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Cookbooks, History of Cookbooks

The Rumford Roaster, Benjamin Thompson’s gargantuan stove, started the avalanche of inventions which revolutionized kitchen equipment and how cooking was done. “Thousands of carefully cherished books, on the pages of which women had written their ‘receipts’ laboriously and handed them down from mother to daughter, suddenly became as outdated as Eve’s fig leaf,” according to the American Woman’s Home. Recipe books for open fire cooking were no longer relevant and cook books for the new stoves appeared to handle the new equipment. Cookbooks were the culinary bibles of our mothers and grandmothers who usually had just one book that set the standard for social entertaining and living for their generation.

By 1908, in Household Discoveries and Mrs. Curtis’s Cook Book, published by Success Company’s Branch Offices in the USA, Sidney Morse was able to say: “The writer has closely examined about 50,000 recipes contributed by housekeepers and more than 50 published books of recipes (embracing all that have appeared in the English language in the past fifty or sixty years) or a total (including duplicates) of nearly one hundred thousand recipes…This book contains the cream of them all….It was not necessary to leave out any good recipes that were adapted to household use…Nothing had to be left out but waste words, duplicates (the same thing said in another way), gush , and braggadocio…A favorite way of padding books of recipes has been to occupy more space boasting about the wonders the recipes will do than it takes to give the recipe and the directions. Nearly half of one of the most celebrated books of recipes is thus taken up with “Remarks” that are of no possible use to anybody. If the mass of trivialities contained in some of the most widely known books of recipes now in use could be struck out and the contents “boiled down” or “churned” or “winnowed” in a thorough manner, it would surprise everyone to find how little space the recipes themselves take up.”

I wonder what Mr. Morse would say about the plethora of cook books now available?

He showed the potential influence such books can have: “A family receipt book having a circulation of hundreds of thousands of copies exerts widespread influence as a popular educator. Scientific information of great value is …being gradually instilled into the minds of its owners and users in intimate relation to the needs and interests of daily life and is being absorbed by them without any appreciable effort. Washing the hands and the chemical properties of soap,.the effects of bacteria in the preservation of meat and fruits, dangers of dust, manufacture of vinegar and baking of bread.”

The original Fannie Farmer Boston Cooking School Cook Book was published in 1896. It was published in response to the “earnest solicitation of educators, pupils and friends” and, according to Fannie Farmer’s niece, Wilma Lord Perkins, Fannie Farmer “invented” the use of level measurements. The first edition was not revised until Wilma Lord Perkins’ new edition in 1930. Since then it has had numerous revisions, bringing the recipes and emphasis up to date with the new technologies as they emerged. Craig Claibourn, in New York Times Cookbook, says the new edition was a poor shadow of the original.

In England, Mrs. Beeton’s Household Management held sway for nearly a century. It laid down the rules for running a household. The original 187’s edition was updated in the 1930s and again in the 1960s. The original first chapter, 112 pages long, included sections on the duties of the Mistress of the house: “Whether the establishment be large or small, the functions of the housewife resemble those of the general of an army or the manager of a great business concern. It is hers to inspire, to mould, direct; vigilance or slackness on her part will alike inevitably be reflected back. The most successful housewives are those who, as in other walks of life, make themselves felt rather than seen or heard.” The section on the cook stated: “While statesmen may carve nations, good cooks alone can consolidate them.” The duties and training of the housemaid, and the kitchen (or scullery) maid were also included. It guided the new bride through the reasons for cooking, the effects of heat on food and the importance of cleanliness, efficiency and order.

‘Mrs. Beeton’ was a state-of-the-art course in home economics from selecting a house or flat with the legal implications involved, to choosing equipment for and laying out the ideal labor-saving kitchen, and the care of expected wedding presents: crystal, silver and china. Only after the new bride had been thoroughly indoctrinated in all these mysteries is she introduced to food: how to choose it, what to look for and the most economical season for marketing it, and good storage habits and requirements. Mrs. Beaten included a section of household hints, the how-to’s for any anticipated cleaning or daily calamity that might befall a household. She then gives over 4,000 recipes, including wine making, invalid cookery, vegetarian cookery and, for some reason, Australian cookery. Then she explained how to put together successful and nutritious menus for the week, season by season; covers how to carve; table decoration from flowers right through to fancy napkin folding and ends up with a glossary of cooking terms. Truly, the competent housewife needed little else to set her on her way to be a successful doyenne of her society and family. Mrs. Beeton’s Household Management was also updated in 1961 and The Daily Telegraph, Daily Express and London Times agreed that the much bally-hooed new edition was a poor imitation of the original work.

Larousse Gastronomique, often considered to be the original and definitive authority on the culinary scene, was not published until 1938, some 70 years after Mrs. Beeton’s masterpiece. It was a very different format, being an encyclopedia of descriptions, explanations and recipes in alphabetical order by ingredient or type of cooking, e.g.: Soufflé. With over 1,000 pages of very small print text it is a stupendous testament to French cooking.

In contrast to the total of 50 cookbooks published in the 50 or 60 years around the turn of the century, there are more than 30 pages of books listed in the cookery categories of Books in Print. This means there are approximately 6,000 cookbooks in print. From the inter-library loan system another 1,000 books on cooking are available, many of them already out of print. Many of the cookbooks used in private homes do not fall into either of these categories. Therefore, at a conse;vative estimate, there must be over 10,000 cook books available for use.

With this number of cookbooks comes categorization. The main groupings include a) general American recipes for normal family cooking; b) nationality; c) utensil; d) type of menu item; e) feast day or occasion; f) quantity of invitees; g) commercial product basis; h) encyclopedia or dictionary; i) how to cook, as opposed to recipe books; j) celebrity authors; k) favorite recipes from groups or clubs, usually for fund-raising. Cookbooks are written or compiled by almost anybody. The best popular standards are written by professionals who are well trained and have spent a lifetime perfecting their craft. Others are simply a compilation of previous recipes, with little originality, lots of pictures and talk, and stay in print for a minimum period. Cookbooks come and go with incredible rapidity. As a result they end up in second hand bookstores and rummage sales where they are often the first books to sell, and for more money than most other books. We are mesmerized by cookbooks.

Why do we need this number of trees cut down to produce so many cookbooks when, in any one lifetime, if we start at age 10 and cook every meal we eat till we are 80, we can only cook 70*365*3 (=76,650) meals even if we don’t duplicate once! This might represent a maximum of 50 recipe books. 10,000 seems a little excessive, especially when it doesn’t take into account most of those that are already out of print. If we eat to excess when we feel deprived… could cookbook buying perhaps be a symptom of a feeling of guilt because we no longer cook?