A History of Cookbooks: From Kitchen to Page over Seven Centuries

A History of Cookbooks: From Kitchen to Page over Seven Centuries

by Henry Notaker

Hardcover(First Edition)

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A History of Cookbooks provides a sweeping literary and historical overview of the cookbook genre, exploring its development as a part of food culture beginning in the Late Middle Ages. Studying cookbooks from various Western cultures and languages, Henry Notaker traces the transformation of recipes from brief notes with ingredients into detailed recipes with a specific structure, grammar, and vocabulary. In addition, he reveals that cookbooks go far beyond offering recipes: they tell us a great deal about nutrition, morals, manners, history, and menus while often providing entertaining reflections and commentaries. This innovative book demonstrates that cookbooks represent an interesting and important branch of nonfiction literature.

Editorial Reviews

Times Literary Supplement

This stirring work will enhance our engagement with the kitchens of our ancestors.


"Well-argued and researched work, taking a new and intriguing approach to a popular subject.

Print Magazine

"Notaker’s impressive work of research calls for cookbooks to be read and valued the same as literature . . . . A History of Cookbooks also serves up a wonderful history of publishing, since that first printed Italian cookbook coincides with the advent of Gutenberg’s press"

Food and Environmental Studies Agricultural

It is the work of a polyglot, a researcher passionate about his subject, and an indefatigable reader. . . . Henry Notaker’s work is a reference book worth having in any good library.

Petits Propos Culinaires

"A complex and dense read, and the author is to be complimented on maintaining clarity throughout. For the food historian it is a useful reminder that cookbooks have scope beyond that of mere instruction, and for the literary historian it highlights the complexities that underlie apparently simple manuals. It is a book for serious students of both fields."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520294004
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 09/05/2017
Series: California Studies in Food and Culture , #64
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 588,371
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.20(d)

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Read an Excerpt


The Cook

Today, many celebrity chefs have acquired a status that places them on par with stars of film, pop, and sports, the descendants of royals in the — not always firm — firmament of celebrity. The Michelin Guide distributes stars to restaurants, and each year various magazines name one lucky individual the World's Best Chef. The Bocuse d'Or is the Oscar of cooking, and in the courtyard of Paul Bocuse's Lyon restaurant, the names of the winners are engraved in a culinary Walk of Fame. But these top chefs are as far from the average cook as were the maîtres queux in princely courts during the Renaissance and the Baroque and the master chefs who won their fame within the new restaurant culture of the nineteenth century. Throughout history, ordinary cooks have suffered from a low status in society.


In the Middle Ages, when guilds were important in defining social rank, cooks were members of the less prestigious ones. In thirteenth-century Genoa, cooking was among the least well-remunerated trades. In fourteenth-century Florence, cooks belonged to the minor guilds, along with butchers, bakers, innkeepers, tanners, smiths, leatherworkers, and other humble tradesmen, while the more prestigious Arte dei Medici, Speciali e Merciai was the guild for doctors, apothecaries, and merchants who sold spices, dyes, and medicines.

This low status is explained partly by the fact that cooks were recruited from the inferior social strata but also, to a certain extent, by the strenuous physical work the job entailed, which was not highly regarded by the elite responsible for maintaining the established value system. The aristocratic elite was physically active,

but their bodily exercise was limited by the codes of the warrior caste; the ideal pursuits were riding, fencing, and hunting. Hunting was considered not only entertainment for the nobles but also a serious preparation for military duty, an idea that goes all the way back to Aristotle and was repeated in the Renaissance by Machiavelli. And if the proud counts and barons contributed at all in the dining hall, it was by carving up the big roasts, an art carried out with tools resembling well-known weapons. But this was very far from handling bloody carcasses in cramped kitchens thick with heat and smoke (figure 1).

Blood was associated with cooking well into the twentieth century. Cooks — professionals as well as housewives — were responsible for the slaughtering of animals. Cookbooks had instructions on such work, some of which expressed empathy for the animals — "humane ways of slaughtering at home," as it is phrased in one Danish cookbook from the late 1800s — and how to pluck poultry. In fact, the descriptions were not too different from what we find in an English recipe from the Middle Ages: "Cut a swan in the rofe of the mouth toward the brayn of the hed, & let hym blede to deth."

Further back in antiquity, Greek society had mageiroi, religious officials who killed sacrificial animals for the rituals preceding big banquets, but mageiroi also sold meat at markets and prepared dinners for people wealthy enough to hire professional cooks with a more sophisticated culinary range than ordinary slave cooks.

Heat and smoke were constant problems in kitchens. In 2010, French historian Patrick Rambourg, who was trained as a professional cook, described with great sensitivity how cooks discover that the fire — such an important ally in cooking — suddenly becomes an enemy "when it is not properly controlled." Two centuries earlier, the celebrated culinary artist Antonin Carême presented a lamentation that probably expressed the feelings of many of his colleagues: cooks working in drafty, humid subterranean kitchens would develop painful rheumatism, while cooks above ground had to inhale the mortal fumes from burning charcoal. Even the arbiter of taste under the First French Empire, Grimod de la Reynière, who probably spent more time in the dining hall than in the kitchen, was concerned about the health of cooks and pointed out the dangers they were exposed to when faced with steam, smoke, and fire.

The danger created by filth and dirt is another recurrent theme in many cookbooks throughout history; the concern with cleanliness and hygiene in these books almost amounts to an obsession. And this was of vital importance long before the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when domestic science teachers gave it top priority. Around 1600, Francisco Martínez Montiño, chef at the Spanish court, opened his Arte de cocina (Culinary art) with these words: "In this chapter I plan to treat cleanliness, which is the most necessary and important." In his list of priorities, he put cleanliness (limpieza) first, taste (gusto) second, and speed (presteza) third. A similar stress on perfect cleanliness is found in books written at several European courts. In Poland, an administrator for a prince wrote in the preface of his cookbook that a cook must be clean and shaven, have combed hair, washed hands, and pared nails, and wear a white apron.

If we are to believe authors of literary fiction, lack of hygiene is often the reason for low status among cooks. Roger "Hogge" in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, who was not a court cook but rather a professional known for his skill in preparing tasty dishes — blancmanger, for example — has a skin eruption on his leg, suggesting an absence of personal hygiene.

Drunkenness and greed are other vices often attributed to cooks. There is a tendency in food histories to mention northern Europe first in discussions of excessive alcohol intake, but there are sources that clearly demonstrate that this was also a problem in the southern part of the continent. In his household book from 1668, the Italian Francesco Liberati emphasized that cooks must not drink too much. He followed this assertion with a list of the damaging effects drunkenness will have on one's cooking. The list is so specific that the author undoubtedly had experience with such bad habits.

"Greedy glutton" was a frequent expression in the fifteenth century. For example, it was used in the most popular book in German before the Reformation, Sebastian Brant's 1494 moralist satire Das Narrenschiff (Ship of Fools). Brant also linked greed to dishonesty, claiming that when their masters were out of the house, cooks ate and drank the best victuals to be found. Some books directly accused cooks of stealing provisions or of helping themselves to more than they were entitled to in situations when board and lodging were part of their salary. The author of a 1584 Italian book about the duties of the chief steward noted that he needed to watch over the servants so they didn't steal supplies.


In Plato's dialogue Gorgias, Socrates is of the opinion that people who prepare food and drink for the citizens should not consider their activity important work, and Socrates mentions with evident disgust three representatives of these activities: a baker, a wine merchant, and Mithaikos, who wrote a book about Sicilian cuisine. Earlier, in one of his letters, Plato had written about how shocked he was when he discovered the gluttonous food culture in Sicily. The word he used for "cuisine" or "cookery" was opsonita, which means preparation of opson. Opson had originally referred to what was served in a meal in addition to bread, and it included both fish and meat, but the word gradually took on a wider meaning as something delicious and dainty. In Greek texts from antiquity, terms such as "opson-lover" and "opson-eater" are used to describe people we would now call gourmets. The word opson comes up in a discussion in another dialogue by Plato, the Republic. In this work, Socrates describes what food should be served in the ideal state, and when asked about opson, he mentions vegetables, fruits, and cheese. When Glauco — Socrates's conversation partner — wants more refined opson, Socrates immediately tries to discredit such pleasure by comparing it to promiscuous sexual pleasure.

In Gorgias, Socrates says that culinary art, just like rhetoric, has nothing to do with art (techne) but is only experience and practice, and that cookery, also like rhetoric, is false — it is flattery (kolakeia). The pleasure argument was taken up by the Roman moralists, especially the Stoics and Cynics. When Cicero presented his arguments about the value of different occupations, the bottom level was reserved for fishmongers, butchers, poulterers, and cooks, who shared the same status as perfumers and dancers. The common denominator of these trades was that they catered to sensual pleasure (voluptas).

Early in the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church declared gluttony (gula) to be one of the seven capital sins, and cooks — masters of good food, exquisite ingredients, and dainty dishes — could thus easily be considered dangerous tempters, luring people down the broad road to hell. Numerous paintings of hell, such as those by Hieronymos Bosch, make Carêmes description of subterranean kitchens seem like an amusement park. These works portray demons acting as cooks, sadistically enjoying roasting sinners on skewers, piercing them with iron forks, or letting them boil in large black cauldrons — that is, if they aren't beating them with monstrous wooden ladles. The gluttons are literally stewed in their own juices, and the cooks are, to quote Sebastian Brant, the devil's braeters, or rôtisseurs.

There are also writings describing cooks in hell. Le songe d'Enfer (The dream of hell), a French text written in 1215, relates a dream of a visit to Inferno, where the narrator is served a menu of tasty dishes prepared by enthusiastic cooks. In this account, the gluttonous cooks are not alone in their suffering. There are stuffed and fried usurers, murderers marinated in garlic, pimply and wrinkly harlots prepared as game, baked heretics, and pies filled with tongues from liars and chatterboxes, and, as in Dante's travelogue of the same region, not even the church representatives are excused: black monks are served with herbal sauce. In an English sermon written in the same century, a Dominican preacher blamed cooks directly for transforming cuisine from the simple bread and water that was present at "the begynnynge of the worlde" to food that was more for the pleasure of the body than for the sustenance of mankind, made "with grete busyness and with craft of cokys."

The view of gluttony as a capital sin has its origins in the eastern Christian tradition of hermits and monks, which was influenced by the dualism in Hellenistic syncretistic religions, where contempt for the body was strong. Evagrios Pontikos (also known as Evagrios the Solitary), who lived in the fourth century, put gluttony first in his list of eight vices. Eating too much was only one aspect of gluttony as it was later defined by Johannes Cassianus, Pope Gregor the Great, and others; even worse was a passion for refined dishes, which were exactly what the best cooks were preparing. This was also the main point made by the Cistercian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux when, with verbal wit and moral indignation, he criticized the food habits among the Benedictines in Cluny, decrying the new spices and foreign sauces they were using. One of the moralist attacks on gluttony from 1495 even mentioned specific dishes: partridges, quails, hazel grouses, capons, and geese, served with cameline sauce. The author may have leafed through a recently published book, Le viandier (The victualer), the first printed cookbook in France, which included recipes for all these birds and a special chapter about sauce cameline. The title page attributes the book to the "great chef of the King of France."


Paintings of kitchen devils can easily create an impression that cooks are threatening figures, and as Ann Henisch documents, there are numerous stories about cooks using cleavers and flesh-hooks as weapons in scary situations. In literary works, however, examples of cooks as clowns are more frequent. In comedies of the late Middle Ages, humor was created by associating cooks with bodily functions related to appetite: slurping, gulping, dribbling, slobbering, belching, burping, and what was generally referred to by the euphemism "wind"— all of which were behaviors that had earlier been common to all social groups but had from the Renaissance onward gradually became disapproved of by the elite. According to the sociologist Norbert Elias's theory of the civilization process, this was part of a more universal pattern, a development toward a stronger control over one's own body. Repugnance at touching greasy and sticky food led to the introduction of the individual fork as an indispensable part of the cutlery in daily use. The comic effect in the late medieval plays was created by the contrast between the new table manners of the elite and the vulgar conduct of cooks and other common people. In seventeenth-century France, the rules of the classical drama (la doctrine classique), with its ideals of decency and decorum (bienséance), banned all references to bodily acts (le bas corporel) on the stage.

Also comical were the carnivalesque characters depicted in paintings (and allegorical dialogues), particularly popular during the Dutch and German Renaissance, of the great battle between Carnival and Lent, where the weapons were enormous ladles and forks, and the combatants wore pots on their heads instead of helmets. Peter Burke found it difficult not to interpret this as a way of ridiculing knights, as carnival was the period when the established order of society was turned upside down. But why was this considered ridiculous? Perhaps it was because the paintings compared the noble estate to a group that was often exposed to mockery. There was a long tradition of using cooks, peasants, and other "simple" tradespeople linked to bodily work as stock characters in farces.

In comedies from antiquity, a different element brought about the humor. The Greek mageiros often appeared as a pompous, verbose, talkative person. In The Boastful Chef, a study of the existing fragments of comic literature from the classical period, John Wilkins made the point that the boasters exaggerate their theoretical knowledge and philosophical mentality. In the conversations between the cook and the host, the cook speaks at length about his insights into art and academic disciplines, while the host, bored with his prattle, tries to get the cook back to the kitchen to do the waiting tasks.

Even Platina's De honesta voluptate contains a trace of irony or at least ambiguity in the praise it bestowed on the cook Martino de' Rossi, the original creator of Platina's recipes. To be sure, Platina wrote in a list of requirements for good cooks that they ought to be like Martino, who had taught him all the methods of food preparation. But he included the phrase "the prince of cooks of our age," which sounds in Platina's pen like a witty paradox or oxymoron, considering the social position of cooks at that time. In another chapter, he opened his praise with even more glorifying words, "Oh, immortal gods, what a cook you have brought to me. If you had heard him lecture extempore about these subjects, you would have called him another Carneades."


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Copyright © 2017 Henry Notaker.
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