The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Thursday, December 18, 2014

A History of Cookbooks

From Clay Tablets to Digital Applications

I tend to stay slightly behind the curve when it comes to the latest cool technology. After all, you're reading the scribblings of a guy who didn't own a color TV until the late '70s. But with all the new whiz bang cooking applications coming out for them there com-puter things, I may have to catch up a little quicker.

Actually, I am already a part of the electronic revolution. My collezione di ricette (that's “recipe collection” for you non-Italian speaking types) is stored on both my laptop and my tablet and it's also backed up on a flash drive, just in case. But I still have a pretty fair number of good old-fashioned cookbooks living in a bookcase parked in the corner of my kitchen. Some are as new as the latest from Mario Batali and some are golden oldies that my mother acquired when she was a young homemaker. It's kind of fun to compare the old and the new and see the changes in tastes, trends, and basic ingredients that have occurred in the last sixty years or so. In fact, cookbooks are among the more mutable reference works in our society, constantly changing to reflect not only current tastes and trends, but also indicating advances and innovations in culinary techniques and equipment. Nowhere, for instance, will you find the word “microwave” in any of my mother's venerable old volumes.

It seems mankind has been eating for quite some time now, and while there is no documentation of recipes being painted on cave walls, there are some carved in stone. Or, at least, in clay. According to Andrew Dalby (Food in the Ancient World From A-Z, [Routledge:London] 2003), Mesopotamian recipe collections found on three cuneiform tablets currently housed at Yale University date back to the seventeenth century BC and are considered to be the world's oldest known recipes.

Like our own Bobby Flay, the Greeks and Romans had culinary superstars who recorded their recipes. Greek poet and author Archestratus produced his masterpiece, Hēdypatheia (“Life of Luxury”), around 350 BC. Rather than a “cookbook” in the classic sense, however, it was a work about food and where to find good food in the Mediterranean world. It was intended to be read or recited at banquets and feasts, not used in actual kitchens.

De re coquinaria” ("On the subject of cooking") is the early Latin title given to the fourth century Roman cookbook now best known as “Apicius.” Sometimes attributed to Marcus Gavius Apicius, a first century Roman gourmand, and sometimes credited to “Apicius Caelius,” from the letters “API” and “CAE” found on the title page of a ninth century edition, “Apicius” is intended for use in the kitchen and is arranged categorically by ingredient, much as a modern cookbook would be. The ten books, or chapters, deal with the experienced cook; minces; foods from the garden; miscellaneous dishes; legumes; fowl; fancy dishes; quadrupeds; seafood; and fish.

Julia Child became famous in the 1960s for her “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” but in 1394, “La Ménagier de Paris” was touting recipes forBlank Manng” (aka Chicken Blancmange) and “Payn Fondewe” (or Pain Fondue). One of the first known French cookbooks, it also contained instructions for preparing frogs and snails, delicacies still associated with French cuisine.

Around the same time, England's Richard II commissioned “Forme of Cury,” a book on how food was to be prepared and served to the noble classes. Although compiled around 1390, the book did not acquire its curious title until an antiquarian named Samuel Pegge published it from an old manuscript in 1780. Here's a sample recipe:

“For to make Gronden Benes – Take benes and dry hem in a nost or in an Ovene and hulle hem wele and wyndewe out (?)e hulk and wayshe hem clene an do hem to see(?) in gode broth an ete hem with Bacon.” [The ? in parentheses represents a character my keypad will not duplicate.]

Basically, here we have a poor man's dish of ground beans dried in a kiln (“nost”), hulled and winnowed (“wyndewe”) from their shells and washed, then soaked in a prepared broth and eaten with bacon. Sounds yummy, no?

Long before Giada De Laurentiis, Lidia Bastianich, and Mario Batali set pen to paper (or fingertips to keyboard), Renaissance Italian cooking master Martino di Rossi, or Maestro Martino of Como, considered by some to be the first “celebrity chef,” gave the culinary world his “Libro de Arte Coquinaria” (“The Art of Cooking”). Written around 1465, Maestro Martino's work is the first known culinary guide to specify ingredients, amounts, cooking times and techniques, as well as specific utensils.

The printing press revolutionized the cookbook industry by essentially creating it. Whereas handwritten books on cookery were previously held only by the very wealthy and utilized only by cooks in their employ, the advent of commercial printing brought affordable cookbooks to common kitchens.

Bartolomeo Platina's “De honesta voluptate et valetudine” ("On Honest Pleasure and Good Health.") published in Venice in 1475, is generally considered to be the first printed cookbook. Bartolomeo Scappi's “Opera” (“Works”) followed in the next century, depicting culinary activities in the Vatican kitchen where the Italian cook was employed as a private chef to Pope Pius V. Scappi was among the first cookbook authors to define regional Italian cuisine.

Of course, in the world outside the palaces and mansions, women were in charge of cooking the daily meals. But what cookbooks there were were primarily written by men for the use of men employed in the kitchens of the palaces and mansions. That began to change with the publication in 1670 of "The Queen-Like Closet, or Rich Cabinet, Stored with All Manner of Rare Receipts for Preserving, Candying and Cookery: Very Pleasant and Beneficial to All Ingenious Persons of the Female Sex", written in England by Hannah Woolley (sometimes “Wolley). The first female cookbook author, Woolley's books were the first published for the benefit of servants working for the upper classes as well as for those of a lower social station. Many of her recipes were scaled down versions of the elaborate fare enjoyed by the upper crust. More than a cookbook, the tome also contained household tips and medical advice, which some modern critics opine was probably necessary after attempting some of her recipes.

The first American cookbook was also authored by a woman. Amelia Simmons, who identified herself as “An American Orphan,” published “American Cookery, or the art of dressing viands, fish, poultry, and vegetables, and the best modes of making pastes, puffs, pies, tarts, puddings, custards, and preserves, and all kinds of cakes, from the imperial plum to plain cake: Adapted to this country, and all grades of life” in Hartford, Connecticut in 1796. Although not the first cookbook printed in America, it was the first written by an American for an American audience. (Previous books, such as 1742's “The Compleat Housewife,” were reprints of various British publications.) Simmons was the first to attempt to incorporate indigenous American ingredients, such as turkey, corn, potatoes, cranberries, and squash into her recipes. A popular book, it saw printing for thirty years following its initial appearance.

Had the Food Network existed in the nineteenth century, Britain's first “celebrity chef,” Alexis Benoist Soyer, would likely have been one of its stars. Chef de cuisine at London's Reform Club, Soyer once catered an intimate little breakfast for two thousand celebrating the coronation of Queen Victoria. He also pioneered cooking with gas and advocated ovens with adjustable temperature controls. Like any good Food Network chef, he had his own product line that included a revolutionary table top stove, which he called his “magic stove.” And, like any good Food Network chef, he wrote popular cookbooks for the masses. His “A Shilling Cookery for the People: Embracing an Entirely New System of Plain Cookery, and Domestic Economy” was probably the world's first bestselling cookbook. Published in 1855 by George Routledge and Company, it sold more than 100,000 copies, mostly to the target audience described in its introduction: “the artisan, mechanic, and cottager.” Although a chef to the stars of his day, Soyer was greatly concerned by hunger and nutrition among the poorer classes. The creator of the first practical “soup kitchen,” Soyer wrote his recipes based on basic nutritional needs utilizing ingredients readily available to the common household.

These few references represent only a glimpse into the hundreds of cookbooks generally available by the late nineteenth century. As in today's market, there were numerous published volumes on all aspects of cookery from high to low, complex to simple. Examples include Elizabeth Smith Miller's “In the Kitchen”(1875); Abby Fisher's “What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cookery” (1881); and “Favorite Dishes. A Columbian Autograph Souvenir Cookery Book” compiled in Chicago in 1893 by Carrie V. Shuman and consisting of recipes provided by “Lady Managers of the World's Columbian Exposition.”

But by far the most popular and influential cookbook of the time was “The Boston Cooking School Cookbook,” published in 1896 by Fannie Merritt Farmer. Still in print more than a hundred years later, the groundbreaking tome came simply to be called “The Fannie Farmer Cookbook.”

Born in Massachusetts on March 23, 1857, Fannie was being groomed by her progressive and education-oriented parents to be formally schooled at a college, but her academic future was jeopardized by a paralytic stroke suffered at the age of sixteen. Bedridden and unable to walk for many years, Fannie eventually recovered sufficiently, although she retained a pronounced limp for the rest of her life, to take employment as a “mother's helper” with a local family. She developed a strong interest in cooking, and at age thirty sought enrollment in the influential Boston Cooking School, one of the schools on the cutting edge of the domestic science movement then sweeping the country. An extremely adept student, she was kept on after graduation as an assistant to the director. In 1894, Fannie took over as the school's principal.

In a sense, the publication of “The Boston Cooking School Cookbook” was the birth of the modern cookbook. Fannie Farmer more or less codified the modern system of measurements employed in cooking and it was through her influence that the recipe format still in use today was developed.

Prior to her groundbreaking work, recipes – or “receipts,” as they were often called – were inexact, to say the least. A “pinch” of this, a “dash” of that, a “smidgen” of something else, a “piece of butter the size of a walnut,” “sufficient salt,” “bake until it looks done;” these were the common expressions used in recipes of earlier days. Fannie Farmer's cookbook revolutionized cooking by introducing the use of standardized measuring spoons and cups as well as level measurement, leading to her sobriquet “the mother of level measurements.” In publishing her book, Farmer expanded on a previous work published twelve years earlier by former principal Mary J. B. Lincoln. Although she was sometimes criticized for not acknowledging Lincoln's contributions, her work was directed more to the home cook than to the scholar, as Lincoln's book had been. Farmer's book combined essential recipes with basic food science. The first chapter of the book, entitled simply “Food,” states: “Food is anything which nourishes the body.” It then goes on to enumerate the elements of which the human body is comprised and the percentages thereof, before describing the necessity of food as an agent of growth, repair, and energy. The various sections are meticulously detailed, giving explanations that go on for pages about the hows and whys of the way foods and their component ingredients work.

The recipes themselves establish the modern format of title, ingredient list, and procedure. Most previous recipe collections assumed a reader's familiarity with a given dish and merely provided basic reminders of how the dish was to be prepared.

Still available in print, a 1918 version of Fannie Farmer's legendary cookbook can be found online at According to the site, chose the 1918 edition because it was the last edition of the cookbook authored completely by Farmer.

The next leap forward in cookbook history came in the form of “The Joy of Cooking.” Self-published by St. Louis homemaker Irma S. Rombauer in 1931, the book has sold more than 18 million copies and is considered a staple not only in home kitchens, but in professional kitchens, as well. It has been revised and updated many times over the years. The original edition included sections on cooking squirrel, raccoon, and opossum, for instance. After Rombauer's death in 1962, various editors, working with and without Rombauer's descendents, contributed to the content of the book, often creating controversy over whether or not the edition in question was “real.” “Real” or not, a 75th Anniversary Edition was released in 2006 and the book remains an extremely valuable and popular resource for both the beginner and the more experienced cook. Considered a collectable by some, detailed information on each of the eight authorized editions is available online at .

Of course, no discussion of the history of cookbooks would be complete without the inclusion of the landmark volume compiled by Julia Child under the title "Mastering the Art of French Cooking."

American by birth, educated at Smith College, and a member of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) during WWII, Julia was living in Paris with her diplomat husband, Paul, when she was inspired by French cuisine. Enrolling at the famed Le Cordon Bleu, Julia embarked on an amazing culinary career. Her 1961 publication of "Mastering the Art of French Cooking", a collaborative effort with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, was a major milestone in that career. Originally rejected by publishers for its encyclopedic nature, the 734 page opus ultimately caught the eye of the Alfred A. Knopf publishing firm. Its release was an immediate hit, due in part to its timeliness.

Americans in the late '50s and early '60s were undergoing a “Continental chic” phase in which nearly anything Italian or French was instantly in vogue. There was a French chef in the Kennedy White House and French cooking was all the rage. Julia's timely book capitalized on the wave sweeping through fashionable American kitchens.

More than just an instrument of a fad, though, "Mastering the Art...." was and is a truly remarkable work. Just how remarkable is best explained by Knopf Senior Editor Judith Jones, credited with “discovering” Julia Child: “I realized how totally inadequate the few books that dealt with French food really were. They were simply compendiums of shorthand recipes and there was no effort to instruct the home cook. Techniques were not explained, proper ingredients were not discussed, and there was no indication in a recipe of what to expect and how to rectify mistakes. So the home cook, particularly an American home cook, was flying blind.

Yet here were all the answers. I pored over the recipe, for instance, for a beef stew and learned the right cuts of meat for braising, the correct fat to use (one that would not burn), the importance of drying the meat and browning it in batches, the secret of the herb bouquet, the value of sautéing the garnish of onions and mushrooms separately. I ran home to make the recipe--and my first bite told me that I had finally produced an authentic French boeuf bourguignon--as good as one I could get in Paris. This, I was convinced, was a revolutionary cookbook, and if I was so smitten, certainly others would be.”

Others were, indeed, smitten and, more than fifty years later, the book remains the ultimate authority for preparing authentic French dishes in American kitchens. One caveat: this may not be a book for the casual microwave cook raised on Betty Crocker or Better Homes and Gardens. One of the aspects of Julia Child's work that sets it apart from so many others is the fact that each and every recipe is meticulously detailed. The ingredient list and instructions for the aforementioned boeuf bourguignon run three pages in length. “No substitutions,” Julia cautions in the ten-page treatise on French bread found in Volume 2, the 1970 sequel to her classic work. Julia personally tested and re-tested every recipe. She weighed and measured not only the raw ingredients, but the cooked results. She timed everything. She checked temperatures on everything. She examined, re-examined, and adjusted her methodology. Her attention to detail is legendary. So, while "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" is a superb reference work, it may not necessarily be the ideal first cookbook for the culinary novice.

Today, cookbooks are everywhere. They are available in every price range. They cover every possible culinary interest – and some impossible ones. I, for example, have a copy of the "Star Trek Cookbook" in my collection. A little closer to our century, "The Astronaut's Cookbook" enables home cooks to simulate the foods today's space travelers eat. Want to eat like “The King?” "The I Love Elvis Cookbook,"  "Fit for a King: The Elvis Presley Cookbook," or "Are You Hungry Tonight?: Elvis' Favorite Recipes" might be just what you're looking for. Cookbooks “authored” by singers, actors, sports figures, and celebrity chefs overload bookstore shelves. Political candidates courting support have produced cookbooks chock full of “traditional family recipes.” Political causes have cookbooks, too. Witness Political Palate: A Feminist Vegetarian Cookbook.” Churches and civic organizations raise tons of money selling cookbooks full of sometimes questionable member-submitted recipes. You'd likely overload your CPU if you tried to download every recipe available online. If you really want to go “old school,” copies of many of the ancient works I referenced in this article are also as close as your computer. And let's not even get into the area of monthly, bi-monthly, quarterly, and annual recipe-laden magazines populating display racks in every supermarket in America.

So why not not ditch the cans, frozen trays and microwave pouches? Instead, gather some ingredients, grab a cookbook and cook something “for real” tonight. As you've now learned, people have been doing it for ages.

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