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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A recipe for making an asparagus omelet:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her recipe for Chicken Fricasee:

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

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

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

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

This is proper for a Side-dish.”

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

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

As for the French: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simmons’ recipes for Indian Pudding:

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

Next: Women consolidate power

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

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

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

ONE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Downton Abbey, there are official and unofficial versions. 

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

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

TWO 

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

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

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

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

THREE

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

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

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

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

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

 

FOUR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of the enjoyment of cookbooks, there is no end.

Next: A history of cookbooks

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