The Cookbook Library

August 16, 2012


I am obsessed with cookbooks. I hear about a new one and have a one track mind until it’s on my kitchen counter or next to my bed. I have come to recognize a quick trip to Omnivore Books to pick up one book turns into an hour of browsing and leaving with an armful of titles. It’s worse since I can rationalize my purchases with the knowledge I can write them off on my income taxes.

My fixation was one motivator when I decided to write my first book. I thought it would be cool to have my name in The Library of Congress. It was.

I love books old and new. New ones with their innovative techniques and creative flavor combinations keep me current. Old ones show me where food has been and how it and even culture has evolved. You can imagine my delight then when I discovered, The Cookbook Library by Anne Willan. Published by University of California Press, it’s a cookbook about cookbooks. More specifically highlights from Willan’s and Mark Cherniavsky’s (her husband and co-author), vast vintage cookbook collection.

The Cookbook Library is a historical overview of cookbooks from the 13th to 19th centuries. The authors translate selected recipes from their original form into English. Even the old English recipes need translating. As one recipe sates “…butter your hoop…”. Each recipe is then updated to current recipe standards so they can be prepared by today’s cook.

I have skimmed through the whole book but am only halfway through reading it from the beginning. So far some of my favorite things I have discovered are:

  • Cookbooks were among the first books printed. Cookbooks in four languages (Latin, German, French and English) were printed before 1501.
  • Early books were for the upper class and nobility as they had access and ability to pay for ingredients.
  • Titles of books back then weren’t the quick catchy titles they are today. In 1552 Nostradamus published An Excellent and Most Useful Little Work Essential to All Who Wish to Become Acquainted with Some Exquisite Recipes.
  • English cooks primarily wrote cookbooks for home cooks while The French wrote books for professionals.
  • Not until the 19th Century did cookbooks focus on providing the number of servings in a recipe. At the time food many dishes were presented in a single course. Leftover food was served at another meal or given to servants.
  • Blanc Mange, the dessert we know today consisting of milk, almonds and sugar originally was made with any white meat or fish and thickened with bread or flour.
  • Weights have not always been standardized. They would fluctuate between regions and town. A little hard to send your recipe for chocolate chip cookies to your relatives two states over if they didn’t know the way you measured.
  • Fast Days were not periods where you refrained from eating. They only eliminated meat. Other foods were still allowed. (As opposed to feast days which always had meat.) And we thought Meatless Mondays was a new concept.

Whether you are a cookbook addict or someone who just wants to learn about the evolution of recipes, check out The Cookbook Library. You will find it a fascinating read.

One comment

  1. Now I have the uncontrollable urge to buy this book!I understand the obsession with cookbooks; it afflicts me too. I read cookbooks like novels…. Great food writing and skillfully written recipe collections are some of my favorite things!

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