and it consisted of wild animals, birds, fish, fruit, nuts, and vegetables. The domestication of wild animals began in about 8000 B.C. when man first tamed cattle, sheep, goats, and other animals. The cultivation of grain and other crops began at about the same time, and man was soon able to exert some control over his food supply.


Ancient Cookery

The earliest records of cooking were left by the ancient Egyptians. Wall paintings that date back to 4000 B.C. indicate that the Egyptians were adept at roasting, frying, broiling, and boiling. The Bible contains several references to ancient methods of cooking, and early carvings from Assyria and Babylonia show the use of charcoal in pans, a cooking method still practiced by the Japanese in special braziers, called hibachis.

To the ancient Greeks, food was merely an accompaniment to good conversation and good fellowship. A typical Greek meal consisted of roast meat, bread, wine, fruit, nuts, and a salad served with a tart dressing. In the Roman Empire, cooking began to be considered an art. The Romans brought back food ideas from all over their empire, and simple meals were replaced by elaborate banquets that included such delicacies as snails and dormice. Many chefs specialized in disguising food, and a legendary Roman dinner, described in the 1st century A.D. by the Roman satirist Petronius Arbiter, was climaxed with the appearance of a carved hen sitting on a nest of eggs. Each egg was actually a pastry shell containing a roasted ortolan, a tiny bird.

An indication of the eating habits of Middle Easterners during the 8th century a.d. can be obtained from a section in the Arabian Nights that describes the shopping spree of a lady of Baghdad. The lady's purchases include a large jar of excellent wine, apples, apricots, peaches, lemons, citrons, herbs in vinegar, 25 pounds of boned meat, capers, cucumbers, parsley, walnuts, pistachio nuts, almonds, almond patties, cloves, pepper, nutmegs, and ginger. The boneless meat was probably served in the form of a kabob, which consists of chunks of meat and vegetables broiled on a skewer. Desserts in Baghdad were rich and heavy.

Medieval Cookery

In the medieval world, food prepared in castles, monasteries, and palaces was very different from food eaten by the peasants. The average man had no kitchen, and most of his food was bought from a cookshop. In the great houses, however, there were huge kitchens equipped with all kinds of kettles, saucepans, skewers, and other utensils. Bread was made in tall ovens shaped like beehives, and roasts were carried to the table and served on the spit, each guest carving off his own portion. Dinner included game, a roast, white bread, and custard or a pudding.

Renaissance Cookery

With the beginning of the Renaissance individual cooks began to acquire considerable fame. When Catherine de' Medici left Italy to marry Henry II of France, she brought along her chef.

Under Louis XIV great advances were made in cookery. His second wife, Madame de Maintenon, who was a fine chef, founded a school at Saint-Cyr, France, for orphaned daughters of French army officers. Girls who won honors in cooking were awarded a blue ribbon, and the term cordon bleu ("blue ribbon") is still the highest compliment a cook can earn. Bechamel, the favorite cook of Louis XIV, had a sauce named for him, and the famous chef Vatel is the hero of a classic story. Vatel supposedly committed suicide when the lobsters ordered for a banquet to be attended by Louis XIV failed to arrive on time.

The rise of the great French restaurants began just before the French Revolution, and in 1789 there were 100 restaurants in Paris alone. One of the great chefs of this period was Marie Antoine Careme, who cooked for Czar Alexander I, Talleyrand, and Baron Rothschild. Another famous chef was Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who published The Physiology of Taste (La Physiologie du gout, 1825), one of the first books on cookery, as distinguished from cooking.

Rise of Cookbooks

Literature on cooking began with the ancient Greeks, who included a few references to food in their dramas and epic poems. The Romans took greater pains to describe their elegant banquets. During the Middle Ages the training of cooks began with an apprenticeship, as did most other occupations. Boys and girls about nine or ten years old were placed under the supervision of a cook who taught them his methods of cooking. Since few cooks could read, recipes were rarely written down. The first recorded cookbook was printed in Spain in the 14th century. In the 15th century the cooks of King Richard II of England wrote their Forme of Cury, a manual of cooking.

One of the first English cookbooks, The Widow's Treasure, appeared in 1625, and it was soon followed by others. The most famous American cookbook is the Boston Cooking School Cook Book, which was written in 1896 by Fannie Merritt Farmer. This book has been revised several times, and nearly 3 million copies have been printed, making it one of the all-time best sellers.

Since the appearance of the first cookbooks, written recipes have become more and more specific. In the early cookbooks, directions were quite general. They called for such quantities as "the size of a walnut," a "pinch," or a "smidgeon," and the exact measurements were frequently left to the cook's judgment. Because of these vague directions, it was very difficult for anyone to learn to cook. However, it is now possible for an inexperienced cook to produce an appetizing dish by following directions in modern cookbooks.

Modern Cookery

As the sciences of chemistry and physics have progressed, new knowledge has been applied to the preparation and preservation of food. One of the biggest changes came in the middle of the 19th century, when the cast-iron range began to replace the open fireplace. Advances in transportation, refrigeration, freezing, and canning have made it possible to obtain and preserve a wide variety of meats and other foods. Electricity has proved useful not only in kitchen stoves, but also in mixers, waffle irons, rotisseries, blenders, frying pans, and coffee makers.

One of the major advances in modern cookery has been the development of frozen foods. Vegetables, fruit juices, rolls, fish fillets, and entire meals may be purchased frozen in packages. Another relatively recent advance in food preparation is the development of packaged mixes. Using these mixes, even an inexperienced cook can quickly and easily prepare cakes, cookies, brownies, muffins, and other baked goods.

Every day new scientific developments are being applied to cooking. Improvements in kitchens and in cooking utensils are constantly being made. One of the most recent developments is the electronic oven, which cooks by a complicated process of microwaves. In this oven, which produces heat only in the food, not in the container, a cake can be baked in three minutes, and roast beef requires only six minutes of roasting per pound. However, certain foods, such as omelets and pies, are difficult to cook satisfactorily with microwaves, and there will still be room in the kitchen for the chef to whom cooking is an art.


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    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Great hub! In my opinion, cooking didn't really get interesting until Louis XIV's time- but once it hits that general time period, boy, it just blows my mind

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      8 years ago from San Francisco

      Great Hub! In my opinion, cooking didn't really get interesting until Louis XIV's time- but once it hits that general time period, boy, it just blows my mind!


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