Book History, Episodes

17. Cooking Up Something Good

 

Happy Thanksgiving to my American listeners!

Because Thanksgiving is THE holiday where food takes center stage, I bet there’s more than a few of you out there reaching for a cookbook this week. Which is why The Book Owl went into research mode to discover the history of cookbooks.

From rotting meat to imaginary friends, it’s a recipe for concocting a great episode. And, there’s even a special guest who tried to take over the show.

Links Mentioned in this Episode….

Like what you hear?

Cooking Up Something Good (Rough Transcript)

Introduction:

Hey everyone, this is Tammie Painter and you’re listening to the Book Owl Podcast, the podcast where I entertain your inner book nerd with tales of quirky books and literary lore.

And let me offer up a very Happy Thanksgiving to my listeners in the U.S. I hope everyone is keeping their distance and that you’ve got a plan in place for all that leftover turkey.

Because Thanksgiving is a holiday all about food and especially food we don’t normally cook — seriously, at what other point in the year do you suddenly think, “OMG, I just HAVE to make cranberry sauce?” — I thought this would be an excellent time to explore a type of book many Americans will be cracking open this Thursday.

The Part Where I Ask You to Go Shopping

But before we start, just a quick reminder that you help keep this show running. I need to offer up a very belated thank you to LaVelle for being a continued sponsor of the show with her monthly gift. 

Unless you’re feeling especially flush with money, there’s no need for you to be quite so generous, but I want to remind you that you can help the show out by doing nothing more than the normal shopping you plan to do on Amazon this holiday season. 

Any time you feel the itch to purchase a pack of dog food, a new pair of yoga pants, or a book that you intend to give as a gift but end up keeping for yourself, before you start shopping please head to the book owl podcast dot com slash support and use the Amazon link on that page to do your shopping.

That’s an affiliate link and it does not cost you anything extra, but does earn me an itty bitty commission that really does add up.

What? Another Introduction? Fine…

Okay, enough of that. So, if you’re going to be in the kitchen this week, I bet at some point you’re going to be reaching for a cookbook of some sort. Which had me curious about the history of these most valuable kitchen tools.

Well, okay, the electric kettle that keeps me fueled with tea is the most valuable in my opinion, but you know, cookbooks, second most valuable.

The Oldest Cookbook…and Recipe Success

It turns out the oldest cookbook, or at least the oldest one that’s been discovered, dates from 1700 BCE and has no pages. Wait, let me clarify. It’s actually a collection of a handful of recipes on a series of four clay tablets that are part of what’s known as the Yale Tablets.

And no, they weren’t unearthed in Yale, they’re called that because they’re housed in the Yale Peabody Museum as part of the Yale Babylonian Collection. Lot of Yales going on there.

Anyway, the main recipe on these tablets is a meat stew that contains meat, obviously, vinegar, and herbs, and is said to resemble a stew that was so adored by kings, it ended up being written about in stories for over 300 years.

And just like finding an interesting recipe in a magazine, some researcher said, “Hey, let’s give this a try.” So in 2018, a few brave folks from New York University recreated the stew as best they could with modern equivalents of the ingredients.

The result? Turns out it was pretty darn tasty. And I’ll include a link to their experiment in the show notes.

Cooking Up Food Poisoning In Ancient Rome

So moving up about 1800 years, we get to the first century CE and we find the earliest European cookbook, the De re coquinaria. And I’m no Latin scholar, but I think that translates to from the king’s kitchen. An if there is a Latin scholar to there, please let me know if that’s right or wrong. 

Anyway, this book was supposedly compiled by the Roman Marcus Gavius Apicius, and he was the celebrity gourmand of the day. And he and his book were so influential, any collection of recipes came to be known as an Apicius for decades to come. 

Now, in Ancient Rome the goal of cooking, what chefs gained fame for was being able to take your main food item and flavoring it and covering it up so much you could not tell what you were eating.

This wasn’t because Romans loved eating the Surprise du Jour. It was because, well, how do I put this? They didn’t exactly have refrigerators and they weren’t exactly bringing in fresh meat every day.

And I really hope this isn’t familiar to you, especially today, but the cooks had to do everything they could to hide the taste of the rotting meat they were serving up. Yum.

Chinese Cookery Classic

Stepping away from Europe for just a bit and jumping forward again in time (I know, you haven’t travelled this much in months, have you?). We’re popping over to China where there are reports of cookbooks dating all the way back to the Tang Dynasty, which was extended from the years 600 to 900, but some pesky person lost it. Or maybe spilled soy sauce all over it. 

Either way, the earliest surviving Chinese cookbook dates from about 1330, and I’m not going to attempt the Chinese name for the book, but in English it translates to the name Important Principles of Food and Drink. And I really hope the recipes inside weren’t as bland as that title.

Germans Love Their Cookbooks

Okay, zipping back over to Europe, we find medieval Germans really liked to cook. Or at least they really liked cookbooks, because it’s here we find the most cookery manuscripts. These include Das buch von guten spise, or the Book of Good Food from 1350.

And probably no surprise, but the Germans were also the first to employ our friend the printing press to publish a cookbook in 1485, with the name Kuchenmeysterey, or Kitchen Mastery. Which has a rather modern marketing ring to it.

A Cookbook for the Average Householder

Again, no surprise, but the French also had a few cookbooks on their shelves. And like most of the other cookbooks I’m talking about from this time period, these were all intended for chefs who were cooking for the highest levels of society, including the king. For example, the earliest French cookbook we have was written in the 14th century by Guillaume Tirel, the master chef for not one, but two French kings. 

But we have a little rebel in France, and as far as I could tell, this might be the earliest cookbook written for common people, or rather for women making food for their families. This was La Menagier de Paris, or the Householder of Paris, and was written by a middle class Parisian for other middle class Parisians.

Curry? Did Someone Say Curry? The First English Cookbook

Of course, there were also cookbooks from Italy, Spain, the Middle East, India, but since I’m a self-centered English speaker, let’s head back up to England where we’ll find the first cookbook written in English. It dates from 1390 and was penned by the chef of King Richard II, and had the intriguing title Forme of Cury.

And now I really want some curry, but I think a cure referred to any type of stew, so there’s probably not a spicy vindaloo amongst the pages.

Printing Press By-product: The Celebrity Chef Begins

So as I mentioned earlier, the Germans were the first to crank out a cookbook from the printing press. And this kicked off a wave of cookbook publishing in the 1600s when we see a huge profusion of books coming out for household management and food preparation. 

And you’re going to need that advice because right around this time, especially in Holland and England, it becomes quite the thing to see who amongst your ritzy friends can throw the most lavish banquets. This is when we really start seeing food preparation being turned into an art form — and let’s be honest, that artwork is probably still being used to cover up the taste and smell of meat that’s gone off. 

And as is still happening today, chefs start becoming celebrities. Households fight over hiring the most renowned cooks and the chefs themselves start competing pretty viciously with each other to see who can write the most popular cook book. Which sounds like the set up for an amazing historical novel full of bitchy backstabbing.

Coming to America

But enough of Europe, let’s hop the pond over to America where we find Amelia Simmons in 1796 writing the book American Cookery, which she declared was “adapted to this country and all grades of life.”

And as the article from Book Riot I used as apart of my research snarkily notes, there weren’t a lot of grades of life who could afford to purchase cookbooks so this was probably intended mainly for the upper class. But the book did manage to stay in publication for 30 years.

What’s a White Lady to Do?

Also in that article which I’ll link to in the show notes I found an interesting correlation between the American Civil War and the rise of cookbooks in the American South. See, most middle and upper class households had um, shall we say, free labor running their kitchens. 

When slavery was abolished and the freed people said, “I’m outta here,” the white ladies were kind of left in the lurch. And some of them could probably still hire cooks, whether those cooks were black or white — and that hired help was probably mostly black, if we’re being realistic. 

But many other former slave owners had lost their free labor which also meant they lost a cheap way to make gobs of money which also meant they were left to do their own cooking. Well, after years of being tended to by unpaid servants, these white ladies had little idea what to do in the kitchen. 

Luckily, one of the books that appeared was written by Malinda Russell, a freed slave who, in her book used the euphemism that she was an experienced cook. And her recipes start to show a pattern in presentation that would continue to evolve, including putting a list of the ingredients at the start of the recipe. Unfortunately, the amount of those ingredients still required a fair bit of guesswork.

Brussels Sprouts and Measuring Spoons!

It’s not until 1845, when with the release of Modern Cooking for Private Families by Eliza Acton that we get not only a book written entirely for the home cook, but we also get the format we know today with the list of ingredients, the full instructions of what to do with those ingredients, and precise cooking times.

It also, as a little side fun fact, was the first book in the U.S. to have a recipes for Brussels sprouts.

But while Eliza’s book had plenty of information, it could still be a bit vague. Because there were no standardized tools, cookbooks at the time didn’t exactly pinpoint exact amounts or temperatures. For example, one book told people to heat water until it was a little warmer than the temperature of milk coming straight from the cow. Which has me picturing some poor woman running back and forth from her stove to the barn to keep checking on things.

It’s not until the early 20th century before we start seeing more precise recipes. And that’s because we finally got standardized measuring cups and spoons. And, thankfully, we moved away from wood-burning stoves and ovens whose temperature couldn’t be regulated, to electric and gas stoves that could be set to a specified temperature. And cookbooks quickly started incorporating these marvels into their recipes.

The Best-Selling Cookbook of All Time

Finally, we can’t get away from cookbooks without mentioning the best-selling cookbook of all time…The Betty Crocker Cookbook. Betty, as you might know, doesn’t exist. She was completely made up by the company that would later be known as General Mills. And she came about because people kept writing in asking questions about the company’s products.

So, kind of like a cooking Dear Abby, they created Betty to answer the questions. And they chose the name Betty because it sounded friendly and cheery, and Crocker was the last name of the company’s recently retired director.

The imaginary Betty Crocker was born in 1921, and became hugely popular. And like many celebrities, she eventually came out with her own cookbook. The first Betty Crocker Cookbook was published in 1950.

It not only contained recipes, but also practical household tips, and plenty of sympathy and understanding for the trials and tribulations of the mid-century housewife. It was so popular it outsold the Bible in its first year of publication, and had since sold over 65 million copies. And yes, I have my own tattered copy in the kitchen.

But Wait, There’s More

So that’s it for a quick history cookbooks. But I couldn’t resist researching one more thing, and that is the weirdest cookbooks. As you might guess, it generated seem hilarious hits that I’ll be sharing with those of you who are on The Book Owl Podcast Newsletter. And if you want to get that newsletter, yep, there’s a link in the show notes.

Podcast Updates

I guess that means it’s time for updates. As for the podcast, there’s not much to report. Just keep listening and keep recommending the show to others, and I’ll keep trying to crank out episodes. Of course, if you have an idea for a book, an author, or a bit of literary lore you’d like me to explore, feel free to contact me with your topic ideas by using the link in the show notes. 

Writing Updates…Prepping for Cassie Black

As for writing updates, I’ve been putting together all the parts to get my Cassie Black Trilogy ready for release early next year. That means getting titles, covers, and descriptions together for all three books. I’ve also formatted the paperbacks for the first two books — book three isn’t to that point yet, but getting closer.

And I’ve gone on a mad spree of writing a stockpile of blog posts to share Cassie’s creation, inspiration, and quirks with the world over the next few months. I know, big surprise, but there’s a few links in the show notes if you’d like to see the process of coming up with titles and the evolution of the books’ cover design.

Signing Off

Okay my home cooks, that is it for this episode. Stay safe, keep your distance, don’t eat too much, and I will hoot at you next time.

 

The Book Owl Podcast is a production of Daisy Dog Media, Copyright 2020, All rights reserved. Theme Music “Monkeys Spinning Monkeys” by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com). Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 4.0 License Audio processing by Auphonic.com

5 thoughts on “17. Cooking Up Something Good”

  1. Thanks for sharing this lovely episode! I listened in as I made some teriyaki salmon and grilled zucchini.

    I didnt know a lot about the history of recipes, but boy am I grateful for modern stoves and measuring cups now! I cant even imagine.

    Looking forward to more episodes!

    Like

    1. I’m especially grateful I don’t have to check what’s coming out of the cow’s udders to know what temperature my water is supposed to be heated to! Glad you enjoyed it – I wasn’t sure how interesting it would be but it turned into a fun episode…and thanks for re-posting it :))

      Like

      1. Oh god, farm living is not for me so I wouldn’t even know where to begin!

        Oh yeah, I love anything about cooking. I figured Betty Crocker was the culinary Santa Claus, but thanks for confirming!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I remember being about four years old and my grandma telling me to go get eggs from the chicken coop. The damn hen pecked at me the minute I reached for her nest. So, too scared to check, I went back in and said there were no eggs…my farming days were cut short but my storytelling career had begun 😂

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Oh no, that sounds so scary! Chickens can be hardcore defensive. I’ve never tried to get an egg from a chicken’s nest, but I would be terrified!

        Haha, I like that you told your gma there were no eggs. What a jumpstart to your career lol!

        Like

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