And then, there’s Schubert.

We could name the musicians that rise to the top of the list in Western art music, and it’s an impressive list: Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Debussy … But then, there’s Schubert, a name we tag onto the end as almost an afterthought. Oh, yes, then there’s Schubert. Little Franz, the “Schwammerl” — little mushroom. 

I don’t know why he is so often forgotten, or left at the remainders pile. In almost any terms you want to define quality or greatness, he is right there, a shiny, bright face, almost a puppy dog demanding our attention.

Oh, he gets his kudos. No one can talk about lieder, or art song, without putting Schubert’s name at the top of the menu. But, he belongs there with his piano music, his chamber music, his choral music, too. And three of his symphonies have never left heavy rotation in the repertoire. 

Each time I have overlooked his music and hear one of the three late piano sonatas, or the final quartets, I think: There is nothing better than this, not in Beethoven or even in Bach. It is emotionally powerful, harmonically rich and melodically persuasive. And then I find myself in a Schubert-orgy for the next week or so, realizing over again how deeply profound and psychologically acute is his music.

So why is he so often relegated to the also-rans? It was that way from the beginning, when little Franz lived in Vienna under the dark shadow of Beethoven. Schubert wrote thousands of compositions during his sadly short lifespan, but very little was published or performed during his life. Mostly his music was shared with friends at dinner parties — or “Schubertiades” — where he and his musician buddies would gather to play music, hoist a few, and sing along. 

He was little over five feet tall and pudgy, with a double chin and a button nose that held up tiny spectacles. He had a hard time finding his place in society, trying at times to be a school teacher and at other times to earn a living as a music tutor. None of it clicked. 

But from the earliest age, he could write really good music. He wrote his first symphony (now only a fragment) when he was just 14. The official Symphony No. 1 came just two years later and was written for his family to play — everyone in the house played an instrument. 

He was one of the great musical prodigies. We think of Mozart or Mendelssohn — who wrote his famous Octet when he was just 16 — but Schubert composed his first genuine masterpiece, “Erlkönig,” when he was 17.  He wrote well over a thousand pieces of music before he died at the age of 31 in 1828, just a year after Beethoven. Mozart, in contrast, lived to the ripe old age of 35. 

Perhaps Schubert lags in popular estimation because he was such a slipshod worker. He left more unfinished pieces than any other great composer, sheaves of piano sonatas left as torsos, a movement here or there, and other bits left in fragment. His most famous symphony, after all, is the “Unfinished Symphony.” 

And perhaps he lags because his melodies are so memorable, they may be mistaken as facile. Beethoven, after all, hardly ever wrote something you could hum distractedly as you polish the silverware. Da-Da-Da-Dumm is hardly a tune. Schubert is endless song. 

And because we think of melodies as lightweight compared with, say Wagner or Brahms, we may think of Schubert as emotionally trifling. “Wer hat das schöne Liedlein erdacht?” “Who wrote this pretty little ditty?” Couldn’t be more wrong. 

Schubert has perhaps the widest range, emotionally, of any other composer. On one hand, he wrote what has to be the happiest, bounciest, most joyful music ever, the “Trout” Quintet, and the single bleakest, most desolate music ever, the C-major String Quintet. (I’ve written about the “Trout” before.) 

The String Quintet is another beast. Written for two violins, two violas and two cellos, it is most often named, when such lists are drawn up, as the greatest piece of chamber music ever written. My late friend, Dimitri Drobatschewsky, who was a longtime music critic at The Arizona Republic in Phoenix, when he died at the age of 90, had requested the quintet be played at his funeral. The slow movement, in particular, is about the deepest and most profound that music can reach — which is rather deeper and more profound than any words can reach.

Schubert had an intimate relationship with death. He learned several years before his own death that he was suffering from what has been subsequently diagnosed as mercury poisoning (which likely also killed Beethoven), typhoid fever, or tertiary syphilis (mercury was a common treatment for syphilis). He wrote his final works — the final three piano sonatas, the final three string quartets, and the String Quintet, with the full knowledge of his looming extinction. These works, along with his final two symphonies and song cycles, are the height of his achievement. At the same age, Beethoven was just writing his first symphony. One can only imagine what Schubert might have written if he had lived even to Beethoven’s young 56 years old. 

It is a miracle that someone who barely left Vienna during his life, and who had only lived three short decades, could write with such expressiveness about such dark matter. 

Take his final and greatest piano sonata, in B-flat. It opens with a jaunty and optimistic tune that is almost immediately interrupted by a low trill on a G-flat — a note not in the key of B-flat major, but injected from its minor. It is a discordant lowered sixth that resolves to the dominant and leaves an uneasy feeling, as if happiness was being threatened by a baleful presence. That sense of immanent evil or impending doom keeps returning, even as the first movement comes to a seemingly positive conclusion — and then, there’s that threat, that bottom-feeding trill, again. No good will come of that. 

I listen again to a performance of that sonata by Artur Rubinstein, made in 1965, and start sorting through my CDs — I suppose I am about to begin another weeklong Schubert marathon. I’ll certainly go through the quartets and sonatas, even the symphonies. But mostly, I will dive deep into the two great song cycles, Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise. 

The last is a 24-song cycle setting poems by Wilhelm Müller that tells the tragic story of a man betrayed by his lover; he wanders through town and country dropping deeper and deeper into madness and depression. It would be hard to find a more trenchant exposition of German Romanticism that this song cycle. 

My late wife, Carole, loved to make music with others and often did so. I have no meaningful ability on any instrument, but was once persuaded to join her in singing “Gute Nacht,” the first song of the Winterreise cycle. It is tuneful and although it is strophic, the last go-round switches from minor key to major, with a stroke like lightning. The effect it had on me, in my pathetic attempt to sing to her piano accompaniment led me to attempt to translate Müller’s poems into English. 

The odd thing was that the further I went along, the more I found myself not so much translating as re-imagining. “Gute Nacht” turned out to be a more or less literal translation, beginning with the first stanza:

But by the time I got to the end, the devastating and desolate “Der Leiermann,” in which our protagonist finds himself back in the village listening to a hurdy-gurdy man and imagines his tragedy sung to the accompaniment of the pathetic little squeeze-box, I had left the original behind altogether. Schubert’s music for the entire song never leaves a single A-minor chord played as a slow pulse to the lament. The effect is a complete collapse of our hero’s personality. 

My version of Müller’s poem also left 19th century Germany and shifted to what I thought was the parallel situation in our own time. The whole series of my translations was in itself a metamorphosis from the original style of Müller to my own voice — in other words, I took the poetry seriously and personally, which is what the best art always gives us. 

There are many great recordings of Winterreise available. Among the best are four different versions by baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, made with Gerald Moore, Jörg Demus, Alfred Brendel and Daniel Barenboim in turn at the piano. They are all near perfect, but I have always favored the first, with Moore. But my favorite is even older than that one: Hans Hotter with Moore, recorded in 1954. Hotter’s voice is more bass than baritone and gives added heft to the work. 

Other Suggested Recordings

It’s hard to suggest a CD of the “Trout” Quintet: I have never heard a bad one, although the one I love most is by Alexander Schneider with Peter Serkin, David Soyer, Michael Tree and Julius Levine. You can never go wrong with Schneider. 

The three final quartets, including the “Death and the Maiden” and with the String Quintet, are all in a box with the Emerson Quartet and Mstislav Rostropovich on the second cello. Not a shabby addition. 

There is an 8-disc box of piano sonatas by Mitsuko Uchida that is a great performance and a bargain to boot. 

For the symphonies, you can hardly do better than a set by Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin Philharmonic, which is currently selling for under $15. But you should also check out two very different ideas of the “Great” C-major symphony (usually listed as No. 9) by Wilhelm Furtwangler and Arturo Toscanini. I should have said “Furtwangler vs. Toscanini.” 

But in this short overview, I have not had room for so many masterpieces. I have not mentioned the Arpeggione Sonata, the Fantasie in F-minor for Two Pianos, the Moments Musicaux, the “Wanderer” Fantasy, the Impromptus, or the simply titled, “Three Pieces,” which rank up there with the sonatas. Or the hundreds of other lieder that he wrote, to say nothing of the masses and the choral works. And there are operas, too, with beautiful music, if silly plots that make them almost unperformed anymore. 

There is much music that is meant only to please the ear, and Schubert wrote his share of that, too. But music can plumb the depths of human psychology, and provide a sonic metaphor for the most profound emotions and thoughts — at a depth where thought and emotion cannot be told apart. The best of Schubert’s music takes us there. 

This is the 600th blog entry I’ve written since retiring eight years ago from the writing job I held for 25 years. But as I’ve said many times, a real writer never retires, he just stops getting paid for it. 

During my career, I wrote over 2.5 million words. Since then, I’ve added another million. If you are born a writer, you simply can’t help it. 

(In addition, since 2015, I’ve written a monthly essay for the website of The Spirit of the Senses salon group in Phoenix, Ariz., a continuation of the many salon lectures I gave there for years.)

And even when I write an e-mail to friends or family — the kind of note that for most people contains a short sentence, a quick “LOL” and an emoji — I am more likely to write what looks like an old-fashioned missive, the kind that used to come in a stamped envelope and delivered by a paid government worker. An e-mail from me will take a while to read through.They are sent not merely to convey information, but to be read. They have been written, not just jotted down. 

Over the eight years of blogifying, I’ve covered a great many topics. Many on art and art history — I was an art critic, after all — many on history and geography, a trove of travel pieces, a few frustrated political musings and a hesitant offering of oddball short stories (if you can call them by that name.) 

People say, “Write what you know,” but most real writers, myself included, write to find out what I know. The writing is, itself, the thinking. Any mis-steps get fished out in the re-writing. 

Ah, words. I love words. I love sentences, paragraphs, chapters. Although I wrote for a newspaper, where short, simple sentences are preferred, I often tested the patience of my editors as I proved my affection for words by using obscure and forgotten words and by using them often in long congregations. 

“I love long sentences. I’m tired of all the short ones. Hemingway can keep them. Newspapers can urge them. Twitter can mandate them. To hell with them.

“My ideal can be found in the long serpentine railways of words shunted hither and thither over dependent clauses, parenthetical remarks, explanatory discursions and descriptive ambiguities; sentences such as those found in the word-rich 18th century publishing world of Fielding, Sterne, Addison, Steele, or Boswell, and perhaps most gratifyingly in the grand, gravid, orotund sentences of Edward Gibbon, whose work I turn to not so much for information about the grandeur that was Rome, but for the pure sensuous pleasure to be had from those accretive tunes built from the pile of ideas and imagery (to say nothing of ironic asides), and peppered liberally with the notations of colons, semicolons, dashes and inverted commas.”

The love of words fuels a fascination with paronomasia. I make up words, play with them, coin spoonerisms and mondegreens and pepper my everyday speech with them. As music critic, I reviewed sympathy orchestras. Sometimes I have trouble trying to mirimba a name. On my shopping list I may need dishlicking washwood. 

I often give my culinary creations names such as Chicken Motocross, Mentil Soup, Ratatootattie, or  — one I borrowed from my brother — Mock Hawaiian Chile. 

When my wife came home from work, I usually asked “How did your Italian?” (“How did your day go?”)

When asked for my astrological sign, I say, “I’m a Copernicus.” My late wife was a Virago. And I’m pretty sure our Orange Bunker Boy was born under the sign of Feces. I call him a would-be Moose-a-loony.

I try to keep unfashionable words in currency. On long car trips with granddaughters, we didn’t count cows, we counted kine. I tend to refer to the girls as the wee bairns, or the kidlings. 

I have no truck with simplifying the language; I will not brook dumbification. The more words we use, the better, and the better inflected those words will be. As we lose words, the slight difference in emphasis and meaning is lost, and a simple word then has to do extra duty to encompass ideas and things that are better understood as different. 

Every word has a dictionary definition, but that definition is little but the skeleton on which the meat and muscle is hung onto. Each word has a nimbus of meaning and affect around it, which is learned by its speakers and readers through long acquaintance. You can always tell when someone has snuffled through a thesaurus, because the fancy word they choose has been stripped of its nimbus, or has an aura that is the wrong color for the spot in which it is placed. In other words, such a writer doesn’t really know the word that has been chosen. The Webster version is only a fuzzy black-and-white photo, not the real thing. 

I have written before how sometimes, instead of doing a crossword puzzle or rearranging my sock drawer, I will make lists of words. Each has a flavor and reading such lists is like perusing a restaurant menu and imagining the aroma and flavor of each offering. It is a physical pleasure, like the major or minor chords of a symphony. Here is a brassy word, there the pungency of an oboe, and over there, the sweet melancholy of a solo cello. 

I think all writers must have something of the same feel for the roundness, spikiness, warmth, dryness or wetness of words. And the way they connect to make new roundnesses, coolnesses, stinks or arousals in sentences. 

Yes, there are some writers — and I can’t pooh-pooh them — who use words in a blandly utilitarian way. Stephen King, for instance, is a great storyteller. He can force you by a kind of sorcery to turn pages. But on a word-by-word level, his writing is flavorless, almost journalistic. I suspect this is a quality he actually aspires to — to make the language so transparent as to be unobservable. I have to admit there are virtues in this, also. But not for me. 

I want a five-course meal of my words. 

Language can take either of two paths: prose or poetry. The first invests its faith in language as a descriptor of systems. It reaches its nadir in philosophy. It makes little difference if it is Plato or Foucault; philosophy — especially the modern sort — is essentially a branch of philology. It seeks to deconstruct the language, as if understanding the words we use will tell us anything about the world we live in. It tells us only about the language we use. Language is a parallel universe to the one we inhabit, with its own rules and grammar, different from the rules and grammar of the real world. 

This has been a constant theme in my own writing. When we say, “A whale is not a fish,” or “A tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable,” we are talking about language only, not about whales or tomatoes. But beyond the language we use to communicate our understanding of the world, no matter how vast our vocabulary, the world itself is infinitely larger, more complex, diverse, chaotic and unsystematic, not to be comprehensively understood by mere mortal. 

And I should clarify, by language, I mean any organized system of thought or communication. Math is just language by other means. When I use the term “language” here, I mean what the Greeks called “logos” — not simply words, or grammar, syntax or semantics, but any humanly communicated sense of the order of the cosmos. Not one system can encompass it all. 

Consider Zeno’s paradox: That in a race between Achilles and a tortoise, if you give the tortoise a headstart, no matter how little, Achilles can never catch up. Before he does, he has to go halfway, and so is still behind the tortoise, and before he goes the remaining distance he must go again halfway. Thus he can never catch up. The paradox is purely in the forms of logic, not in the reality. We all know Achilles will catch up in only a few strides. But the system — the logic, or the words — tells us he cannot. Do not trust the words, at least not by themselves, without empirical evidence to back them up. 

All systems of thought, whether religious, political or scientific, ultimately break down when faced with the weedy complexity of existence.

And so, a good deal of what we all argue about is simply the words we choose to use, not the reality. We argue over terminology. Conservative, liberal? Is abortion murder? These depends entirely on your definitions. 

Poetry, on the other hand — and I’m using the word in its broadest and metaphorical sense — is interested in the things of this world. Yes, it may use words, and use them quite inventively, but its goal is to reconnect us with our own lives. It lives, not in a world of isms, but in one of mud, tofu, children, bunions, clouds and red wheelbarrows. This is the nimbus of which I speak. 

It is ultimately our connection with our own lives that matters, with the things of this world, with the people of our lives that should concern us. It is what provides that nimbus of inexactitude that gives resonance to the words. 

The Long Nineteenth Century began in the waning years of periwigs and knee britches and didn’t end until World War soured everything. In between, it was the age of Victoria, of expansive optimism, of smug colonialism, of scientific, commercial and engineering progress, of George Stephenson, Richard Trevithick, and Isambard Kingdom Brunel.  

It was also an age of the sacralization of middle-class family life and a sentimentalized ossification of gender roles. Even the queen acted like a bourgeois burgheress. But if women were ever more restricted in their fields of endeavors, they picked up the slack by becoming ever more powerful within those limits. They were, among other things, accorded the authority to run the households, including family finances, hiring and firing servants (even modest middle class families had servants), the dealings with merchants and butchers, and complete oversight of the kitchens. The men might have the offices and streets, but the women were domestic executives. (I am not making the claim this was a fair trade; please don’t shoot me.)

And many seized that power and made good with it. Cookbooks were already ceded to the fairer sex, but most of them wrote a single cookbook and had done with it; in the 19th century, several women upped the ante and turned their cookbooks into an almost industrial level, and became franchises, pumping out books in their names one after the other, as proto-Martha-Stewarts. They became brand names.

Earlier, in the previous century, there arose an appetite for books written for women, either as family cooks, or ladies in charge of a servant kitchen. The first such book was published in 1674 by Hannah Wolley; she was followed by Mary Kettilby, Eliza Smith, Sarah Harrison, Elizabeth Moxon, Susannah Carter, Elizabeth Raffald and Amelia Simmons — the last being the first cookbook author in America. And Hannah Glasse, who wrote the best-selling cookbook of the 18th century. 

The following century begins with books very like those of the previous century. Ages don’t develop their character with the flipping of a calendar page. The first best-selling cookbook of the new century was Maria Rundell’s A New System of Domestic Cookery: Formed Upon Principles of Economy; and Adapted to the Use of Private Families from 1806. It was much like its predecessors, but better organized. The book went on for 67 editions, and usually known generically simply as “Mrs. Rundell.” In addition to recipes, it offered advice on how to set up a home brewery, and the usual medical prescriptions and how to give directions to servants. 

The book was first published with only the attribution, “By a Lady.” So many of the cookbooks of the time did the same. In 1810 The Cook’s Complete Guide on the Principles of Frugality, Comfort and Elegance came out, “By a Lady,” who proved to be Esther Copley. In 1827, Copley’s The New London Cookery and Complete Domestic Guide came out, also “By a Lady.” She was a prolific author of children’s books, religious texts and an abolitionist tract, A History of Slavery and its Abolition (1836). She also followed up her New London Cookery success with a series of other cookbooks and household instruction books: The Housekeeper’s Guide, or A Plain and Practical System of Domestic Cookery (1838), Cottage Comforts (1825), The Young Servant’s Friendly Instructor (1827), Catechism of Domestic Economy (1850).

In the new United States, however, the older model persisted: single books by women authors, beginning with American Cookery by Amelia Simmons, “an orphan.” Many of the new American cookbooks were expressions of regional tastes, most famously in Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife, of 1824. It was republished 19 times before the Civil War and contained some 500 recipes.

Historian Cynthia Kierner wrote of Randolph that she “presented a Southern — specifically, a Virginian — model for Southern readers. … using Virginia produce for dishes influenced by African, Native American, and European foods. the book included recipes for Southern classics such as okra, sweet potatoes, biscuits, fried chicken, barbecue shote (young pig), and lemonade.” 

She also included a recipe called “Dough Nuts — a Yankee Cake.”

She was  born to a prominent Virginia family and when she died in 1828, she was buried in what later became Arlington National Cemetery. 

Chef Jose Andre cites Randolph as an influence and he serves her Gazpacho at his America Eats Tavern in Washington, D.C., and says the recipe “demonstrates just how far back the notion of this country as a cultural melting pot goes.” 

Gaspacho-Spanish — Put some soft biscuit or toasted bread in the bottom of a sallad bowl, put in a layer of sliced tomatas with the skins taken off, and one of sliced cucumbers, sprinkle with pepper, salt and chopped onion; do this until the bowl is full; stew some tomatas quite soft, strain the juice, mix in some mustard, oil and water, and pour over it; make it 2 hours before it is eaten.

Other regional cookbooks followed. In 1839, Lettice Bryan wrote The Kentucky Housewife and in 1847 Sarah Rutledge wrote The Carolina Housewife, again acknowledged only as “a lady of Charleston.” Rutledge was the daughter of Edward Rutledge, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. A report says that until about 1920, “the name of a Charleston woman appeared in print but thrice — when born, when married and when buried — legal necessities.” When Rutledge was outed as the author after her death in 1855, it was said that the disclosure would have made her “spin in her grave.”

Here is her recipe for Hopping John:

Three books by African-Americans should be mentioned. Malinda Russell was a free Black woman from Tennessee who wrote the first known cookbook by an African-American woman. Her Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen came out in 1866 and included recipes for catfish fricassee, Irish potatoes with cod and sweet onion custard. 

Former slave Abby Fisher wrote What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking published by the Women’s Cooperative Printing Office in San Francisco in 1881. Mrs. Fisher was a pickle maker by trade and her book includes many recipes for pickles, in addition to fried chicken and biscuits. Here is one:

Breaking the mold of cookbooks written by women for women, the first recipe book by an African-American author was written by a man for other men. In 1827, Robert Roberts published The House Servant’s Directory: A Monitor for Private Families. Roberts was butler and majordomo for Massachusetts governor Christopher Gore. His book is aimed at those running a household, including how to complete chores, how to clean, how to behave properly and then, to prepare foods. 

“In order to get through your work in proper time, you should make it your chief study to rise early in the morning; for an hour before the family rises is worth more to you than two after they are up.” He also includes his method of curing a drunk of his habit:

All of these cooks and authors were impressive, but none holds a candle to the formidable Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880). She wrote in many veins, probably best remembered today for the lyrics to “Over the River and Through the Woods,” she took on many dragons: She was an abolitionist, a women’s rights activist, a spokesperson for Native American rights, and opponent of Manifest Destiny, white supremacy and male dominance, an advocate of women’s education, a novelist taking on issues such as miscegenation. And she was a journalist and poet. Mrs. Child could walk through walls, and don’t get in her way.

In 1833, she wrote An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans, calling for instant emancipation with no compensation for slaveholders. In it, she wrote “The intellectual inferiority of the Negroes is a common, though most absurd apology, for personal prejudice.” She went on to publish The Duty of Disobedience to the Fugitive Slave Act and act as editor of a national abolitionist periodical. 

As a women’s rights activist, she wrote that significant progress for women could not be made until after the abolition of slavery, because women and slaves were similar in that white men held both groups in subjugation and treated them as property. 

She also worked for Native American rights, too. Her novel Hobomok, A Tale of Early Times concerns an interracial marriage between a white woman and an Indian man, who have a son together. 

Beyond that, she was a notorious freethinker. She wrote, “It is impossible to exaggerate the evil work that theology has done in the world,” and “What blooming paradise would the whole earth be if the same amount of intellect, labor and zeal had been expended on science, agriculture and the arts.” 

But I have become sidetracked by my admiration for Ms. Child. What we are concerned with here is her cookbook, The American Frugal Housewife for Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy, published in 1829 when she was 27 years old. It went through 33 printings in 25 years. In it the same indomitable schoolmarm certainty reigns. I have to wonder if she ever told — or even heard — a joke, in her life. 

The book was aimed at women cooking for their families without servants to do the work. It is written simply, and always with an eye to saving money. It begins:

“The true economy of housekeeping is simply the art of gathering up all the fragments, so that nothing be lost. I mean fragments of time, as well as materials. Nothing should be thrown away so long as it is possible to make any use of it, however trifling that use may be; and whatever be the size of a family, every member should be employed either in earning or saving money.”

That includes children, who shouldn’t be wasting their time in “useless play:”

“Children can very early be taught to take all the care of their own clothes.

“They can knit garters, suspenders, and stockings; they can make patchwork and braid straw; they can make mats for the table, and mats for the floor; they can weed the garden, and pick cranberries from the meadow, to be carried to market. … it is a great deal better for the boys and girls on a farm to be picking blackberries at six cents a quart, than to be wearing out their clothes in useless play. They enjoy themselves just as well; and they are earning something to buy clothes, at the same time they are tearing them.”

In a chapter concerning “The Education of Daughters,” she enjoins: 

“The greatest and most universal error is, teaching girls to exaggerate the importance of getting married; and of course to place an undue importance upon the polite attentions of gentlemen.”

Her recipes extoll the frugality of finding the best cuts of meat and of using those parts that others snub. 

Or:

Another multi-tasking and prolific writer was Frances Harriet Whipple Green McDougall, who published under the simplified name as Frances Green, although, for her cookbook, she was listed on the title page of The Housekeeper’s Book (1837) as “By a Lady.” 

She was a poet, abolitionist, women’s rights advocate and spiritualist. Her many books include Memoirs of Elleanor Elbridge, a Colored Woman (1838); Might and Right (1844), a book about the Dorr Rebellion in Rhode Island; The Primary Class-Book of Botany (1856), a botany text for students; and Beyond the Veil (1878, posthumous) about communicating with the dead. 

The Housekeeper’s Book: Containing Advice on the Conduct of Household Affairs: with a Complete Collection of Receipts for Economical Domestic Cookery (earlier centuries doted on enormous titles) was written for middle and upper class women and those in their employ and covers everything from freshening up bedding to making cordials. 

“The work has been founded on the results of actual experience, and is intended for every day use; that the receipts, directions, and general advice have all been prepared with strict view to utility, and true economy; and that nothing has been omitted which the author deemed subservient to the general design – the promotion of domestic happiness by attention to the constantly recurring and inevitable duties of good housekeeping.”

 

Back in England, the absolute queen of the kitchen and cookbook was Isabella Beeton. Her books were everywhere. Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management came out in 1861 and by 1868, had sold nearly 2 million copies. It was reprinted well into the 20th century. In fact, it can still be bought today.

The book was first published as 24 installments in her husband’s magazine, The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine. Samuel Beeton was a magazine editor and publisher and brought out the first British edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He was also a proponent of the equality of the sexes.  There seemed to be a connection in the 19th century between abolitionism, feminism and cookbooks. 

Mrs. Beeton’s work was published and republished in many forms, re-edited and resold under many titles after her early death at age 28 in 1865. At her death, she was working on her Dictionary of Every-Day Cookery. 

After her death, her husband sold the publishing rights to Ward, Lock and Tyler, a firm that continued to resell the book through dozens of editions, sometimes with only the flimsiest connection to the original. By 1891 the term Mrs Beeton had become used as a generic name for a domestic authority. They suppressed the fact of Mrs. Beeton’s death, so that the name became, like Betty Crocker, really a brand name rather than a person. The book became for the 19th century what The Joy of Cooking has been for the 20th. 

Mrs. Beeeton was one of the first cookbook authors to present her recipes with a list of ingredients and their measurements, in the modern style. In her introduction, she wrote: 

“I have attempted to give, under the chapters devoted to cookery, an intelligible arrangement to every recipe, a list of the ingredients, a plain statement of the mode of preparing each dish, and a careful estimate of its cost, the number of people for whom it is sufficient, and the time when it is seasonable.” 

She explains that she was thus attempting to make the basics of cookery “intelligible” to any “housewife.”

Author Christopher Clausen, in his study of British middle classes, wrote that Beeton’s book reflected Victorian values, particularly hard work, thrift and cleanliness. “Mrs. Beeton has … been for over a century the standard English cookbook, frequently outselling every other book but the Bible”

Did I mention that they loved preposterous titles in those days? The full title of the book was The Book of Household Management, comprising information for the Mistress, Housekeeper, Cook, Kitchen-Maid, Butler, Footman, Coachman, Valet, Upper and Under House-Maids, Lady’s-Maid, Maid-of-all-Work, Laundry-Maid, Nurse and Nurse-Maid, Monthly Wet and Sick Nurses, etc. etc.—also Sanitary, Medical, & Legal Memoranda: with a History of the Origin, Properties, and Uses of all Things Connected with Home Life and Comfort.

The closest thing America had to Mrs. Beeton was Marion Harland, pen name of Mary Virginia Terhune. She published some 50 books during her life, including novels, short story collections, biographies, travel guides, histories and cookbooks. Her first novel, Alone, came out in 1854. Her first cookbook, Common Sense in the Household: A Manual of Practical Housewifery, came out in 1872. It eventually sold more than a million copies. 

Harland became a franchise, much like Beeton, but lived to see her success. She died at 91 in 1922. Among her domestic books, published after Common Sense in the Household, were Breakfast, Luncheon and Tea (1875); Bills of Fare for All Seasons of the Year (1889); House and Home (1889); Marion Harland’s Complete Cookbook: A Practical and Exhaustive Manual of Cookery and Housekeeping (1903); and The Helping Hand Cook Book (1912), written with her daughter, Christine Terhune Herrick. 

If there is a theme beyond food in all these cookbooks, it is one of moral improvement. Each of them has chapters on proper deportment, how to run clean household, and frugality. This tendency runs on hyperdrive in Ella Eaton Kellogg’s Science in the Kitchen (1892), which features vegetarianism and hygiene as aspects of the same thing. She married John Harvey Kellogg, superintendent of the Battle Creek Sanitarium and the inventor of corn flakes, which he saw as an anaphrodisiac, and proponent of eugenics. Ella Eaton joined the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, becoming associate superintendent of the Social Purity department. 

She ran the kitchen at Battle Creek and wrote that:

 “One of the evils of unwholesome food is its decided tendency to create a craving for intoxicants. Bad cookery causes indigestion, indigestion causes thirst, and thirst perpetuates drunkenness.” 

Kellogg recommended bland foods, as being not only healthier, but leading to a more moral behavior. Vegetarianism is the key:

“The use of large quantities of animal food, however free from disease germs, has a tendency to develop the animal propensities to a greater or less degree, especially in the young, whose characters are unformed. Among animals we find the carnivorous the most vicious and destructive, while those which subsist upon vegetable foods are by nature gentle and tractable. There is little doubt that this law holds good among men as well as animals. If we study the character and lives of those who subsist largely upon animal food, we are apt to find them impatient, passionate, fiery in temper, and in other respects greatly under the dominion of their lower natures.”

And spicy foods cause terrible diseases, she said:

“Physicians have long observed that in tropical countries where curry powder and other condiments are very extensively used, diseases of the liver, especially acute congestion and inflammation, are exceedingly common.”

The undercurrent of racism is unmistakable throughout the book. 

And her instructions for cooking macaroni makes for mush:

“The length of time required may vary from twenty minutes, if fresh, to one hour if stale. When tender, turn into a colander and drain, and pour cold water through it to prevent the tubes from sticking together.”

So much for “al dente.” 

There is more real and systematic science found in The Boston Cook-School Cook Book by Fannie Merritt Farmer, from 1896. Farmer revamped the former Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book. Mary Johnson Lincoln had been head of the Boston Cooking School and published her book in 1884 as a textbook for her classes. Farmer expanded the book to some 1,850 recipes and her version eventually became the most popular cookbook in the country and was known simply as the “Fannie Farmer Cookbook.” 

At a time when most American cookbooks were still saying to use a “dollop of butter” or a “teacup of cider,” Farmer used precise measurements in 8 oz. cups and leveled tablespoons. She organized recipes with ingredients and measurements before the text. 

Her book became so popular, she followed up with a series of books,, including Chafing Dish Possibilities (1898); Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent (1904); What to Have for Dinner: Containing Menus with Recipes for Their Preparation (1905); Catering for Special Occasions (1911); A New Book of Cookery: Eight-hundred and Sixty Recipes (1912); The Priscilla Cook Book for Everyday Housekeepers (1913); and A Book of Good Dinners for My Friend, or “What to Have for Dinner” (1914). 

There are many books I have been forced to leave out, including The Epicurian by Charles Ranhofer, who was chef at Delmonico’s Restaurant in New York. His book was an encyclopedic guide to haut cuisine. 

Or Mary Jewry’s Warne’s Every-Day Cookery; Mrs. W.G. Water’s Cook’s Decameron and her Just a Cookery Book; or Mrs. A.B. Marshall’s Larger Cookery Book; or Mary Harrison’s Guide to Modern Cookery; or Mary Doncaster’s Luxurious Modern Cookery. 

But I want to end with Elizabeth Black Kander, a Progressive reformer and founder of a settlement house in Milwaukee where she wrote a book titled The Way to a Man’s Heart, but almost universally referred to as The Settlement Cook Book. 

Daughter of European Jewish immigrants, Kander joined the settlement movement in America, a movement meant to bridge the gap between the poor and the middle class through education and assimilation. Jane Addam’s Hull House in Chicago was a famous example. Kander founded the Settlement House in Milwaukee in 1900. To help fund her relief work, she wrote her cookbook, using recipe that were taught to immigrants in her Settlement House classes. The book became a surprising success and was revised and updated every year from 1901 to 1954, selling more than 2 million copies. 

The World War that came soon after twisted a knot in history, and what followed after, in everything from politics to literature to economics and even to cookbooks, was qualitatively different. The world became modern, for better and for worse. 

Epilogue

Taking the long look from Sumer through Apicius to Ina Garten, there are eon-long trends in cookbooks. The earliest made little distinction between food and medicine and recipes were as often apothecary, mixed with gustatory. 

Somewhere, in the 16th or 17th centuries, the medical part shrunk and became a appendix chapter or two on how to feed the feeble, sick and convalescent. But those same centuries, and especially the 18th, also added chapters on how to deal with servants and how to maintain a household. 

The Victorian age added moral uplift and chapters on proper deportment, mostly for young wives, and the need for cleanliness and rectitude. At its fringes, it advocated crank fad diets. 

After World War I, cookbooks dropped most of the admixture and concentrated on clear recipes, with measurements, serving sizes and instructional information on processes, such as found in The Joy of Cooking or Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Cookbook. 

In the past few decades, there has been a resurgence in fads and weight-loss or coronary-health, but also a growth in combining recipes with travel and culture, such as you find in Diana Kennedy, Madhur Jaffrey, Joyce Chen, Patricia Wells, and so many others. 

Of course, cookbooks are facing the same changes as everything else in the digital age, and more people are now turning to YouTube or television for their cooking instruction, which really only brings us, by a commodius vicus back to the days when cooking was taught chef to apprentice or mother to daughter by hands-on verbal instruction. 

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. 

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The biggest change in cookbooks as we enter the 18th century is the emergence of women. Earlier, nearly all books about cookery and kitchens were written not only by men, but for men, as chefs to nobility and wealth or for the edification of those nobles so they may properly instruct their servants. 

But the growing and increasingly literate middle class created a market for household guides, and because women tended to run family kitchens, publishers aimed their products at them, and it was mostly women who wrote such books. 

The first notable woman was Hannah Wolley (pronounced “Woolley” and sometimes spelled that way — even on the title page of her own books). Born in 1622, Wolley published five cookbooks over her life, each a best-seller. 

Writer David Goldstein of the Folger Shakespeare Library, which owns original copies, says ““She was the Martha Stewart of her time, the English-speaking world’s first female lifestyle guru. Housewives copied her instructions into their own handwritten recipe books, passing down her advice and rhetorical style to subsequent generations. Her books went through numerous editions; one was translated into German.”

She was widowed by the age of 40, and supported herself and her children with writing and publishing six cookbooks between 1661 and 1674. They covered not only recipes, but also “physick and chirurgery” (basically medicine and first-aid), and issues of deportment and household management. 

The first book was The Ladies Directory, followed in 1664 by The Cooks Guide and in 1668, by A Guide to Ladies Gentlewomen and Maids and in 1670, her best-selling The Queen-Like Closet and 1772 with The Ladies Delight. 

The Queen-Like Closet is dedicated “To all Ladies, Gentlewomen, and to all other of the Female Sex who do delight in, or be desirous of good Accomplishments.” The book was a favorite of 19th-Century writer Charles Lamb, who owned a copy, who wrote of it as “an abstract of receipts in cookery, confectionery, cosmetics, needlework, morality, and all such branches of what were then considered as female accomplishments.”

Earlier cookbooks were often half medical texts, listing herbs and poultices for the curing of diseases. Later books, such as Wolley’s very often did the same, but there was a new addition: chapters on the proper behavior of “all young ladies, gentlewomen and all maidens whatever as the universal companion and guide to the Female Sex in all Relations, Companies, Conditions and states of life, even from Child-hood down to Old-age, and from the Lady at the Court , to the Cook-maid in the Country.” 

In writing about how a kitchen-maid should act, Wolley writes:

“She ought to be of a quick and nimble Apprehension, neat and cleanly in her own habit, and then we need not doubt of it in her Office; not to dress her self, especially her Head, in the Kitchin, for that is abominable sluttish, but in her Chamber, before she comes down, and that to be at a fit hour, that the fire may be made, and all things prepared for the Cook, against he or she comes in; she must not have a sharp Tongue, but humble; pleasing, and willing to learn, for ill words may provoke Blows from a Cook, their heads being always filled with the contrivance of their business, which may cause them to be peevish and froward, if provoked to it…”

Later in her life, her publisher issued unauthorized cookbooks in her name, often jumbled from her earlier work, without her knowledge and without paying her. She fought back against this by complaining, but she had little recourse at the time as a woman in a man’s publishing world. This pattern will recur. 

Wolley’s recipe for “A boyled sallat of Spinage” reads:

“Take four or five handfuls of Spinage clean picked, boyl it well in water and salt; then drain it well from the water, and chop it well with the back of a Knife; then let it boyl in a Dish over a few coals with some butter and vinegar, a few plumped Currants, and as much sugar as you think fit, garnish it with hard Eggs, and so serve it in.”

In 1707, Robert May brought out his True Gentlewoman’s Delight. In 1719, Mary Kettilby edited A Collection of above Three Hundred Receipts on Cookery, Physick and Surgery; for the Use of all Good Wives, Tender Mothers, and Carful Nurses. She didn’t claim to be the author, but the assembler of others’ work. And in 1723, John Nott published The Cooks and Confectioners Dictionary: Or, the Accomplish’d Housewives Companion. Titles containing the words “accomplished” and “housewives,” and “frugal” became the norm in the following century. 

Kettilby includes many medical entries, including one for how to cure “the King’s Evil,” or scrofula. 

 Nott’s book describes how to make “Bisks, Farces, forc’d Meats, Marinades, Olio’s, Puptons, Ragoos, Sauces, Soops, Pottages.” Pastries include biscuits, cakes, custards, puddings, pies and tarts. Confectionery includes candying and conserving flowers, fruits, and roots, as well as jellies, marmalades and decorative “sugar-works.” Drinks include the making of beer, cider, mead, perry and English wines, as well as cordials.

A recipe for making an asparagus omelet:

One of the most popular cookery books was Eliza Smith’s The Compleat Housewife, or, Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion of 1727. It went through 18 editions and traveled across the ocean to become, in 1742, the first cookbook printed in the colonies, in Williamsburg, Va. That version was altered for American tastes and without requiring “the ingredients or materials for which are not to be had in this country.”

Smith takes to task the older cookbooks, from previous centuries and days she desires to give regular housewives and middle-class cooks recipes they can successfully prepare at home. In her preface she writes:

“THERE are indeed already in the World various Books that treat on this Subject, and which bear great Names, as Cooks to Kings, Princes, and Noblemen, and from which one might justly expect something more than many, if not most of these I have read, perform, but found my self deceived in my Expectations; for many of them to us are impracticable, others whimsical, others unpalatable, unless to depraved Palates, some unwholsome, many Things copied from old Authors, and recommended without (as I am persuaded) the Copiers ever having had any Experience of the Palatableness, or had any Regard to the Wholsomeness of them: Which two Things ought to be standing rules, that no Pretenders to Cookery ought to deviate from And I cannot but believe, that those celebrated Performers, notwithstanding all their Professions of having ingeniously communicated their Art, industriously concealed their best Receipts from the Publick.” 

Men didn’t disappear completely from the business. Charles Carter published The Compleat City and Country Cook: or, Accomplish’d Housewife in 1732 and Richard Bradley released The Country Housewife, and Lady’s Director in the same year. 

William Ellis published The Country Housewife’s Companion in 1750 and William Augustus Henderson’s The Housekeeper’s Instructor ran through 17 editions, beginning in 1791. 

Henderson has a chapter on food for long sea voyages, which includes a section on “drippings,” or bacon grease, which provides good calories, but says “It is a very good maxim to keep the pot upside down, to prevent its being destroyed by the rats. It will keep good any voyage and makes as fine puff-paste crust as any butter whatever.” 

Sarah Harrison made the case for women, though, in her Housekeeper’s Pocket Book, and Compleat Family Cook of 1733 when she complains how men belittle the “feminine arts of government that are of much more intrinsick value than some admired branches of literature.” 

There is a rising brand of what we might call feminism in many of these cookbooks, that, although they glorify the domestic arts in a way that Betty Friedan might find uncomfortable, they make a case, in the temper of their time, for the efficacy and agency of women. They claim importance for what they do. 

Her recipe for Chicken Fricasee:

But it was Elizabeth Moxon who carried the baton from Smith, with her enormously popular English Housewifery Exemplified of 1741. A 16th edition was printed in 1808. Very little is known of Moxon, outside of her book.

It was designed as a guide for “Mistresses of Families and higher and lower Women servants,” included recipes for “soops, made-dishes, pastes, pickles, cakes, creams, jellies, made-wines, &c.” 

Those who remember ghastly short-cut Can-Opener Cookbook from 1951 may have thought that recipes named “surprise” were endemic to the Eisenhower years, but Moxon includes hers for “Chicken Surprise:”

“Take half a Pound of Rice, set it over a Fire in soft Water, when it is half boiled put in two or three small Chickens truss’d, with two or three Blades of Mace, and a little Salt; take a Piece of Bacon about three Inches square, and boil it in Water whilst almost enough, then take it out, pare off the out Sides, and put it into the Chickens and Rice to boil a little together; (you must not let the Broth be over thick with Rice) then take up your Chickens, lay them on a Dish, pour over them the Rice, cut your Bacon in thin Slices to lay round your Chickens, and upon the Breast of each a Slice.

This is proper for a Side-dish.”

The real superstar of the time, though, was Hannah Glasse. Her Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy was first sold in 1747 and went on through at least 40 editions. It made a case for simplicity and for Englishness. She writes in a simple style, she says, so the lowest maid can understand her, unlike those great chefs of old. She wrote that “the great Cooks have such a high way of expressing themselves, that the poor Girls are at a Loss to know what they mean.” 

In her introduction, she writes: “I doubt I shall not gain the esteem of those gentlemen; however, let that be as it will, it little concerns me; but should I be so happy as to gain the good opinion of my own sex, I desire no more; that will be a full recompence for all my trouble; and I only beg the favor of every lady to read my Book through before they censure me, and then I flatter myself I shall have their approbation.” 

As for the French: 

“A Frenchman in his own country will dress a fine dinner of twenty dishes, and all genteel and pretty, for the expence he will put an English lord to for dressing one dish. … I have heard of a cook that used six pounds of butter to fry twelve eggs; when every body knows … that half a pound is full enough, or more than need be used: but then it would not be French. So much is the blind folly of this age, that they would rather be imposed on by a French booby, than give encouragement to a good English cook!”

She does include a chapter on French dishes, but warns: “Read this chapter and you will find how expensive a French cook’s sauce is.” The first recipe, “The French way of dressing partridges” concludes with her comment “This dish I do not recommend; for I think it an odd jumble of trash … but such receipts as this, is what you have in most books of cookery yet printed.”

And if you think the British taste for Indian food is recent, Glasse  includes the first English recipe for Indian pickles and for curry: 

Glasse wrote two other books, The Compleat Confectioner in 1755, and  The Servant’s Directory, or Housekeeper’s Companion from 1760. In places, she sounds surprisingly modern, especially to those who grew up through the Great Foodie Awakening of the late 20th Century:

After Glasse, the biggest name in the second half of the century was Elizabeth Raffald, whose Experienced English Housekeeper ran through 13 authorized and at least 23 pirated editions. Since British copyright laws didn’t cover recipes, pirating was a serious problem for all our authors. In an attempt to head off the copies, Raffald signed the first page of each of her books in ink and the message, “N.B. No Book is genuine but what is signed by the author.” She managed to do well anyway, selling the copyright to her publisher in 1773 for the modern equivalent of about $200,000. 

Two other notable cookbooks from near the end of the century are John Farley’s The London Art of Cookery and Housekeeper’s Complete Assistant On a New Plan, Made Plain and Easy to the Understanding of every Housekeeper, Cook, and Servant in the Kingdom, from 1783, and Susannah Carter’s The Frugal Housewife, or Complete Woman Cook, from 1765. 

The latter was republished in the Boston in 1772 with illustrations by Paul Revere. The version had added recipes for American dishes such as Indian Pudding, Maple Beer, Buckwheat Cakes and Pumpkin Pie. It remained the only American-published cookbook for two decades and sold very well. 

But, in 1796, the first truly American cookbook was published by Amelia Simmons, called American Cookery. It was the first to suggest serving cranberry with turkey and the first use of the word, “cookie.” 

Little is known of Simmons. She called herself “An American Orphan,” and was probably from either Connecticut or the Hudson River Valley in New York. There were 13 editions of her book between 1796 and 1831, and was sold for two shillings and threepence, or about $1.75 today, and consisted of just 47 octavo pages. The Library of Congress has designated American Cookery as one of the 88 “Books that Shaped America.” 

Simmons has some head-scratchers, like her concern for what the moon does to fish. 

“Salmon, the noblest and richest fish taken in fresh water — the largest are the best. They are unlike almost every other fish, are ameliorated by being 3 or 4 days out of water, if kept from heat and the moon, which has much more injurious effect than the sun.”

Or an opinion on garlic, which survived in the American kitchens until only 20 or 30 years ago: “Garlicks, tho’ used by the French, are better adapted to the uses of medicine than cookery.” 

(The blandness of the American diet was what I grew up on. Such an exotic thing as olive oil was usually bought from an apothecary and was used to drip into the ear for earache. For cooking, we used Crisco.) 

Simmons’ recipes for Indian Pudding:

And so, the century saw the rise of women as authors of cookbooks, and a kind of proto-feminism — a recognition that women had, and deserved to have power and a voice, although that voice still maintained a distinct separation of gender roles. The real breakthrough comes in the next century, when several women became what could almost be called franchises.  

Next: Women consolidate power

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“Kitchen” Vincenzo Campi, 1580

Between the 14th and 16th centuries two big changes came over cooking and cookbooks in Europe. The first was a change of taste, leaving behind the spices of the East and taking up the herbs of the garden; the second was the invention of the printing press. 

It needs to be remembered that until 1450, all cookbooks were written in manuscript and copied when needed. Their reading public was limited by the literacy of the populace when only the very few could “reckon letters.” And so, those cookbooks were aimed at the kitchens of the wealthy and aristocratic, and their instructions were given to those who already knew the basic techniques. The cookbooks rarely mentioned quantities or explained widely understood preparations. 

And, beginning in 1517, as northern Europe emerged, and Protestantism grew, it shifted the locus of thought there away from the Mediterranean. Rome saw Paris flex its muscles and a rivalry began. 

Le Viandier and Le Managier

The first of these European-aimed cookbooks is Le Viandier, traditionally credited to Guillaume Tirel (1310-1395), aka Taillevant (“Cut Wind”), who was chef to the court of France during the Hundred Years War, although the earliest of four surviving manuscripts is dated from 10 years before Taillevent was born, making the attribution a bit dodgy. 

The book contains about 130 recipes and they are still heavy on exotic spices, such as this one for a Fish Grané:

Take pike or carp or other fish. Scale and fry the fish. Then toast bread and soak it in a puree of peas. Strain it and put in large slices of fried onion. Boil it all together with ginger, cinnamon and other spices, infused with vinegar. Add saffron for color. 

Other 14th century manuscript cookbooks include the Portuguese Llibre de Sent Sovi from 1324 and the German Daz Buch von der guter Spise from 1350. And the English The Forme of Cury, by “The Chief Master Cooks of King Richard II.” From 1390, it is written in Middle English and sounds very like Chaucer.

The Forme of Cury, pages

One recipe begins: “Sawse madame. Take sawge, persel, ysope and saueray, quinces and peeres, garlek and grapes, and fylle the gees therwith; and sowe the hole that no grece come out, and roost hem wel, and kepe the grece that fallith therof.”

Translated into modern lingo, the whole recipe runs:

Sauce Madame. Take sage, parsley, hyssop and savory, quinces and pears, garlic and grapes, and stuff the  geese with them, and sew the hole so that no dripping comes out, and roast them well and keep the dripping  that falls from them. Take the gelatin and dripping and place in a posset (a hot drink made by curdling milk with ale or wine). When the geese is roasted enough, take and chop it in pieces, and take what is within and put it in a posset and put in wine if it is too thick. Add to it powder of galangal, powder-douce and salt, and boil the sauce and dress the geese in dishes and lay the sauce on. 

Here is the original recipe for rabbit in gravy:

Translated, it reads: “Take rabbits, smite them to pieces. Parboil them and draw them with a good broth with blanched and brayed almonds. Do therein sugar and powdered ginger and boil it and the flesh therewith. Flour it with sugar and with powdered ginger and serve forth.” 

I love that “smite them to pieces.” The language has an almost biblical feel to it. Another recipe says to “Shell the oysters and seethe them in wine and in their own broth.” 

In 1393, Le Ménagier de Paris, or “The Householder of Paris” was published. It is less a cookbook and more a treatise on how to be a good wife, presented as an older husband counseling his young bride. It includes gardening tips, etiquette and even sex advice. Its second section contains recipes. It set the model for many books in the coming centuries aimed not at professional kitchens but at the edification and instruction of women. 

Other Medieval cookbooks include Du Fait de Cuisine (On the making of cuisine”), written in 1420 by the master chef of the court of Burgundy; and the mid-15th century Venetian book, Libro per Cuoco. Who knew that the name of the star of TV’s Big Bang Theory was “Kitchen full of Kale?” Perfect for a Hollywood actress.

Bartolomeo Sacchi, aka Platina

Then came Johannes Gutenberg and cookbooks ever since have been largely printed in large numbers for a growing literate public. The first real bestseller cookbook was printed first in 1475 and called De Honesta Voluptate et Valetudine, or “On Honorable Pleasure and Health,” by Bartolomeo Sacchi, better known as Platina. He was a courtier and soldier born near Cremona in Italy and wrote dozens of books on diverse subjects. 

De Honesta Voluptate was written in Latin and cribbed from the notes of Martino da Como, who some have described as the world’s first “celebrity chef.” He was kitchen-master in the Vatican. Sacchi credits him in De Honesta Voluptate. The book went through untold editions and translations for the next century or so. 

Sacchi tells us that the lentil is “digested with difficulty, generates black bile and creates scaly skin disease, causes flatulence and a stuffed feeling, harms the brain and chest, dulls the eyes and represses passions.” 

A recipe for eel pie includes almond milk, rosewater, raisins, sugar and spices, but why he includes this is questionable. His comment on the dish: “When it is finally cooked, serve it to your enemies, for it has nothing good in it.” 

The shift from the Mediterranean to more continental tastes should, in part, be credited to Martin Luther. His insistence that people learn to read the Bible for themselves caused a great increase in literacy in northern Europe, and with Gutenberg’s press, led to a new profusion of cookbooks in vernacular languages.

In 1570, a second Bartolomeo came out with his cookbook, both printed and in ordinary Italian. It was the Opera dell’Arte del Cucinare, or “Works on the art of the kitchen,” by Bartolomeo Scappi (1500-1577), who was chef to three popes. It continues the old tradition of exotic spicing, but it is the first cookbook to include illustrations. 

The book is divided into six parts and contains 1000 recipes. It begins with a dialog between the chef and his apprentice, laying out the workings of a smoothly operating kitchen, its implements and ingredients. A second part discusses meat from quadrupeds and birds, and how to make sauces. A third covers fish, eggs and vegetables. The fourth lists foods by season. The fifth teaches the making of pastries, cakes and a miscellany of things. The book ends with a chapter of food for the infirm; so many of these early cookbooks mingle food and medicine, as if they were two sides of a single coin. 

Scappi’s braised beef

He writes of preparing frogs for Pope Pius IV “in the way the pope was used to eating them.” He writes, “Frogs abound in Lombardy, and especially in Bologna, where they are transported in bags on carts.” 

And although it was published some seven decades after Columbus sailed to the New World, the only Columbian Exchange item to show up is the turkey. No potatoes, chiles, tomatoes or chocolate. 

So far, most of these cookbooks are written by cooks for popes or royalty, and their menus are often exotic and call for an abundance of spice. But as the printing press pumped out more and more material, their buying audience widened to include middle class cooks, too. And that also means that their demographic shifts from male chefs to women at their home hearths. 

And this shows up in the number of books aimed at teaching women the best or proper way to make their homes. Often the recipes are only a portion of the books’ contents, which spreads out to include etiquette, home finances and household management. This is a trend that expands in the 17th century and exponentially in the 18th century. 

Thomas Dawson published The Good Huswifes Jewell in 1585 and Gervase Markham wrote The English Huswife in 1615. 

The Jewell gives recipes for pancakes and haggis and is the first in English to mention sweet potatoes — a New World ingredient. It also has a recipe for “A Sallet of All Kinde of Hearbes:”

“Take your hearbes and picke them very fine into faire water, and picke your flowers by themselves, and washe them al cleane, and swing them in a strainer, and when you put them into a dish, mingle them with cowcumbers or lemmons payred and sliced, and scrape suger, and put in vineger and oyle, and throw the flowers on the toppe of the sallet, and of every sorte of the aforesaide things and garnish the dish about with the foresaide things, and harde egges boyled and laide about the dish upon the sallet.”

The full title of Markham’s book is quite long and runs: The English Huswife: Containing the Inward and Outward Virtues Which Ought to Be in a Complete Woman: as her Phisicke, Cookery, Banqueting-stuffe, Distillation, Perfumes, Wooll, Hemp, Flaxe, Dairies, Brewing, Baking, and all other things belonging to an Houshold.” Which gives some sense of the direction cookbooks in general will be headed in the following centuries. 

Markham was by profession a soldier, and he shows some humility in his introduction: Thou mayst say (gentle Reader) what hath this man to doe with Hus-wifery, he is now out of his element,” but goes on to say that he had his manuscript vetted by an honorable lady of quality. But no doubt, he was not the original mansplainer. 

There are quite a few 17th century cookbooks, and I cannot include them all, but I can’t avoid The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Knight Opened, from 1669. Digby was a courtier, diplomat, natural philosopher, astrologer and Roman Catholic intellectual, once called “The Ornament of This Nation.”

If you open his closet, as it were, you find many directions for alcoholic drinks, but also a fair number of delicacies, such as Capon del Conte di Trino, which calls for ambergris (from the intestines of a whale), dates, raisins, currants and sugar, all boiled inside an ox bladder. 

To boil eggs: “A certain and infallible method to boil new-laid Eggs to sup up, and yet that they have the white turned to milk, is thus: Break a very little hole, at the bigger end of the shell, and put it into the water, whiles it boileth. Let it remain boiling, whiles your Pulse beateth two hundred stroaks. Then take it out immediately, and you will find it of an exact temper.”

The language and spelling are a delight. Here is another:

“A FLOMERY-CAUDLE — When Flomery is made and cold, you may make a pleasant and wholesome caudle of it, by taking some lumps and spoonfuls of it, and boil it with Ale and White wine, then sweeten it to your taste with Sugar. There will remain in the Caudle some lumps of the congealed flomery, which are not ungrateful.”

Markham in An English Huswife defines flummery as a soft, starch-based sweet pudding: “From this small Oat-meale, by oft steeping it in water and clensing it, and then boyling it to a thicke and stiffe jelly, is made that excellent dish of meat which is so esteemed in the West parts of this Kingdome, which they call Wash-brew, and in Chesheire and Lankasheire they call it Flamerie or Flumerie.” A caudle, by the way, is potion or porridge for infants or the infirm. 

And to feed your chickens and make them plump and juicy, Digby writes:

“AN EXCELLENT WAY TO CRAM CHICKEN — Stone a pound of Raisins of the Sun, and beat them in a Mortar to Pulp; pour a quart of Milk upon them, and let them soak so all night. Next morning stir them well together, and put to them so much Crums of Grated stale white bread as to bring it to a soft paste, work all well together, and lay it in the trough before the Chicken (which must not be above six in a pen, and keep it very clean) and let a candle be by them all night. The delight of this meat will make them eat continually; and they will be so fat (when they are but of the bigness of a Black-bird) that they will not be able to stand, but lie down upon their bellies to eat.”

Chickens gotta eat, too. 

Next: The 18th Century where we will not forget the ladies. 

The oldest cookbook in the world is made of mud recipes — not recipes for eating mud, but tablets fashioned from mud and inscribed with cuneiform script. They are from Babylon and are now in the Yale Collection in the university’s Mesopotamian Collection. There are three nearly complete tablets and a forth fragmentary one and they date from about 1750 BCE, nearly 4,000 years ago and roughly the time of Hammurabi. 

Most of the recipes they contain are for broths and stews, but no doubt these fragments are only the remains of a larger cache of recipe tablets so far unearthed or uncatalogued. It is notable, though, that the evidence suggests that it is at this time and place that cooking in liquid was first introduced. It was an innovation in cooking and supplemented the open fire roasting and closed oven baking. 

The recipes we have are sketchy at best, mostly a list of ingredients with rudimentary instruction, most likely because the recipes were written down for the use of well-trained chefs who already knew the basic methods of the kitchen. 

A recipe for lamb stew reads literally: “Meat is used. You prepare water. You add fat. You add fine-grained salt, dried barley cakes, onion, Persian shallot and milk. You crush and add leek and garlic.” 

The ingredients for many recipes includes ingredients that are obscure, at best. Translating from the Akkadian text is often ambiguous. Modern scholars disagree on what is meant by “sebetu,” and they are probably a type of greens, like collards, but arguments persist.

Mesopotamian wildfowl pie, before and after covering

There are recipes older than these tablets, like an Egyptian recipe for flatbread from the 19th century BCE tomb of Senet and a formula for beer — or “liquid bread — from Sumer in the 14th century BCE, but the Yale Tablets are the oldest collection of recipes pulled together, in other words, the first cookbook. 

The oldest book, not on clay, is from the Fourth or Fifth Century CE and is typically ascribed to a Roman gourmand named Marcus Gavius Apicius. He almost certainly didn’t write the book, since he had been dead for at least 200 years when it was produced, but several recipes in the book are named for him. (Plato in his Gorgias has Socrates mention a book by Mithaikos on the cuisine of Sicily, which the philosopher calls a “gluttonous food culture.” Plato disapproved of so much. The book, if it existed, is lost.)

Apicius was once the byname for gastronomic excess. Pliny tells us he loved the “superb flavor” of flamingo tongues, and that he once sailed across the Mediterranean Sea to sample Libyan shrimp, but when his boat pulled up to the coast, and he saw what the local fishermen had caught, was unimpressed by the size of the shrimp and turned his ship around and went home without even going ashore. The Historia Augusta tells of his taste for “camel heels, cockscombs, the tongues of peacocks and nightingales, the brains of flamingos and thrushes, partridge eggs, the heads of parrots and pheasants, and the beards of mullets.” 

De Re Coquinaria

The book is De Re Coquinaria, or “On the Subject of Cooking,” and while it contains such exotic recipes, most are of more mainstream foods, and gives us an insight into the typical Roman diet. 

A recipe for Pork with Apples translates literally as: “Put in a sauce pan oil, broth, finely chopped leeks, coriander, small bits of cooked pork shoulder cut into long strips, including the skin, having everything equally half done. Add Matian apples cleaned, the core removed, slice lengthwise and cook them together. Meanwhile crush pepper, cumin, green coriander or seeds, mint, laser root, moistened with vinegar, honey and garum and a little reduced must. Add to this broth of the above morsels, vinegar to taste. Boil, skim, bind strain over the morsels, sprinkle with pepper and serve.” 

There are no measurements, no cooking times, and a few ingredients that may make you scratch your head. “Garum,” for instance, is a ubiquitous Roman fish sauce made by layering whole small fish with salt in a one-to-one proportion and letting the whole concoction ferment for a month or so and to collect the juices. “Laser root” is the Latin equivalent of the Greek sylphion, which is an extinct herb. Modern versions of the recipe often call for the substitution of asafoetida, “Must,” or “defrutum,” is a thick, reduced grape syrup. 

A recipe to stew lamb or goat kid says: “Put the pieces of meat into a pan. Finely chop and onion and coriander, pound pepper, lovage, cumin, garum, oil and wine. Cook, turn out into a shallow pan, thicken with wheat starch. If you are cooking lamb, add the spices while the meat is raw; if goat kid, add it while it is cooking.” 

De Re Coquinaria was popular in many editions and variants through the Renaissance and first printed commercially in 1498, with dozens of editions to follow. 

In the middle of the 10th Century, the first Arabic cookbook was compiled by Abu Muhammad al-Muthaffar ibn Nasr ibn Sayyar al-Warraq, or Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq, for short. Called the Kitab al-Tabikh, or “Book of Dishes,” it collects 600 recipes in 132 chapters. 

Because the Rome of Apicius and the Middle East of al-Warraq are both Mediterranean cultures, it shouldn’t be surprising that so many of their recipes share certain traits. If the Romans douse everything with garum, the Arabs had their murri, or fermented barley water (very like soy sauce). 

A recipe for Barida runs thus: “Take roasted chicken, disjoint it and arrange the pieces on a platter. Beat together mustard made with good wine vinegar and a small amount of murri and some sugar so that the sauce tastes sweet and sour. Add to the mixture ground walnut and a little asafoetida. Pour the sauce over the chicken to drench it. Then pour olive oil all over, finally, sprinkle top with chopped rue and garnish with pomegranate seeds, God willing.”

Long pepper

And if you compare the Arabic, Roman and Mesopotamian cookbooks, you find a family resemblance: lots of coriander, mint, cumin, caraway, cinnamon, sesame, rue, long pepper, and the lost sylphion. They could really be considered variants of a single thousand-years-old basic cuisine. 

Indeed, the Akkadian word for broth is “mu,” or “water,” and in al-Warraq’s book, a cooking broth is called “ma wa milh,” or literally, “water and salt.” 

Some two centuries after al-Wassaq, another Kitab al-Tabikh was written by Muhammad bin al-Hasan bin Muhammad bin al-Karim al-Baghdadi (they had a thing for long names), al-Baghdadi for short. It contains 160 recipes. 

Many early cookbooks, including al-Wassaq’s Kitab al-Tabikh, functions as much as a medical book as a cuisine guide. The quadri-humoral theory of medicine underlies all the recipes — the balance of wet, dry, cool, and warm. The subtitle of al-Wassaq’s book is “Winning a Lover’s Heart and Sparing Him the Need for a Doctor.” 

The first cookbook from India is the Sushruta Samhita, a Sanskrit medical text and one of the foundations of Ayurveda medicine. It is usualy dated from the First Millennium BCE, but the oldest surviving version dates from 878 CE. 

The Manasollasa is a 12th Century guide to Indian culture, from politics to dance compiled by Someshvara III, king of the Deccan empire of Chalukya. The Third Book is devoted to cuisine both vegetarian and non-vegetarian. A recipe for fish:

“Cut fishes into pieces and wash them well. Cook along with tamarind juice. Sprinkle well with wheat flour; fry in heated oil until brown. Add rock salt. Sprinkle powdered cardamom and pepper.” 

Yinshan Zhengyao

Tugh Temur

The first Chinese cookbook was written in 1330 and was also a medical text. Called the Yinshan Zhengyao, or “Essential Knowledge for Drinking and Feasting,” it was assembled by Hu Sihui and presented to Emperor Tugh Temur of the Mongol court. 

Hu Sihui is believed to have been of Turkic origin and many of his recipes seem to have been brought over from the Middle East, and therefore, share some of the habits of all the previous cookbooks. He was working during the Yuan Dynasty, which was Mongol, and the culture and cuisine of the nomadic peoples of Central Asia had a monumental affect on Asian and European societies, which may account for the similarities in cooking from Beijing to Marseilles, where you find meats stewed with fruits and exotic spices. 

One recipe, for Wolf Soup calls for: “Wolf meat (leg: bone and cut up),  cardamom, black pepper, kasini (powdered chickory), turmeric, saffron.  Boil together into a soup. Adjust flavors of everything using onions, sauce, salt, and vinegar.”

The author was primarily a physician and was likely the first to discover the link between nutritional deficiencies and disease. A recipe for mutton stew says “it supplements and increases, warms the center, and accords qi [the life force, literally ‘air’].” 

That Pan-Eurasian food culture lasts through the Middle Ages in Europe, but a more Western style of cuisine begins to emerge in the as the Medieval morphed into the Renaissance. Apicius still stood as the model for the kitchen staff of the wealthy, but at least in northern Europe, a different sort of cookbook began to emerge. And after about 1500 CE, the Columbian Exchange brought a whole new pantry of ingredients. 

Next: Cookbooks become an industry 1400-1800

Walk into any used bookstore — or if you can find it, a new bookstore — and you will find an entire aisle devoted to cookbooks. Perhaps there may be more romance novels, if it’s a used paperback store, but in most, cookbooks take up more space than anything else. Of the making of cookbooks, there is no end. 

Reading a good cookbook is a pleasure and collecting them is a vice. When I got married, 40 years ago, two collections joined as one. Over the years, many have gone to feed the shelves of used bookstores and now I’m whittled down to the most essential ones. But I still love them all; many I have let go I have since rebought. 

But not all cookbooks are of the same ilk. There are four distinct classes of cookbooks and they offer differing rewards. 

ONE

The first group are the recipe books, and they make up by far the largest class, maybe even 80 percent of the total. Their purpose is to give homemakers directions to the preparation of the standard day-to-day fare of the family table, or to instruct how to make more exotic dishes from exotic cultures. There may be intercalary text, a few stories or some background information, but the heart of such a book is the individual recipe, divided into an ingredients list and a procedure directive. 

We can divide these up into actual bound books and the plethora of booklets and pamphlets, many of them promotional items.

Among the books we run from the big comprehensive volumes  covering everything from soup to roasts and desserts, to the specialty book, such as have Christmas recipes, or baking secrets, or how-to for Chinese food. 

And each cook has one of these compendiums as her primary source: either Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Cookbook, the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, the Gold Cookbook, or the Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book: America’s #1 Cookbook Since 1930. 

And most have a collection, too, of smaller books — a McCall’s paperback on pastries or a Southern Living collection of casseroles. Such books, often mere pamphlets, have been produced at least since the end of the 19th century. 

I have lived in the South for a good portion of my life, and have come to love, even need, Southern cooking, from barbecue to Brunswick stew, from fried okra to hushpuppies. There have been Southern cookbooks from way back, when it was still OK to use an African-American mammy on the cover. Edna Lewis is a great step upwards. I have owned three editions of Mrs. Dull’s book.

As American food culture expanded, beginning in the 1970s, the range of cookbooks of exotic cuisine expanded. Julia Child taught us French; Joyce Chen taught us Chinese; Madhur Jaffrey brought us India and Diana Kennedy made us long for varieties of chile pepper we had never heard of and never even imagined. 

Before then, most cookbooks were good ol’ American family fare, and  magazines gave out monthly ideas for how to turn loaf bread, Jell-O packets, a can of soup, and some Shake ’n Bake chicken into a meal fit for a junior assistant vice president in charge of sales. 

And from the 1920s through the 1960s, various corporations put out pamphlet-size promotional books with recipes for their products. A Jell-O cookbook; a Diamond Walnut cookbook; a Gold Medal Flour cookbook; a Sunbeam Mixmaster cookbook — hundreds, maybe thousands of them. 

For anyone interested in graphic design and typography, these promotional cookbooks are a treasure trove of historical fashion. They popped up first in the years before World War I, became popular again in the 1920s, served the war effort with helpful kitchen shortcuts in the 1940s, and became hip and cartoonish in the 1960s. Each era has its look and seasoned eyes can date one from its cover alone, to an accuracy of less than five years. 

A subgenre of the recipe book is the celebrity cookbook. Many of these have a short shelf life, as movie and TV stars come and go. 

And television series and movies with sequels spawn similar entries. Want a Star Wars cookbook? There are at least six of them. 

A Harry Potter Cookbook? Game of Thrones? Walking Dead? Outlander? 

A kind of gender spread from boy-aimed Star Trek to girl-aimed Gilmore Girls, with Doctor Who in the middle, pitched to both. 

For Downton Abbey, there are official and unofficial versions. 

Every church has, at some point, published a spiral-bound book of the favorite recipes of its parishioners, usually with much use of crushed corn flakes and cream of mushroom soup. 

But I’m getting sidetracked. I love my collection of these ephemera, not for their recipes, which I never use, but for their design and typography. They are an unnoticed art gallery. Others find the same in classic cars or vintage clothing, but for me, it’s the changing trends in publishing, and the cheapest source of old book design comes on the cookbook shelves of your favorite used bookstore. 

TWO 

The second class of cookbook is the instructional — those books whose purpose to to show how to bone a chicken or julienne a carrot. The most famous is probably Jacques Pepin’s La Technique and La Methode, with their photographic step-by-step. 

Of course, the boundaries of these classes is blurry. Most procedurals also contain recipes, and even the big recipe collections give some help in the basic techniques. But it is a question of emphasis. You can look at Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking as a roster of gourmet recipes, but its greatest virtue is its explication of technique. (And no, I am not forgetting Louisette Bertholle or Simone Beck). 

And it is easy to think of the perennial Joy of Cooking as a recipe book, but while I would never consider being without my own copy — which is the single volume I would keep if required to disinvest in all but one cookbook — I never cook from its recipes, but depend on it to consult on how long to cook a pork roast or how to poach a trout. For me, it is my go-to technique book. It has never let me down. 

The importance of technique is that once you have learned all the basics, you can abandon all your recipes and begin cooking on your own, with full confidence that you know how. 

THREE

The third type of cookbook I might call the travel book, the book that explains culture and geography through cuisine. Television has largely taken over this genre. One of the best at this was Anthony Bourdain, although his work was in TV rather than in books (although he wrote his share of them, too). 

Amber Hoffman wrote The Food Traveler’s Guide to Emilia Romagna: How to Taste the History and Tradition of Italy. David Lebovitz wrote The Sweet Life in Paris. Yemisi Aribisala wrote Longthroat Memories: Soups, Sex and Nigerian Taste Buds. Fuchsia Dunlop gave us Sharks Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China. 

There are also historical books that take us through the history of a single ingredient, such as Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of a Fish that Changed the World and his Salt: A World History. Or Beans: A History by Ken Albala. 

Kurlansky also translated Emile Zola’s novel about the food markets of 19th Century Paris: The Belly of Paris. 

Finally, there are a series of books about the kitchens of famous artists — three Monet alone. Others cover Van Gogh and Matisse.

 

FOUR

The fourth class is similar to the third, so that even the line between them is blurred, which is the food memoir and the food essay. 

Bourdain had a best seller with his jaundiced look at the backstage antics of restaurants in his Kitchen Confidential. Jacques Pepin is a bit more nostalgic about the hardships of his long culinary training in The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen. 

Three food writers wander back and forth between memoir and essay: M.F.K. Fisher, Elizabeth David, and Ruth Reichl. Fisher wrote The Art of Eating, David wrote An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, and Reichl published Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table. 

I feel I have to mention one of my favorite food writers, Calvin Trillin. Where others are rhapsodic, he is ironic and quirky. His essays were usually published in The New Yorker, and some were collected in three of his books on food — American Fried: Adventures of a Happy Eater; Alice, Let’s Eat: Further Adventures of a Happy Eater; and Third Helpings. The three were later published in a single volume titled The Tummy Trilogy. 

The genre was born in 1825 with the publication by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin of his Physiologie du Goût, or to give it its full title (translated): The Physiology of Taste, or, Meditations on Transcendent Gastronomy; a Theoretical, Historical and Topical Work, Dedicated to the Gastronomes of Paris by a Professor, Member of Several Literary and Scholarly Societies. Brillat-Savarin was a man who liked to eat and what is more to write about what he ate. 

He is perhaps most famous for having said: “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.” 

All of these books are a pleasure to leaf through, to look at the pictures, to read the introductions, to read the recipes and imagine their tastes — the way a musician can look at a score and hear the music in her head. 

Of the enjoyment of cookbooks, there is no end.

Next: A history of cookbooks

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I have lived in the four corners of the U.S. Born in the Northeast, I went to college in the Southeast, later moved to the Pacific Northwest and for 25 years, lived in the desert Southwest. I found value and pleasure in each region. 

But having moved back to North Carolina after so many years in Arizona, I am having lurching pangs from missing the West. I cannot deny that when I lived in Seattle, I had similar pangs about the South — I missed the tremendous variety of plant life when faced with forest consisting of nothing but Douglas fir and western redcedar. Hundreds of miles of Douglas fir and western redcedar. Where were the dogwoods, the sweetgums, the witch hazel, the sassafras, the red maple, canoe birch, beech, elm, oak? 

Aspens, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colo.

And so, I moved back to the East and back to North Carolina, where I had by then spent the largest portion of my life. I met my wife there and some years later, we moved to Phoenix, Ariz., where she got a job teaching and I found my life’s work writing for the newspaper. For the paper, I did a lot of traveling, and visited every state west of the Mississippi to write art and/or travel stories. It is always a pleasure to travel on someone else’s dollar. 

Pacific Coast Highway, Marin County, Calif.

After retirement, we moved back to the mountains of North Carolina, which I love. But I have to admit a nagging desire to spend time again in the desert, on the Colorado Plateau, driving up the coast of California, or revisiting the less glamorous portions of Los Angeles. The American West has wormed itself into my psyche and I feel almost as if some part of it has been amputated and I’m now feeling “phantom pain” or at least pangs in the missing limb. 

It is not the idea of the West that I harbor. The idea has been around since before Columbus thought to sail west to find the East. It was there for Leif Erickson; it was there for the Phoenicians; and before that for the Indo-Europeans. It was the idea that grabbed the early American colonists who saw the trans-Appalachian lands and envied their possession.

The West of the mind is a West of infinite possibility, of clean slate and fresh start, of fantastic riches to be had, of prelapsarian goodness. People emigrated to the West for a better life and a quarter-section. 

Fort Bragg, Calif.

The reality, of course, is something different: not enough rain for crops, prairie fires and tornadoes, mountain ranges nearly impossible to cross. And an indigenous people we first needed to wipe out and then mythologize into something noble and vanishing — as if the erasure had happened on its own. 

The Greeks had the Iliad and the Odyssey; we had our two epics: First, the Civil War, which is our battle epic, and then the wandering to find a new home in our Westward expansion, our odyssey. We made movie stars of our cowboys. The West of the movies is scenic and immaculate. It is a cinemascope landscape. 

But that isn’t the West I miss. The West I knew isn’t pristine; it is dusty, dry, spackled with convenience stores and gas stations, and getting hotter every year. It is even boring: If you’ve ever driven across Wyoming, you know what I mean. It has been described as “miles and miles of miles and miles.” 

Near Pendleton, Ore.

Gertrude Stein’s description of America is really a description of the West: “In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. This is what makes America what it is.”

The West I miss in my deep heart’s core is the dusty, windblown vastness, but it is also the crowded, traffic-choked cities. I miss Los Angeles as much as I miss the Rocky Mountains. 

And let’s be clear. There are four very different Wests. There is the Great Plains region; 

the mountain West; 

there is the desert West; 

and the Pacific West. 

Each has its character and its psychic magnetism. I am drawn to each. 

Route 66 near Oatman, Ariz.

The flat middle of the country is usually forgotten when we talk of the West. In the movies, Dodge City always seems to have the Sierra Nevadas in the background. The Kansas reality is very different: grassy, flat, and smelling of cattle dung. 

San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, Ariz.

As you drive across the Staked Plains of West Texas, you feel you might as well be out on the high seas with no land in sight. Indeed, that is how Herman Melville describes it in his story/poem, John Marr, about an old salt now living in the center of the continent. “Hooped round by a level rim, the prairie was to John Marr a reminder of ocean.” And the wind in the tall grass makes waves that undulate like the sea. 

Friends used to laugh when they asked where I planned to spend my vacation and I said, “Nebraska.” No one, they said, goes to Nebraska. How about the beach? How about Manhattan. But I had in my head a sense of Manhattan, Kansas, instead. I loved seeing grasslands, badlands, farmlands and cowhands. 

Republican River, Kansas

The mountain West is spread into broad bands. The largest is the Rocky Mountains that were such a barrier to the early pioneers.  We drove up and through the Rockies in many of its latitudes, from the Southern Rockies in New Mexico to Glacier National Park in Montana — and further up into Banff and Jasper parks in Alberta. 

My wife wanted to see bears. When we camped, she threatened to tie a peanutbutter sandwich to a string and drag it through the campsite, saying, “Here, Mr. Bear. Here, Mr. Bear.” I persuaded her that was a bad idea, but we found several bears on the side of the road as we drove. 

Then, there are the Sierra Nevadas of California, some of the most photogenic peaks in the country, and the background to so many cowboy movies of the ’30s and ’40s. The mountains are home to the sequoia forests and Yosemite National Park. The lowest point in the U.S. is Death Valley and the highest peak in the Lower 48 is Mount Whitney of the Sierras and they are only about 80 miles apart. You can practically see one from the other. 

The Sierras eventually turn into the Cascade Mountains in Oregon and Washington, and a series of giant volcanoes, such as Mt. Baker, Mt. Hood, and Mt. Rainier. And Mt. St. Helens. I have climbed up portions of Rainier and walked along the Nisqually Glacier on its southwestern face. On a clear day in Seattle, the snowy, ghostlike presence of Mt. Rainier seems like a permanent cloud on the horizon south of the city. It is immense. 

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley, Calif.

The desert West is the one I know best. I lived in it for a quarter of a century, in Phoenix. But it is not Phoenix that I miss, except for the friends I left there. No, Phoenix is merely Cleveland in the desert. But outside of the city the desert is beautiful. In a good year — about one in every 15 — the winter rains make the desert floor a paint palette of wildflowers. The January explodes. 

To the north of the city, the Colorado Plateau is what I miss the most, those long vistas of grassland and badlands, the Navajo and Hopi reservations, the mesas and canyons, the Colorado River and a half-dozen national parks. The plateau continues north into Utah and into the southern parts of Colorado.

Petroglyphs scar the rocks and cheap souvenir shops, like those called “Chief Yellowhorse” dot the interstate. 

I can no longer count the number of times I have visited the Grand Canyon, both north and south rims, and the forlorn and uninhabited parts of the western stretches of the canyon on what is called the Arizona Strip. Anytime someone visited us in Phoenix, we took them up to see the Canyon. Pictures just don’t suffice; you have to see in to understand the awe. A picture is static, but the canyon changes color minute by minute as the sun slides across the sky and clouds pass over the rock. One of my great experiences was to arrive before dawn and watch the growing light slowly illuminate the stone and see the slim, glowing white ribbon of river a mile below us. 

South of Phoenix, there is the Sonoran Desert, with its Saguaro cactus and unending greasewood plains. And rivers with no water in them. The common joke in Arizona was about a long-time desert rat who took a trip to New York City and when he returned, his friend asked him about it. He saw all the sights, including the Empire State Building and the Brooklyn Bridge. “And did you see the Hudson River?” “Yeah, but there weren’t nothing to see; it was covered in water.” 

Lavender Pit, Bisbee, Ariz.

The picturesque parts of the desert are certainly attractive, but what I miss are the unlovely bits. The decrepit mobile home parks of Quartzsite, in the middle of nowhere, with its pyramid monument to Hi Jolly, the camel herder hired by the U.S. Army in a futile experiment. The burned out and abandoned shacks in 29 Palms, Calif.; the stink of dead fish along the shores of the Salton Sea; the shimmering fata morgana over the Wilcox Playa; the city-size holes in the ground where copper is hauled from the pits; and the mountain ranges of slag heaps hanging over the cities of Miami and Claypool. 

Miami, Ariz.

In so much of the desert, it is not the unsullied nature that used to be there, but the used-up quality, the peeled paint and weathered wood and broken-out windows, the abandoned and rusting cars, the roads cracked with weeds growing through. These would never be called pretty, but they have an intense kind of beauty about them. There is something very human about the ruins that no bland red sunset can match. 

As I said, it is the physicality of the West that speaks to me, not the idea. It is the West as it is, not as it is imagined to have been. 

Mural, Los Angeles, Calif.

This is true also of the Pacific West. I have written many times about Los Angeles and the parts of the city I love most: the concrete river, 

the oil wells on the Baldwin Hills,

the thousands of little strip malls and their ethnic restaurants and food markets. The bungalow houses, the back streets, the Deco architecture. 

I have driven from Tijuana to Vancouver along the coast, soaking up cities and redwoods, mountains and rushing rivers; the Samoa Cookhouse of Eureka; the bridges of Conde McCullough; the stonehenge of Maryhill; the Channeled Scablands; the floating bridge over Lake Washington; the Olympic Mountains. 

Jupiter Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park

I have visited every state except Hawaii and every Canadian province except Prince Edward Island and Labrador, and I have absorbed the geography into my tiny head, swallowed whole. 

Mexican cemetery, Chandler, Ariz.

We all become the landscape we have lived in. It is what makes a Southerner so darned Southern, the Yankee so taciturn, the desert rat so possessive of his burning sun-broiled gravel. In the past — and still in the American South — people tend to live within a few miles of where they were born, and their regional differences become part of their DNA. In more mobile times, when so many move around the country or even to foreign climes, that conflation of land and psyche may attenuate. But it is still there, defining, in lesser or greater extent, who we are and what we feel and think. It is why red states tend to be rural and blue states urban. 

Yosemite Falls

And because I lived in the dry air so long, with the greasewood flats and the arroyos and the roadrunners and javelinas, the West — not the idea, but the real thing — has become a part of my insides. It is why even in the gorgeous Blue Ridge, I miss the desert, mountains, plains and cities of the West. We are in some part, the same thing. 

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I was born in 1948 and shared my infancy with television. Me and Uncle Miltie saw the light of day in the same instant of time, just a few clicks after the end of the war that killed 60 million people. Uncle Miltie was fun. 

My father still fit into his Eisenhower jacket and automobiles were just being remarketed, having been turned back from the Sherman Tank pumpkins they had been for the duration. I, of course, knew nothing of this: I was eating pureed prunes and slapping my sippy cup on the tray of my high chair and gurgling with ignorant happiness. 

I can’t remember a time when we didn’t have a television in the house. Some of my earliest memories were of watching that ovoid 12-inch screen in our house in Teaneck, N.J. and being told that I entered the world in the same hospital where Ozzie and Harriet’s son, Rickey, was born. 

Those early broadcast years were sparse. There was a test pattern on the screen until about six in the morning, and by midnight the National Anthem played over a picture of a waving flag, followed by a high-pitched sine-wave note and that familiar test pattern. 

In between, broadcasters scrambled for what today we call “content.” They found old movies, silent slapstick comedies, talk shows and, ever the staple, variety shows. What original material they had wasn’t really original, but was translated from radio. Many of the old familiars were now filmed (or performed live) and given new life. The Life of Riley, The Goldbergs, The Aldrich Family, My Friend Irma, Jack Benny, and George Burns and Gracie Allen. William Boyd repackaged his old Hopalong Cassidy westerns from the Thirties and such cowboy shows as The Cisco Kid and The Lone Ranger filled Saturdays for the wee bairns. 

Before I was sent off to kindergarten, I watched daytime TV with my mother as she ironed or cooked. Art Linkletter, Arthur Godfrey, Herb Shriner, and Dave Garroway, always Dave Garroway, with his meaty palm held toward the screen as he signed off the Today Show each morning: “Peace.” 

For the evening, a host of second-string movie actors stepped up as top bananas in sitcoms: Eve Arden, Stu Erwin, Joan Davis, Gale Storm, Ann Sothern, Robert Cummings, Leon Ames, Wendy Barrie, Harriet Hilliard and Ozzie Nelson, and the greatest leap up from B-films: Lucille Ball. 

And the kiddie shows. Howdy Doody was the royalty, but the rest of the aristocracy included Kukla, Fran and Ollie, Romper Room, Ding-Dong School, Captain Video, Beany and Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent, Crusader Rabbit and Mr. Wizard. 

Three genres ate up a great part of the clock: game shows (Beat the Clock, Truth of Consequences, What’s My Line, Name That Tune),  Westerns (Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Sky King, The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickock, Hopalong Cassidy), and space operas (Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, Captain Video, Space Patrol, Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, Captain Midnight). At least, on our TV. 

And to fill up the empty programming hours, there were endless old Western movies. The cream were from the 1930s, with Hoot Gibson, Buck Jones, Tim McCoy, Hoppy, Bob Steele, Bob Livingston, John Wayne (in his B-movie phase). The quality plateaued in the ’40s with Johnny Mack Brown, Rogers, Autry, Wild Bill Elliott, and Buster Crabbe, and then dropped significantly after that with some truly awful films with Lash LaRue, Whip Wilson and Tim Holt. The ’50s were bad for movies in general, but disastrous for Westerns — the best of them were now made for TV directly.

I haven’t forgotten the variety shows. Way too much singing for my childish tastes. My parents loved Perry Como, Dinah Shore, Patti Page, Kate Smith and Tennessee Ernie Ford. Me, not so much. But the parental units had the power over us powerless kids and so we watched. 

Toast of the Town, later called The Ed Sullivan Show, dominated our Sunday evenings. Nothing like plate spinners for the imaginations of 5-year-olds. Jugglers, ventriloquists, comics, animal acts, and Broadway tunes. The dying gasp of vaudeville.

But, I’m just naming names here, and gorging on nostalgia. What I really meant to do was point out the changing tenor of early television. I see three major periods from 1948, when I was born, to 1970, when I graduated college and pretty much ceased watching the tube on any regular basis. I’m afraid I lost touch with pop culture at that time. 

The first period was the one I call “Spaghetti on the Wall.” Audiences were familiar with radio, and television was radio with pictures. To fill the time-void, broadcasters tried pretty much everything trying to figure out just what this new beast was. Talk was cheap, so many of the programs, like Arthur Godfrey, Garry Moore or Art Linkletter’s House Party went on for hours filling the airwaves with chatter. Radio had half-hour sitcoms and hour-long dramas, and so TV did the same. Music was big on radio, more the same on the tube. 

There was an innocence in these first 10 years. A certain “Let’s put on a show” attitude. There were hits, such as Sullivan and I Love Lucy, but a lot of dead ends, too. Some old performers just didn’t have the TV magic and Ed Wynn, Jimmy Durante, Fred Waring, Ted Steele, Paul Whiteman, and Red Buttons simply didn’t translate well. (Loretta Young, who started out in silent films, attempted to remain 20 years old well into her 60s).

In the second period, beginning in 1957 or 1958, TV develops a confidence of its own, a kind of throaty adolescence. Radio was no longer something most audiences remembered, except as the source for rock and roll music, and some studios, such as Desilu and Warner Brothers began making TV-appropriate series. It was also the first time TV began remaking, not radio shows, but previous TV shows. There were a new Dinah Shore Show, a new Tonight Show with Jack Paar, new vehicles for Ann Sothern, George Burns, Ernie Kovacs, Gale Storm, Bob Denver, Jim Nabors and even Beany and Cecil. 

It was also the era of the explosion of cheap animation. Joseph Hanna and William Barbera pumped out assembly-line cartoons, beginning with The Ruff and Reddy Show in 1957, followed by Huckleberry Hound (with Yogi the Bear), Deputy Dawg, and The Flintstones. Similar animation came from Jay Ward et al. in the various Rocky and Bullwinkle shows. 

But the real prize came with popular filmed series, many from Warner Brothers, including Cheyenne, Sugarfoot, Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, Hawaiian Eye, and Surfside 6.  There were other stalwarts, such as Have Gun-Will Travel, Perry Mason, Naked City, Sea Hunt, One Step Beyond, Bonanza, Rawhide, The Untouchables, Route 66, and East Side/West Side. 

And The Twilight Zone (and its poor relation, The Outer Limits). 

This is the era that brought us a normalized suburban vision of the U.S. and its country cousin. Dick Van Dyke and The Beverly Hillbillies. Leave It to Beaver and The Real McCoys. The Donna Reed Show and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis vs. The Andy Griffith Show and Petticoat Junction. These were the Eisenhower Years reflected in My Three Sons and The Bob Newhart Show. 

This was TV in its stride, its first full flowering as the universal entertainment medium for the vast majority of Americans. 

After, comes a period of decadence, of imitation and slipshod production. Instead of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., we get The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. There’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Fantastic Voyage, and Voyage to the Center of the Earth. 

It was also the time of America’s cultural paroxysm and it shows on the screen. Black actors and entertainers showed up beyond Beulah and Amos ’n’ Andy: Julia, The Leslie Uggams Show, I Spy, Nichelle Nichols on Star Trek, The Bill Cosby Show and Flip Wilson. The counter culture ruled The Mod Squad and Laugh-In. It was clear the world was changing …

…and TV’s response was to go for the cheese. The second half of this third era of television history is really dominated by the shows remembered fondly by Generation X and those who saw these things in later syndication. This is The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family. Adam-12, Love, American Style, The Flying Nun, Ironside, My Mother, the Car, Kung Fu, The Six Million Dollar Man, Wonder Woman. There was a full reliance on gimmicks. And what didn’t depend on a gimmick still felt like a bad parody — even a deconstruction — of what bad TV is all about. Some young people, grown up in a world of media rather than one of sky, sea and soil, enjoy such programs in cable reruns precisely because of how bad they are. 

Television itself has become so much more self-aware as television. Postmodernism hit the medium with a wallop. You can’t have a David Letterman without the irony of his take on the very medium that brings him bread. 

This has all been a very broad overview. Certainly, there have been good shows in each era. Even in the ruins of decadence we have Mary Tyler Moore, All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Rockford Files, Barney Miller, Soap, and Taxi. There are always creative people in the field: No era is complete dross. 

 I have very fond recollections of the TV I watched as a child and no doubt rank such shows higher in my estimation than they deserve and no doubt each generation feels something of the same for the fare they ingested in their formative years. We should all be forgiven the folly of our youths.

I rather lost track of the toob after going to college and since graduating. I have caught bits and pieces and I’m afraid I am rather disgusted with the current 24-hour news channels. This has been called a new “Golden Age” of TV, and no doubt it is: The quality levels of much is quite high, at least on cable and on streaming services. The networks seemed largely mired in repetition of the same cafeteria food. I find myself turning primarily to Turner Classic Movies, PBS, and British television. Or perhaps, cracking open a book. 

But then, I am a crotchety old geezer.


Like most everyone else, I have been bunker hunkering, like some 1920’s gangster, holed up in a house, fearful of each approaching human. And like most everyone else, a bit of cabin fever intrudes. I peek out the window and see a yard across the street with a Bradford pear tree like a snowstorm of white, and the lawn is beginning to get unkempt. The temperature has moderated and the sky is filled with crisp, dry air. And so, I have to get out. 

For me, the best solution is to drive up the Blue Ridge Parkway. Its entrance is only a few hundred yards from my house. I can stay sealed up in the car but find a place where the horizon is still marked by the distance where the curvature of the earth bends the rest down and away from my sight. When you are stuck at home, it is easy to think of the planet as consisting of four walls; things are cubicular and static. But get out into the mountains, up high where you see for such a length, and you are again standing on the apex of a globe. Everything falls away from you, both geographically and emotionally. Anxiety thins. 

This century has redefined nature. In the 19th century of Thoreau and Emerson, nature was green and pleasant. To Emerson, nature was the outer manifestation of deity. Earlier, to Wordsworth, “There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,/ The earth, and every common sight,/ To me did seem/ Appareled in celestial light.”

To Byron nature was so vast not even humankind could mar it. Our century has proven him wrong. For us, nature can no longer be the birds and beasties, the green leaves and burbling streams, the sky above and the soil below. We have filled the oceans — where Byron said man’s control “stopped with the shore” — with tangles of plastic waste the size of islands. In our cities, we have turned the transparent air into murk. We have left our rivers thick with the runoff of pigpens. 

The television nature programs I grew up with, that showed us the wildebeest swarming on the veldt and the flying squirrel gliding from tree to tree, have turned into chronicles of rapine and threatened extinction. Those documentaries are now alarums to wake the public to what it is losing. 

The Antarctic ice is thinning, the oceans are swelling, the bees are coughing and the once myriad cod have turned into shriveling shoals. It is hard to think of nature the way I did when I was young. 

“There hath past away a glory from the earth.” 

When I was in my 20s (which was 50 years ago), I was a bird watcher, a hiker, a camper, an amateur astronomer and a gardener. I knew the name of every tree and wildflower or weed. I had an almost mythic connection to the earth: It glowed every day, like a van Gogh painting, buzzing and whirling. Every bush was the burning bush. A surge of brain chemicals blasted my emotions. I was giddy. Now, half a century later, it is not now as it hath been of yore. “Whither is fled the visionary gleam?” “At length the Man perceives it die away,/ And fade into the light of common day.”

Career and responsibilities, the vicissitudes of living, the betrayals of love and the deaths of those we loved, have all risen to take too much space in our journals. And so, in my senescence I have drawn away from what we used to call nature, and that selfsame nature has itself decayed and left me. 

But not completely. I drive up the road into the hills, through the tunnels, into the high country where the sun shines and the wind blows the shadows of clouds across the flanks of the peaks. It is April and the dogwoods become galaxies of stars against the darker, still-leafless trees behind them. When I look down at the valleys, I see in the lower elevations the bright young leaves swelling from the buds. It is certainly beautiful, but it isn’t just beauty that makes this important. 

We are facing a new virus and most of us, and especially those of us on the shorter end of life’s measuring stick, feel an immediate threat. We may die. We always knew that, but now we can almost touch it and taste it on our fingertips. It is not theoretical. 

And so, I get out of my car in a roadside pullout and look down from the mountain into the woods beside the road and see the fresh buds and the tree branches that sway and the shoots springing tip first through the forest litter and I know that it is another spring, my seventy-second, and one more of millions that make a wake behind the present going back before there was any consciousness to know it. On the uphill side of the road there are stony outcroppings and those folded strata tell me of eons of continuity. 

I have heard, as you have, poets and essayists talk about the importance of nature, and I have at times winced at what seemed to me the perfervid sentimentality of such bromides. After all, everyone knows, or else, should know, that if nothing drastic is done, we’re all going to hell and taking the world with us. The news is 24 hours a day bad, or at least the talking heads tell us so. Over and over. 

But when I go to the woods, it is quiet except for the “small fowls that make melody and sleep all night with open eye.” And the hurly-burly slows and I am forced to know that there is a rhythm that is not that of CNN, that whether it is plague or influenza or corona virus, we have inhaled and exhaled this pestilence before, that the world endures, with me or without me. My frame of reference, like my horizon, expands.

So, it isn’t the simple beauty of the natural world that does me needed good. Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony has six movements and they include such titles as “What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me,” “What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me,” and ends with “What Love Tells Me.” And what they all join to say is a harmony and a flow. And so, as I drive along the Parkway, I listen to that music on the CD player and the outside and inside, the world and my thoughts and feelings, all twine together into a singularity, mind as mirror to the world, and world as mirror to mind. Pan awakes, Summer marches in. 

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