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It is plopped down in front of you and you poke it and prod it and try to figure out what it is. If it is something very new or very different, it may take more poking than usual, and you may very well come up with the wrong answer. 

This is what it is to be a critic — a real critic, I mean, not one of those Yelp scribblers, or self-certain mandarins with nothing more to offer but thumbs turned skyward or hell-ward. 

I was a critic for 25 years for a major daily newspaper (The Arizona Republic in Phoenix, Ariz.), and I always thought of my job as being a first reader, or first seer, or first listener — a pioneer trying to make sense of something before any sort of consensus has been reached. It is a risky thing to do — to proffer an opinion before you have anyone watching your back. 

When conductor Pierre Boulez first came out with his version of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in 1976, he played as if it were chamber music, it was such a different conception of the music that many critics first assumed it was a failed attempt to make the grand, Romantic mytho-philosophical monster it had always been taken to be. The BBC criticized the conductor’s “ruthless tempi” and “lack of expressiveness.” 

Consensus has now realized it was a brilliant re-thinking of the way the music could make sense. The clarity he brought to the muck (beautiful muck), was transcendent in its own way. Later criticism decided instead that “Wagner’s music doesn’t have to be murky to be metaphysical or massive to be overwhelmingly moving and Boulez gets playing from the too-often turgid Bayreuth Festival Orchestra that makes the music crackle and blaze with musical and dramatic meaning.”

Being a first listener is always risky. You may think something a failure because it doesn’t do what it has done before, failing to hear that it is doing something new brilliantly. 

When the Boulez Ring was new, the critics poked and prodded to see if it was alive. Now, we know not only that it was alive, but that it was a harbinger of a new way of playing classical music that has taken over the business. Out with the Furtwängler, in with the John Eliot Gardiner. Lean and mean drove out lush and weighty. 

I am reminded of this because I have just been confronted by a new recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations under the fingers of Chinese Wunderklaviermeister Lang Lang. Critical reaction has been all over the place, from deciding it was “the greatest version since Glenn Gould” to complaining that it sounded like a talented conservatory student sight reading. 

And I see what each reaction means: They parallel my own thoughts. Is this a brilliant rethinking, or is this a flaming dumpster fire? 

Mr. Lang, or if I may be so familiar as to call him by his first name, Lang, has always split opinions. Sometimes it is hard to bust through his relentless self-promotion — the kind of commercial huckstering usually identified with charlatans and snake oil salesmen — and then there are his stage antics, eyes closed in thesbian rapture, rolling his head back and forth in a way to make Leonard Bernstein seem like a mechanical clock. How can you take him seriously? 

And yet, there is often magic in his playing. I have heard him live several times, and his performances varied widely, from glib to dazzling to absolutely empty. Yet, at other times, it was profoundly moving. When I heard him play the Chopin E-minor concerto, the way he played the slow movement made time stand absolutely still. It is one of the most soul-satisfying performances I have heard in a half-century of concertgoing. It probably helped that I normally close my eyes when listening to music and therefore was spared his facial contortions. God, was that moment beautiful. 

His recordings are equally all-over-the-place, with some dead-on and concentrated and others distracted and hollow. Lang is capable of so much, but only delivers intermittently. 

So I am now confronted by a Goldberg Variations unlike any I’ve heard before. Is it brilliant or dunderheaded? Is it an aberration or is it a signal that classical music culture is shifting once again? 

I’ve heard a lot of Goldbergs in my time. They were little known or played before 1955, when Glenn Gould launched them on an unsuspecting public, with a blazing performance that redefined Bach playing, clarifying the polyphonic strands and cutting down the pedal, almost mimicking the sound of a harpsichord. Since then, in the same way that no self-respecting art photographer can fail to make a photograph of a green pepper after being shown the way by Edward Weston, so no decent pianist can avoid recording a set of Goldbergs. Most of them are perfectly decent, if anonymous. 

In recent years, a few with real personality have been released. Simone Dinnerstein has her set and more recently Jeremy Denk. Some may remember the brief surfacing of a recording by João Carlos Martins that was almost as idiosyncratic as Gould, although Martins’ piano never seemed to be quite in tune. 

The work has also been transcribed for accordion, marimba, harp, hammer dulcimer, guitar, saxophone quartet, string trio, string orchestra, synthesizer, and brass quintet. I have a recording of parts of them on Japanese koto, and Yo-yo Ma recorded the Aria on his cello. Avant-gardist Uri Caine made his version updating each variations individually for a heterogeneous mixture of voices, instruments and recorded noises. I once put together a CD mixing many of these oddball transcriptions into something I called the “Goldberg Variorum” — each variation played by a different instrument or group. 

Gould recorded the Goldbergs at least four times — with untold bootlegs out there. The initial set has been reissued so many times in different albums, that it is impossible to keep count. Russian pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva recorded them five times and Rosalyn Tureck did it seven times. 

The earliest version I could find was on Welte piano rolls (a kind of player piano) from 1928, by Rudolf Serkin. (His son, Peter, left us three versions). Since then, there have been close to 250 recordings. About 50 of those are on harpsichord. A few are the transcriptions, but almost all are on piano. 

But since Gould, most pianists have hewn to the stricture that, since they were composed for the harpsichord, they should be performed as drily as possible, and with little or — preferably — no pedal. And since the arrival of “historically informed performance practice” (fie on the miscreants, I say, fie) boatloads of pianists have done their best to erase any notion that a performer should “interpret” the score. Just the notes, ma’am. 

This has led to quite able, but faceless performances by such as Angela Hewitt, András Schiff and Murray Parahia. I don’t mean to poo-poo these recordings, They are all excellent of their kind, but they are chaste. 

And so, we come to Lang Lang’s two-disc set, taken at a rather leisurely pace, but with lots of spark and crackle in the details. He likes to thump hard on stray notes and he adds many ornaments, especially in the repeats — and not all the trills and mordents are stylistically appropriate. Extra passing tones and tons of rubato. Worse: Pedal. In modern terms, this is Bach done in “bad taste.” 

In the old days (pre-HIPP), pianists tended to play Bach on piano as if he had written for piano. They brought out tunes and backed them with accompaniment. Now, we revel in the polyphonic strands, each brought out cleanly. If you listen to pre-World War II recordings of Bach, you will hear pianists such as Edward Fischer or Wilhelm Kempff play their Bach as if he were the godfather of Chopin. 

You can hear the echoes of this Bach in the Well-Tempered Clavier of Daniel Barenboim. They are magnificently played, but purists cover their ears and bray “Nyah-nyah” to block out the sound. Yet, there is a long tradition, now largely buried, of approaching Bach’s music as a pretext for piano playing, showing off the performer’s skills and sensibilities. After all, do you go to La Boheme for the story, or to hear Pavarotti? The present orthodoxy considers this a kind of blasphemy. 

Yet, the music no longer belongs to Bach; it is ours and we can express our ownership of it any way we wish (as someone once said about modernized performances of Shakespeare, set on the moon or done with an all-female cast, “It’s OK. They haven’t destroyed the text. It is still there, unharmed.”) And no matter what you may think of Lang Lang’s performance, the text is still there. It belongs to you, too. But Bach himself is no longer here; he has no say in the matter and we are presumptuous if we claim to speak for him. 

So, maybe, after 40 years of increasing musical priggishness and the cult of “composer’s intentions” we are beginning to loosen up. After all, it is Postmodern doctrine that it is all just “text” to be worked on by each of us. 

The audience that actually cares about classical music seems divided into two unequal groups. The larger posits a Platonic ideal performance and judges each concert by how close to this ideal it reaches. Of course, each listener has his own vote for what that ideal is. But the goal is always the “perfect” realization of the score. 

But the other group seeks constantly to be surprised, to see the notes through a newer lens and have the music refreshed. “To hear it again for the first time.” They expect each concert to give them a different version even of old chestnuts. The standard issue performance bores them. 

I can give a great demonstration of the difference. When Anne-Sophie Mutter first recorded the Beethoven Violin Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic and Herbert von Karajan, she gave what must be the closest to the perfect ideal. Nothing out of place, everything beautiful and expressive. As if played by angels, not humans. It has remained in print since it was released in 1979. She recorded it again in 2002 with Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic, in a performance much more personalized, with very different phrasings and dynamics. No longer a Platonic ideal, but much more a here-and-now. You would never confuse it with any other performance or violinist. I love it; many fans hated it. Hate, hate, hated it. 

The problem with the Platonic performance is that the ideal changes over time. Once, the perfect Beethoven was Furtwängler, then it became Szell, and after that, it became John Eliot Gardiner. Tastes change over time. 

We seem to be in another shift, giving up the impersonal historically strait-jacketed version for a reintroduction of the more individuated performance. We hear it in the recordings not just of Lang Lang, but of Mikhail Pletnev, Valery Gergiev or the late Nikolaus Harnoncourt (operating under the deceitful guise as an “original instrument” guy — but really just sui generis.)

Really, the Platonic template has been in place mostly from World War II on. Before that, performance idiosyncrasy was the norm, from Vladimir de Pachman to Willem Mengelberg. Leopold Stokowski was famous for tinkering with scores and glamming up what he was conducting. Now, having gone through that, into the Post-war standardization and then the HIPP diminution, we seem to be re-entering an era of increased personal interpretation. 

And that brings us back to Lang’s Goldbergs. If we are in the cusp of a change, we cannot really be sure where the gamepiece comes down. This new recording may indicate a reshaping of the way we play Bach, the way Gould reshaped it from 1955. Or maybe it’s just a garish one-off. 

I poke it; I prod it. I place my bet. So many of the hundreds of recordings of the Goldberg Variations are magnificently well-played and satisfying in their own way, but how many are memorable? You could replace one with another and be equally pleased, indeed not even to notice the difference. Gould was memorable: You can spot it in a crowd of hundreds. Lang Lang’s recording is the most memorable I’ve heard since then, and I’ve heard a boxload of them. It is memorable, but is it good? Will its novelty wear thin, or become the new norm? 

I am going back for a fourth dive into the new recording. Then, maybe, a fifth. Perhaps after that, I’ll have an answer. 

I hadn’t baked in years. I used to do so regularly, just to have fresh-baked bread to eat with cold butter. It is the food they must eat in Paradise. Hot crusty bread with hard cold butter: There is nothing better. 

Neither had I baked a cake, but then I had a slight hankering for chocolate and I didn’t want to go out in the Covid night to shop, so I decided to make my own dessert, a small chocolate cake — a sort of brownie thing, but more cakey. 

I have never used a recipe for baking and I didn’t this time, either. Years ago, when I lived with friends, I wanted to bake a cake and my friend’s wife warned me that you simply had to have the measurements right for a cake to turn out. I took it as a challenge. I threw together what I thought would make a cake and slid it in the oven. The cake was delicious. 

That was something like 40 years ago. And it was, I believe, the last time I baked a cake. I’m not a big cake eater. 

But bread, yes. I love bread and I always thought bread making was the easiest thing in the world. I don’t know why so many people think it is a persnickety project. I see TV chefs giving conflicting instructions. One says you have to be careful to measure your flour and to slide a knife across the top of the measuring cup to get an accurate amount. Another says you can’t measure the flour; you have to weigh it on a kitchen scale (preferably, I think, in grams). 

I have never measured my flour. I just dump what feels like the proper amount in a mixing bowl, add my yeast and a bit of salt and stir around the dry ingredients, then add warm water until I get a dough. You can’t know just how much, because the air humidity and barometric pressure change the needed proportions. You just do it until it feels like dough. 

Of course, you can add things if you want to make a different sort of bread. You can put in an egg and substitute some milk for the water if you want to make a challah. You can mix in some rye flour if you want a rye bread. 

But you do it until you get a dough that feels right. I can’t tell you what that is: It is something you learn in your fingertips. Book knowledge is no help, anymore than it is when learning to ride a bike. The same goes for the proper amount of kneading. It will feel ready when it feels ready. 

Then you can either put it in bread pans, or make a boule or a baguette. Bake it in an oven with a pan of water to help make a good crust. It will be done when the kitchen smells right. 

There is so much that is not verbal and cannot be put down in print. Driving a car, facial recognition, offering condolence, playing music in tune, making love, knowing why life is worth living: Words are inadequate at best, impossible to be precise and often utterly misleading. Only experience really helps, along with an openness and willingness to pay attention. 

These days, many people, locked in their homes avoiding tiny spiky bugs, fill their empty time with the baking of bread. They share sourdough starter recipes and “secrets” for a good loaf. It’s a fine hobby and the eating is a great reward. But there is a difference between a non-cook poring over a cookbook, following its instructions step by slow step, biting on their lips while reading; and a seasoned veteran who has the whole process recorded in muscle memory. It provides the confidence. 

So, anyway, there I was, wanting a bit of sweet, about 8 in the evening. I set the oven for 350F and got out a mixing bowl. 

I dumped some flour into the bowl. I don’t know exactly how much, maybe two-thirds of a cup or so. Measurements-shmeasurements. I added  roughly three-quarters of the same amount of sugar and another hefty dose of cocoa powder, a dribble of vanilla, an egg, some butter I melted in the microwave, and used the tip end of a measuring cup handle to get some baking powder. I added about six grains of Cafe Bustelo instant coffee — barely enough to notice, and a squirt of Hershey’s syrup, and enough milk to make a batter. No measurements of anything, just the right “feel” for it. Baked it all for 25 minutes and waited for it to cool. It was yummy. I had a piece, then I had another piece, with a cold glass of milk. 

So, maybe I had three pieces. Sue me. I did a little dance. Perhaps it was the caffeine from the grains of coffee. It’s about the only thing I’ve accomplished this past week of self-isolating — other than writing. Oh, and I took out the garbage and walked the dumpster down to the street so the trash delivery men could get it. 

And I know what I’ll be eating for breakfast. Hah! I still got it. 

There is Mahler before Bernstein, and Mahler after him. This is not to say that Lenny is the summum bonum of these nine-plus symphonies, but that before his 1960’s advocacy, Mahler was one of those niche composers that a few people knew about and appreciated, and afterwards, no right-thinking conductor could fail to offer a complete cycle — Mahler joined Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky and one of those whose works would be recorded by the yard. A Mahler program now draws a paying audience like almost no other. 

But there is Mahler and there is Mahler. When everyone gets into the act, the quality level evens out — It’s hard to find a really bad recording anymore, and it is also hard to stand out with something exceptional. Yet, both ends do still exist. 

I have not heard every release; no one could, not even David Hurwitz, who is as close to nuts as anyone I know of. But I have experienced a whole raft of Mahler recordings and I have my favorites, and a few excrescences that I have to keep as “party records” to share with commiserating friends. 

My bona fides include more than a half-century of listening to classical music, reading scores, and being a retired classical music critic on a major daily newspaper. I have owned at least 15 complete Mahler cycles and uncounted individual CDs and LPs — going back to the 1960s. I did disgorge about two-thirds of my collection of CDs when I retired eight years ago, but even since, I have added more Mahler (among others) and currently sit with 10 full sets and two shelves of individual recordings. Am I as nuts as Hurwitz? I leave that to the jury. (It isn’t only Mahler: I once owned 25 complete sets of Beethoven piano sonatas and 45 recordings of the Beethoven Violin Concerto). 

Yes, I listen to a boatload of music. I cannot imagine my life without music. 

And I have my Top 10 list of Mahler recordings. Really, a Top 11 — one for each of the nine completed symphonies, and add-ons for the incomplete 10th, for Das Lied von der Erde, and the song cycles, so it’s really like a Top 15 or so. And there are a few bombs I want to include, just for fun. Let’s take them in order. 

Symphony No. 1 in D

The symphony begins with an ethereal A, barely audible and transforms into a cuckoo call, evincing nature, the woods and eternity, but then opens up into the fields and streams borrowed from Ging heut’ Morgen über’s Feld in his song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen.  The first four Mahler symphonies all borrow from his songs. The third movement is a grotesquerie built from a minor-key version of Frere Jacques played first by a solo double bass; it is an ironic funeral march, interrupted by klezmer music and a bit of gypsy wedding. It is one of the most peculiar movement from anyone’s symphonies.

Then it all burst out in a tormented and blazing fourth movement with horns wailing out over all, and comes to an abrupt conclusion with an orchestral hiccup. 

The symphony is qualitatively different from the ones that follow, but it is easier for most first-time listeners to comprehend. It is a great place to start a Mahler journey. 

The greatest version I ever heard live was Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic; it blew me away. There is a live recording, from the young maestro’s debut concert in LA. It is hard to get the same effect from a recording, but this is my sentimental favorite. But there are some other great ones. 

The consensus (but not universal) favorite is Raphael Kubelik and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra from 1968. It includes the Lieder eines fahrended Gesellen and Dietrich Fischer-Deiskau. 

The version I first learned from, a billion years ago in another galaxy, and on vinyl, was Bruno Walter’s with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra. Walter knew Mahler and premiered his Ninth Symphony. The sonics are not always great, but there is tremendous authority in Walter’s Mahler. 

Symphony No. 2 in C-minor (“Resurrection”)

Many people hold the “Resurrection Symphony” as their nearest and dearest, with its uplifting finale of rebirth and optimism. But I have always found the end a touch forced and insincere, as if Mahler really, really wanted to believe in a renewed life after death, but couldn’t, and could only mouth the words. “Words without thoughts never to heaven go.” 

Yet, its music is still magnificent, especially the first movement funeral march, which comes to a climax so disturbing and dissonant, he never matched it until the orphan adagio of his 10th symphony. The inner movements are some of the most beautiful he ever wrote and the alto solo, Urlicht, is transcendental. 

Everyone, it seems, has taken a crack at the “Resurrection”, including businessman Gilbert Kaplan, who learned to conduct only to lead this symphony and never conducted anything else. (OK, he did make a stab at the Adagietto from the Mahler Fifth, but that hardly counts.)

My favorite is Otto Klemperer with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus. Klemperer always makes the music feel as important as it needs to be; he seems to believe in what it says, not merely to play the notes.

Symphony No. 3 in D-minor

There are some music you cannot listen to very often. Beethoven’s Ninth, for instance, or the Bach Matthew Passion. They are too big, too meaningful, too overwhelming, that to maintain the sense of occasion, you can only pull them out at special moments. You have to be ready to accept what they have to offer. It is almost a religious experience. 

The Mahler Third last an hour and a half. It is almost an opera without words, except there are singers. It is a full evening by itself. But if you are not in the right frame of mind, it can just seem endless. The first movement alone lasts longer than any Haydn symphony.

Mahler explained his ideas for the symphony, though he later recanted. The words are not what the symphony says, but they give an approximation. The first movement is “Pan awakes; summer marches in,” and pits a relentless and ruthless nature, “red in tooth and claw,” against the riotous optimism of the season of growth, in an overwhelming march of joy and hedonism. 

The second movement is “What the flowers of the meadow tell me.” The third is “What the animals of the forest tell me.” In the fourth, an alto sings “What man tells me,” in a doleful lament that “Die Welt ist tief,” “The world is deep.” Following that comes “What the angels tell me,” with a choir and bells telling of “himmlische Freude” — heavenly joy. 

But all of this, for an hour, is really prolog to the final movement Adagio, “What love tells me.” It is built on a theme taken from Beethoven’s final quartet and its “Muss es sein? Es muss sein.” (“Must it be; it must be”).  It is a 22-minute-long meditation, rising to ecstasy. 

When the premiere was given in 1902, Swiss critic William Ritter wrote this finale was “Perhaps the greatest adagio written since Beethoven.” If you can come away without collapsing into a puddle of weeping, you’re a better person than I am. 

The recording that overwhelms me more than any other, not only because of the performance, but because of its engineering and immediacy of sound quality is Riccardo Chailly and the Royal Concertgebouw. 

A nearly equal second, in slightly less perfect sound, is Leonard Bernstein’s 1961 recording with the New York Philharmonic. It is the gold standard for the finale. 

Symphony No. 4 in G

On the opposite end of the emotional scale — and what a relief — comes the Fourth Symphony, with its sleigh bells and Kinderhimmel. It is, without doubt, Mahler’s happiest symphony. It is also his shortest. Coincidence? 

But I’ve got a problem picking a best, because there are three performances I cannot do without, each highlighting a different aspect of the work. 

First, there is Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw  Orchestra, recorded in November, 1939. Mengelberg knew Mahler, and we have evidence that Mahler endorsed Mengelberg’s interpretation of the symphony, although that endorsement came for earlier performances. Mahler died in 1912 and this recording is from 27 years later. Still, it is the best evidence we have for the way Mahler probably intended his work to sound. And, compared to the way it is played nowadays, it is ripe with violent tempo changes and swooping portamentos. 

Second, there is Benjamin Zander, with the Philharmonia. In the hour-long discussion disc packaged with the performance, Zander makes the case that Mahler wanted the violin soloist in the second movement to play like a country fiddler, not a trained violinist. A “Geige,” not a “Violine.” He has the violinist retune his fiddle a full tone sharp to play the Totentanz — he is to be Freund Hein, or “Friend Hank,” a nickname for the Grim Reaper. Zander is the only conductor to really take the composer at his word; most recordings, the soloist can’t bring himself to make the ugly sounds Mahler wanted, and smooths the part’s rough edges. It should sound like the Devil’s fiddle in Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat, with that edge. 

In all his Mahler recordings, Zander is scrupulous in following the anal retentive storm of written instructions Mahler included in his scores. If this means the long-haul structure of the work is sometimes disrupted for the spotlit detail, well, that’s the nature of Romanticism over Classicism. Those details were put there for a reason; we should hear them. 

The third recording is Bernstein’s first version, with the New York Philharmonic and soprano Reri Grist. Bernstein’s Mahler is always good, but sometimes, it is the best, and this is one of those times. Grist has a fresh voice that is perfect for the innocent text of the finale, which is a child’s vision of what heaven will be like (“Good apples, good pears, good grapes … St. Martha must be the cook.”) 

Symphony No. 5

Wagner has his “bleeding chunks,” and Mahler has his Adagietto. Everyone knows the Adagietto, from movies and TV commercials. But the whole symphony, the first one since the First Symphony not to have voices, is a great rumbustious tussle, from its funeral march start to its manic contrapuntal finale, where he takes five melodic fragments, stated at the outset, and combines and recombines them like a Braumeister. 

The Adagietto fourth movement was, per Mahler, intended as a love letter to his wife, Alma, but is so elegiac that it has become the aural metaphor for loss and grief. Considering Alma’s serial infidelities, perhaps it is only fitting that the movement has morphed in its cultural meaning. (One critic calls Mahler “a composer with a dodgy heart who married a trollop.” “Alma, tell us: All modern women are jealous. You should have a statue in bronze, for bagging Gustav and Walter and Franz.”)

The recording to have is Bernstein’s second recording, with the Vienna Philharmonic. It has beautiful playing from one of the world’s best orchestras, and all the energy and commitment that emanates from Lenny’s spiritual leadership. 

Another legendary performance is John Barbirolli’s with the New Philharmonia. If you think Bernstein’s fever is suspect, then reach for a cold bottle of Sir John.

Symphony No. 6 (“Tragic”)

Labeling any of Mahler’s symphonies as “Tragic” may seem redundant, but this is clearly his gloomiest, opening with a relentless stomp, stomp, stomp of a marche fatale and leading to the crushing hammer blows of destiny in the finale. 

Nevertheless, it has what I think is an even more persuasive love letter to Alma in the slow movement, which has to be one of the most tender and lovely in all of the canon. 

But Mahler never quite figured out if it should be the second or third movement, so nowadays, you find it both ways in performance, and find angry and assertive essays by critics proving once and for all it simply has to be the way they see it. Me, I like the adagio second to separate the angry first movement from the angry scherzo, which shares its rhythm with the first. Play them back to back before the adagio and it can seem like too much of the same thing. But then, that’s my opinion; you are free to have yours. 

Then, in the finale, Mahler never quite resolved whether there should be three hammer blows or only two. He was a seriously superstitious man and feared that a third hammer blow might prefigure his own death, and took it out of the score. But hammer blows come in threes in life — at least in Mahler’s — and I prefer all three to be there. Nor did he ever quite specify what he meant by hammer blows; they are written into the score, but how should they be produced? Each orchestra is left to come up with its own solution. Some have used hammer and anvil, others have built large resonant wooden boxes hit with great wooden mallets. There’s a lot of room for interpretation. 

Ben Zander comes to the rescue: His recording includes both the duple and triple hammer blows. You get to choose which finale you want to hear. As usual, Zander is perfect for following Mahler’s precise instructions in the score: a sforzando here, a ritardando there, a subito piano or a purposeful mix-mash of rhythms there. Now make the clarinet sound like a dying cat, now let the violins swoop with a portamento. Zander obeys where most other conductors smooth it all out to make pretty. This should not be a pretty symphony. 

Symphony No. 7

Guess what? Whether two or three hammer blows, Mahler didn’t die after the Sixth Symphony, which may explain why the Seventh is so giddy. All the other symphonies are programmatic in some way, with funeral marches, or heroic deaths, but the Seventh is just music. Mahlerian music, which means fantastic orchestrations and effects. But no overt meaning. 

It has five movements. The inner three are a scherzo sandwiched between two nostalgic sweetnesses he called “Nachtmusik,” or “night music.” In them, he uses rustic cowbells to symbolize — cowbells — and adds a mandolin and guitar. They couldn’t be lovelier. Between them is a vicious scherzo. 

But then, there’s the finale, which really makes no sense at all. It’s a complete hodge-podge, starting with a manic tympani solo and rushing off like a Turkish Pasha into what sounds like Ottoman grandiosity. But you have to remember the advice of the Talking Heads: “Stop Making Sense.” Just enjoy the effervescent joy of it all, up to the penultimate C-augmented horn chord before the final tonic C. One of the oddest endings before Sibelius’s Fifth. 

 The Third and the Ninth are certainly deeper and more profoundly moving, but the Seventh is my favorite for when I just want to hear Mahler without having to weep and sob and contemplate the Weltschmerz of it all. 

My go-to recording is a sleeper. Daniel Barenboim is not known as a great Mahler conductor, but his recent Mahler Seventh, with Staatskapelle Berlin on Warner Classics is brilliant and one of the best engineered recordings I’ve heard, so you get not only a perfect performance, but a recording that sounds more like an orchestra playing live in your room than any other. He hits the crazed finale with the perfect get-on-the-roller-coaster attitude. 

I’ve been choosing great performances to recommend, but really bad ones can be fun, too. There is a Mahler Seven that is so unbelievably bad, you just have to hear it. Otto Klemperer is — let’s be honest — a really great Mahler conductor. Many of his recordings rank at the top of the list. But his Seventh is a real dog. What was he thinking? Barenboim comes in at 74 minutes. Klemp’s Seventh goes on for an hour and 40 minutes. Cheez Louise. It’s like Glenn Gould’s Appassionata, playing it like they were sight-reading it for the first time. 

Symphony No. 8 (“Symphony of a Thousand”)

I’m afraid I have never warmed up to the Eight Symphony. Its first movement is outright hysterical — I don’t mean it’s funny, but rather the manic half of a bipolar cycle; and its second movement is an opera manque built on Goethe’s Faust that just seems to wander without getting anywhere. Maybe I just need to listen to it another 20 times or so to get it into my head. It was Mahler’s biggest popular success during his life, but it has not worn well with me. 

It is a choral symphony with an alleged 1000 performers taking part, including eight solo voices, two different choruses and an organ, which blares at the beginning when it all explodes open in a “Veni creator spiritus” — “Come, Creator Spirit” — like one of those tweets typed in all caps. 

It has its fans. I am happy for them. George Solti and the Chicago Symphony is a consensus recommendation and zips through it all in under 80 minutes, which is shorter than almost all other performances, and therefore qualifies it as the greatest.

Symphony No. 9

Mahler had a congenital heart defect and he put its irregular rhythm into the beginning of his Ninth Symphony, an off-kilter beat that is the first thing we hear as the orchestra begins. Over that we hear the harp and muted trumpet. Added to that comes a little shiver in the strings followed by a two-note descending theme. These layers form the basis of the entire symphony, the way dot-dot-dot-dash forms the genesis of Beethoven’s Fifth. 

There follows an earthy Ländler as a second movement and a scurrilous Rondo Burlesque for the third. The final adagio is a kind of culmination of Mahler’s death music. Instead of a funeral march or a heroic death, the music dwindles to a quiet and inevitable cessation of its heartbeat. It trails off in a morendo so still and hushed that in a good performance, you can never quite tell when the orchestra stops playing. It just dies away. The effect can be overwhelming. In some famous performances, the audience refrains from applauding for as long as five whole minutes before exhaling in bravos and cheers. It is music that strikes deep. 

Bernstein made a meal of this symphony and recorded it four times, not counting a few live performances caught on tape outside the Bernstein canon. In the only time he ever performed with the Berlin Philharmonic, he recorded the Mahler Ninth. It is held in reverence by many, despite a glaring lapse by the trombone section in the finale (reputedly, an audience member sitting behind the section had a heart attack and died and the trombonists were understandably distracted). Even so, it is a powerfully emotional recording. But then, all of Lenny’s Ninths carry that wallop. 

If you wish to escape the Bernstein reality distortion field, there are other tremendous Ninths. Barbirolli’s with the Berlin Philharmonic, from 1964, is a clear and unsentimental, but still emotional performance. Bruno Walter premiered the work in 1912, a year after Mahler’s death, with the Vienna Philharmonic. He made a stereo recording with the Columbia Symphony exactly 50 years later; that recording is a benchmark for many. 

It has been recorded by almost every conductor out there, up to Bernard Haitink and the Royal Concertgebouw just last year. 

The version I learned on was a surprisingly good version by Leopold Ludwig and the London Symphony, from 1960, on the old Everest label. I still enjoy his Ländler above most.   

Symphony No. 10

Mahler never finished his Tenth Symphony, but left it in tantalizing form as piano short score. He did orchestrate the opening adagio, and until recently, the adagio was performed as a stand-alone. That piano sketch has been orchestrated since, essentially by committee, and there are now many full recordings out there. 

I have never been convinced by the attempted realizations of the whole, but the adagio is absolutely scarifying. It slowly builds up to a climax that is so frightening that in a good performance, your fight-or-flight hormones should get nightmares, the hair on the back of your neck should prickle and you should feel as if the gates of hell have opened and disgorged its contents. It is a scream of pain, an Edvard Munch level scream: “Ich fühlte das grosse Geschrei durch die Natur” (“I felt the great scream in nature.”)

Mahler had found out about Alma’s infidelity and he scribbled in his score several pained comments about it. He was devastated and the music shows it. At one point, nearly all twelve chromatic notes are played in a single harrowing dissonance, distributed across the orchestra in a way to make a musical chord rather than simply noise, and then a screaming trumpet breaks through the din to make things even more unbearable. After that moment, things go quiet and the movement continues to its distressed end. 

If you want to hear all five movements, there are many good performances, including Simon Rattle with the Berlin Philharmonic. But I will cling to the adagio alone and the first version I knew — Bernstein’s first with the New York Philharmonic. Any time the emotion is more to the point than the music, Bernstein conducts the emotion. This is Mahler at his most Mahlerian, and Lenny at his most Bernsteinian. 

Das Lied von der Erde

After all that, if I were forced to accept having only a single work of Gustav Mahler, it would be Das Lied von der Erde (“The Song of the Earth”), a six-song cycle-symphony. Mahler had planned to publish it as his ninth symphony, but, superstitious about ninth symphonies (the final symphonies of so many composers), he refused to give it the title. When he then came to publish his next, he could name it the Ninth, knowing that fate would understand it was really his tenth.

But aside from that biographical titbit, Das Lied is an overwhelming and emotional work, even among an oeuvre that practically set the parameters for overwhelming and emotional. 

Mahler’s output falls into three large groups. The first four symphonies are called his “Wunderhorn” symphonies, because they make use of his settings of songs from a book of poetry called Des knaben Wunderhorn (“A Boy’s Magic Horn”). The second group are his purely orchestral symphonies, numbers 4 through 7. The Eighth is sui generis and doesn’t count (see above). But the final three works, the Ninth Symphony, the trunk of the Tenth and Das Lied von der Erde are profoundly inward. You get the feeling that Mahler didn’t write them so much for audiences, but as a way to question his own existence. 

The songs of this symphony are taken from a book of Chinese poetry, translated into German (or invented) called “The Chinese Flute.” The texts investigate beauty, isolation, nature and death, and where all these intersect. “Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod.” 

The sixth and final song — Der Abschied (“The Farewell”) — lasts as long as the first five and features some of the most ethereal orchestral writing Mahler ever penned, and a text that Mahler supplemented with several lines of his own. 

“I seek peace for my lonely heart,” the contralto sings. And ends, “The dear Earth everywhere/ blooms in spring and grows green anew./ Everywhere and forever blue is the horizon./ Forever … Forever.” 

That last word — “ewig” in German — repeats and repeats ever more silent, until it completely evaporates. It is impossible to hear it without sobbing. 

The symphony was premiered by Bruno Walter in 1911, six months after Mahler’s death, and Walter recorded it at least three times, in 1936, 1952 and 1960, the last in stereo. Either of the last two can be considered the one to have: Each has its champions and both are magnificent and echt Mahler. 

But the one you cannot do without is by Otto Klemperer, released in 1967, with Fritz Wunderlich and Christa Ludwig. It has better sound than any of the Walters and magnificent singing. This is music right in Klemp’s wheelhouse. 

Complete sets

Warning at the outset: No single set of complete recordings is great in all of the symphonies. But having a complete set gives you a consistent vision of what the work is all about. 

Bernstein recorded them all three times. The first for Columbia (now Sony), mostly with the New York Philharmonic. The second for Deutsche Grammophon, mostly with the Vienna Philharmonic. And finally, a video set, on DVD, for Unitel, mostly with the Vienna Phil. The first two are canonic, and while each cycle has its proponents, you really should have both. 

Pierre Boulez is kind of the anti-Bernstein, cool and analytical, precise and controlled. For Boulez, Mahler is a 20th century composer — or at least a prefiguring, and the source of the Second Viennese School. You can hear every instrument with clarity

But is Mahler Mahler without going over the top emotionally? Klaus Tennstedt has many devotees, and falls more into the Bernsteinian camp. He recorded them with the London Philharmonic. It is a great set. I gave mine away, not because I didn’t like them, but because I gave them to my best friend; he deserved them. 

A sleeper among sets is David Zinman with the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich. It is the best engineered set I have heard and with beautiful playing by the orchestra. 

There have been sets that mixed and matched conductors and orchestras. Both DG and Warners have great sets. Another, called the “People’s Edition” had a promotional vote to choose which recordings to include. The fact that each set chooses from their proprietary recordings means that there is no agreement on what are the best recordings. Everyone, after all, has their opinion. In Mahler-World, opinions are strong. 

Other conductors have less-than-complete boxes out there. Klemperer only recorded Symphonies 2, 4, 7, 9 and Das Lied von der Erde. His No. 2 and Das Lied are consensus choices for best ever. The Seventh is just awful, but you should hear it anyway. 

Hermann Scherchen has a box with all but the Fourth and no Das Lied. He recorded with second-rate orchestras, for the most part, and is often so wayward his interpretations have been called “Variations on Themes by Mahler.” The sound engineering is highly variable. This one is for specialists only. 

In the BB list (“Before Bernstein”), you get to hear all nine symphonies with Ernest Ansermet and the Utah Symphony and hear what they sound like before the current Mahler Tradition was assembled (largely by Lenny). They are surprisingly good, and you get a different slant on the music (less peculiar than Scherchen’s). 

Benjamin Zander and the Philharmonia has not yet recorded the Seventh or Eighth, but the rest are among my favorites and I listen to them often. More than any other conductor, Zander follows Mahler printed directions accurately, and brings out expressive details glossed over in other recordings. There are those who disparage Zander for this detail orientation, but for me, it is the heart of a Romantic interpretation. This is the way they were played under Mahler, I am convinced. I love them all. And each comes with an hour-long lecture, explaining many of the details. He is a great speaker as well as conductor. 

There are others: Chailly, Bertini, Gielen, Sinopoli, Rattle. And all have their merits. 

The sets just keep coming. Everyone gets into the act. I have not been anywhere near complete. 

But these are the ones I have come to love. And, of course, there are many individual recordings, not part of sets. And many of these are among the greatest. 

And I have not even mentioned the other song cycles. Maybe another time.

On an August afternoon in the Blue Ridge Mountains the late afternoon rain grays out the trees and streaks my vision with vertical lines. In the distance I can hear a low rumble, but this is no storm, but a gentle, constant rain. When I lived in the desert many years ago, this was called a “she-rain.” 

It has been muggy, with air so thick you can feel it smear on your skin, but the rain clears it out and leaves a fresh smell of green in my nostrils. I step out the front door to soak in the feel of it all. 

I look out, up and down the street and see the trees shiver as the drops tag the leaves and comes over me a distinct and particular emotion. I don’t want this feeling to stop, but rather I wish to drink it in and let it swirl through my body. It is not an easy emotion to describe; words are not sufficient. But it is a sense that the world is larger than I am and runs on a pattern and scale that I am only an observer of. There is comfort in that. 

Weather carries emotion. We don’t always remember that perhaps because sometimes the emotion is frustration or disappointment, as when you can’t go our in a snowstorm, or fear when it looks like a tornado might be brewing. But the moving air is an agent and cause, the sky and its clouds a ripe metaphor for our interior lives. 

Weather is a ground upon which our lives are painted, always there under the surface. A sunny day can make us happier — unless you live in the desert when after two months of continuous sun, you get rather antsy and wish for even just a little reprieve. 

I remember once visiting Washington D.C., covering an exhibit at the National Gallery for the newspaper. I was put up in a hotel near Georgetown and in the afternoon a rainshower blew up. I could see it from my room window. I went out the revolving door and a doorman offered me an umbrella. I refused, looking straight up at the sky and letting the drops pelt my face. He looked at me like I was nutty. 

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I live in Arizona. I haven’t seen rain for three months. I love this. I love getting wet.” 

I remember when I was a schoolkid and it would snow in the New Jersey winter. The snow would be as deep as my belly and I went out into it and dug a cave in the accumulation and pulled away snow from around my hole, making an ersatz igloo. The snow was ecstatic, and not merely the snow, but my breath clouding the air in front of me, the numbness in my fingers and the cracking in my nose. 

When I was living at the beach in Virginia, I once drove down to the water during a nor’easter, with the wind blowing at 40 or 50 miles per hour. The car faced directly into the wind and it bounced violently so that I thought I would go airborne. I couldn’t help but think of an aircraft carrier heading into the wind so the planes could take off with a short run. 

Which reminds me of going airborne in a tent. We were camping in Shamrock, Texas, when an evening thunderstorm hit. A tornado had passed through the previous day and we were worried about another. As the rain came down in multiple Niagaras, the wind tore through and, first the tent began to float on the flood, and then began to rise around us. We had to abandon ship and head to the campground office for safety. As I got out, the tent pulled loose from its stakes and I grabbed it by the frame and it flew over my head like a kite. I held on, thinking I might begin flying myself, but managed to pull it down and flatten it and drag the rags with me to the building, where we — and all the other campers — waited out the storm. 

But back to today’s rain, gentle and quiet, a hiss on the road and paradiddle on the leaves. It is the middle of a pandemic and we have been sequestered in the house for months. To stand on the stoop and feel the rain and enjoy the welling of emotion is a treat. 

It reminds me again that the feeling of emotion is what makes us human. We may be rational beings (at least that’s the argument — I’m not so sure that isn’t wishful thinking), but it is emotion that reminds us we are alive. A computer can think, but I have no evidence that it can stand on a doorstep and enjoy, absolutely enjoy, the rain. And enjoy it to the extent that it warrants the name of joy. 

I am 72 years old, and I face the absolute certainty that whatever life I have remaining will be a mere fraction of what I have already lived. The end is within sight, be it even 20 years off. And I feel my existence on this planet more sharply than ever. I am here; I am alive; I take in my breath and let it out again, and with each inhalation comes the smell of the rain-filled air. 

There is much suffering in the world, and I have had a small share of it, but when I look at the pale green of the maple tree in the front yard, contrast lowered with the obscuring rainfall, I recognize that even with the pain and misery, there is still beauty — an afflatus that fills my frame and almost brings tears, tears of awareness. Of being alive. Of feeling my fingers and toes wiggle. 

Let it rain.   

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. 

Click on any image to enlarge

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

Click on any image to enlarge

“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