Promoting passion in book collecting

Seven Milestones in the History of Cookbooks

Since the discovery of fire, cooking has played a central role in our lives. Gathering around a meal brings us together for both physical and psychological sustenance. As meals evolved from simply prepared foods to more complicated dishes, it became increasingly important to record preparation details, so that the meal could be replicated later. From this need grew the first recipe or receipt books, known more commonly today as cookbooks. Here’s a look at some pivotal moments in the history of the cookbook.

Recipes from a Gourmand

Assembled sometime during the first century AD, De re coquinaria is the earliest known collection of recipes. The current text of De re coquinaria was most likely assembled in the fourth or fifth century, but the first printed edition didn’t appear until Apicius-Roman-Gourmand1483. The work is attributed to Roman gourmet Marcus Gavius Apicius, and “apicius” has since come to mean “a collection of recipes.” Apicius supposedly convinced Tiberius’ son Drusus not to eat cymae (cabbage tops or sprouts) because it was a common food. Legend also says that hearing rumors that shrimp harvested off the Liberian coast were particularly succulent, Apicius commandeered a ship and crew to investigate. But the shrimp proved disappointing, and Apicius turned around without even setting foot on shore. Given Apicius’ expensive tastes, it should come as no surprise that his recipes are for dishes only available to the wealthy; this was actually the norm for several centuries, and documentation of the peasant diet are generally scarce through most of history.

Porpoise Fit for a King

The first known cookbook was authored by the royal chefs of Richard II. The Forme of Cury, published in 1390, includes about 150 recipes written in Middle English and is unusual because it seems to contain recipes for both servants and royalty alike. It includes recipes for swan and peacock, along with a recipe for porpoise porridge! Like most early cookbooks, The Forme of Cury lacks ingredient quantities and instructions, making it difficult to recreate the recipes. That didn’t stop the staff at Manchester University’s John Rylands Library from giving it a try; after the manuscript was discovered, some of the recipes were adapted to suit modern tastes (which required quite a bit of not-so-tasty trial and error) and added to the library’s canteen menu for visitors to try.


The Forme of Cury (Photo: University of Manchester John Rylands University Library)

Uniquely American Recipes


Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery (Photo: Library of Congress)

Colonial America had a steady supply of cookbooks from Great Britain, but their recipes often called for ingredients that were unavailable in the New World. And they certainly didn’t incorporate ingredients found only in the colonies. Thus Amelia Simmons’ 1786 American Cookery was a landmark publication because it included recipes that called for New-World ingredients like cranberries and corn. The work proved incredibly successful, with numerous subsequent editions published in multiple cities–yet details of Simmons’ life remain scarce. The title page says that the cookbook was written by “Amelia Simmons, An Orphan,” and Simmons laments in the introduction that female orphans are so often “reduced to the necessity of going into families in the line of domestics,” indicating that she was probably a domestic with little formal education. Historians hypothesize that Simmons was from New England, since the book was first published in Hartford. But the Dutch words like “slaw” and “cookey” suggest that she’s more likely from the Hudson Valley area, and later printings were done in that region.

Raising Money for Medicine

During the Civil War it became painfully clear that lack of sanitary medical facilities and inadequate supplies was a driving force behind the rising number of casualties. The government began hosting “Sanitation Fairs” to raise money for addressing these shortages. The fairs brought together local vendors and artisans, who sold their ware–and their food. In 1864, Maria J Moss collected recipes for the dishes sold at the fair and published them in A Poetical Cook-Book. It debuted at the Philadelphia Sanitation Fair and enjoyed an enthusiastic reception. Moss’s fundraising effort was truly a first; A Poetical Cook-Book is the first in the genre of community or charity cookbooks, which have become incredibly popular with rare and antiquarian cookbook collectors.


Above is an advertisement for the Philadelphia Sanitation Fair (Photo: Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)

Destroying Preconceived Notions about African-American Cookery

Malinda Russell-Domestic Cook Book

Malinda Russell’s Domestic Cook Book (Photo: Longone Center for American Culinary Research at the University of Michigan William Clements LIbrary)

When culinary historian Janice Bluestein Longone discovered Matilda Russell’s Domestic Cookery, she knew she’d found something special. The 1866 pamphlet was only 39 pages long, but it had huge historical implications; it pre-dated the cookbook thought to be the first authored by an African-American. And it didn’t contain the typical recipes for rustic Southern “soul food,” even though Russell was from Tennessee. Instead, her recipes are for more complicated dishes inspired by European cuisine. It’s also heavy on baking recipes, which makes sense because Russell operated a pastry shop. In the preface to the cookbook, Russell alludes to raising money to go home. She had joined a group that planned to return to Libya, but another group member robbed her; the cookbook was her means of raising the necessary funds. So far, the only surviving copy of the book is the one that Longone uncovered. She’s since privately published facsimile editions to preserve this important work for posterity.

Controversial Stance on Housewifery

New Housekeepers Manual-Catherine Beecher-Harriet Beecher Stowe

The New Housekeeper’s Manual by Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe (Photo: Library of Congress)

Catherine Beecher and her slightly more famous co-author/sister Harriet Beecher Stowe made quite the progressive argument in The New Housekeeper’s Manual (1873): she was the first to say that housekeepers were actually professionals who served a critical role in the morality of the household. She dedicates the manual to “the women of America, in whose hands rest the real destinies of the republic, as moulded by the early training and preserved as the maturer influences of home.” Cooking well, in those days, was a woman’s patriotic duty. Beecher vociferously railed against bad cooking, particularly against “that unpardonable enormity, strong butter.” She exclaims that she “longs to show people what might be done with the raw materials of which all these monstrosities were concocted.” Ironically, Beecher developed a scientific system of housekeeping but had no home or family of her own to manage. Her lack of experience didn’t keep her book from being a success, however. It sold quite well and even elicited feminist debate. One such response was made by Hetty Morrison in My Summer in the Kitchen (1878). Morrison pointed out the injustice of relegating women to the kitchen and the service of men.

Finally! Formalized Measurement

Fannie Farmer-Boston Cooking School Cook Book

From the Boston Cooking-School Cook Book by Fannie Merritt Farmer (Photo: Kansas State University)

It wasn’t until 1896 that anyone bothered to formalize measurements and recipe writing. That year, Fannie Farmer, an instructor at the Boston Cooking School, published The Boston Cooking School Cook-Book. Her insistence on standardized an level measures earned her the nickname “the mother of level measurements.” Farmer presented her recipes in the format we’re familiar with today: ingredients listed on top, with instructions underneath. She also provided scientific explanations for the chemical processes of cooking, along with instructive essays on nutrition, cleaning, and canning. Farmer’s publisher, Little, Brown & Company, didn’t have much faith in the cookbook, so only 3,000 copies were printed–at Farmer’s own expense. But the book was such a success that Farmer was able to establish her own school, Miss Farmer’s School of Cookery. She instructed women on plain and fancy cooking, but became increasingly interested in the role of diet for those recovering from illness and disease. Farmer eventually wrote Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent and even lectured on the subject at Harvard Medical School.

2 comments on “Seven Milestones in the History of Cookbooks

  1. Pingback: What is a recipe, anyway? + A Giveaway! | Blossom to Stem

  2. Pingback: Culinary Historian Cathy Kaufman Dishes on CHNY, Cronuts, and the Colombian Exchange | lizzyoungbookseller

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