20191031 00166 11 minutes
Cookbooks, History of Cookbooks, Recipes

Cooking, cookery, cookbooks, recipe books. Have you ever wondered why we now have shelves of cookbooks, but can’t cook, while our grandmothers had no cookbooks but were marvellous cooks?

Recognizable cooking has been in existence for thousands of years. It has evolved from the basic open fire meat, porridge and flat bread cookery of the nomads through the electric and microwave convenience cooking of today. Through the generations, recipes for most of this period were handed down from mother to daughter. Few printed cookbooks were produced until the twentieth century. Now there are more than 8,000 cookbooks available to anyone interested in cooking.

In Six Thousand Years of Bread – Its Holy and Unholy History, H.E. Jacob, in 1944, traced the beginnings of grain cookery from the nomad tribes’ porridge and flat breads through the invention, by the Egyptians, of leavened bread and the invention of the oven. “But the people who, according to Herodotus, did ‘everything in a different fashion from ordinary mortals,’ made an enormous contribution to civilization by using grain differently. While all other peoples feared lest their food decay, the Egyptians set aside their dough until it decayed and observed with pleasure the process that took place. This was the process of fermentation. The chemical details were not discovered until the seventeenth century, when Van Leenwenhock saw yeast cells under his microscope. The Egyptians observed only the consequences: that when they baked their sour dough the resultant product was wholly different from anything that had been known hitherto. Moreover, this new product could not be baked in the coals of a fire. The Egyptians were led to invent the oven and to recording their recipes, as did subsequent civilizations.

They erected their cylindrical structures of brick made of Nile clay, the top narrowing to a cone. A flat partition divided the interior. The lower part had a fire-box opening; the upper section a larger opening for the breads and for drawing off gases. Before long they had 50 varieties of bread. The thing they took out of the oven hardly resembled what they had put into it. Flour, water, salt and yeast had danced around in the roaring flame. When, finally they emerged, they appeared as something entirely new. Indeed, what had the puffy, crumbly inside or the dark, fragrant crust to do with these simple substances? Spirit hands had been at work. This was the kind of magic in which Egyptians delighted…For the Egyptians it (the oven) was also the first magic cauldron. Curiously enough, while other nations’ gods had forbidden their people to employ magic, that “blasphemous infraction of the laws of causation,” its use was expressly permitted to the Egyptians..No, the oven was far from innocuous. It was invented by a people …whose priests were chemists who spent their days mixing, pouring, brewing, reckoning.”

Bread requires ovens; ovens require permanence. They were not practical for nomadic tribes. The spread of ovens came from the subjugation of the Jews by the Egyptians, and then the interaction with the Greeks and Romans. Second century Africa, from Tunis to Tangier, was one vast Roman field of wheat. The great accomplishment of the Romans, according to Jacob, consisted not in their introduction of Roman law or Roman police, but in their making farmers of hundreds of thousands of nomads. The Romans compelled the nomads to dismount from their horses and gave them sacks of seeds and plows and built aquaducts and cisterns to grow fruits and grasses in the dessert. Then, over time, those same farmers were dispossessed by their masters. They lost their feeling of loyalty to the Roman Empire. By the time the Vandals descended on them, they had little desire to fight to defend the land that was no longer theirs. With the destruction of the aquaducts the wheat fields disappeared, but the knowledge of ovens and leavening had been spread throughout the Roman Empire.

Until the 1800s few cookbooks were printed. Most recipes could be handed down by custom and personal collections of hand-written receipts. However, The First Ladies Cookbook, published by Parents’ Magazine Press, lists several of those that were available before the middle of the century. It shows a copy of The Housekeeper’s Pocket Book owned by the John Adams family, VP in 1790 and elected President in 1797. The recipes are in prose with no quantities given. It was expected that people who used the book would be sufficiently experienced to know the quantities to use. The lack of specificity was also a feature of cooks not wanting to give away all their secrets. Sometimes they were intentionally misleading! The next cookbook quoted from is The Virginia Housewife by Mrs. Mary Randolph, Baltimore, John Plaskitt, 1836. Jefferson’s granddaughter, Virginia Randolph Tryst’s manuscript cookbook is quoted from in several instances, as is the Monroe manuscript cookbook, probably transcribed by Rose Gouvernour, great granddaughter of James Monroe, courtesy of the James Monroe Memorial Foundation. Mrs. Lincoln, according to store records, bought a copy of Miss Leslie’s Directions for Cookery in its Various Branches on December 31, 1846, published in Philadelphia by Carey & Hart, 1845. Housekeeping in old Virginia was published by Marion Cabell Tyree, Louisville, Kentucky, John P. Morton & Company, 1890 but is a compilation of recipes from a previous period.

In 1869, in American Woman’s Home Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe were quoted as saying: “Any bride who thinks that a woman demeans herself knowing anything about kitchen work and takes pride in not cooking an egg should know that all the Ladies of King Louis XIV’s court dabbled in cookery and that Mme. de Sable
(a great favorite) established a cooking school for the nobility and in which the Duc de Rochefouchauld stood at the head of the class.”

An example of a normal day’s menu in the 1800’s would include:

Breakfast: Hominy and heavy cream with maple syrup
Breakfast Beefsteak with hashed-in cream potatoes
Buckwheat cakes, Bacon, Hot syrup and melted butter
Apple Pandowdy with sweet sauce
Tea or Coffee.

Midday Green pea soup with diced pork
Boiled ham with cake icing and egg sauce
Potato croquettes and escalloped tomatoes
Homemade bread and freshly churned butter
Coleslaw, pickles, sweet ‘n’ sour, catsup
Dan’l Webster Pudding, Boston cream Pie
Tea or Coffee

Sunset Creamed chicken shortcake with butter sauce
Cold sliced ham and boiled ox-tongue
Baked potatoes and succotash
Muskmelon pickles, chow-chow, spiced peaches
Buttered Tremont biscuits and cottage cheeze
Almond Vanilla blancmange, and Election cake
Milk or Tea

With food like that being served, it would make sense that women needed to have cook books to instruct them. However, these housewives and their helpers knew from instruction by their mothers and grandmothers, and their hand-written receipts, how to perform their magic in the kitchen. In nineteenth century kitchens, however, as in most other aspects of life, there was revolution a-foot.