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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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