Did you know the earliest English language cookbooks were the exclusive preserve of kings, queens and the nobility?
Well, it’s true and, in fact, the cookbook itself has a juicy and delicious history which we’ve summed up in a brief, and enjoyable, fashion for you.
The Earliest Cookbooks
They may not have made it to the list of our 40 best cookbooks of all time, but the cookbook has noble roots, with the earliest cookbooks emerging in 1700 BC!
Yes, the Yale Culinary Tablets, from Babylonia, offered up to 25 recipes for stew as well as recipes for cakes and bread.
The earliest cookbook put to paper appears to be “Apicius” or De Re Coquinaria which was written by the Roman Marcus Gavius Apicius sometime in the 4th or 5th century A.D.
We’ve never met anyone who has tried his recipe for flamingo, mind you and it certainly doesn’t appear in the best modern Italian cookbooks.
The 14th, 15th and 16th Century “Modern” Cookbooks
The first cookbook to appear in English was the “Forme of Cury” and it was penned by the chefs who attended Richard the Second.
The book is actually written in a mix of English, French and Latin was intended to instruct nobility and their servants in the art of cookery.
This was true of most cookbooks that emerged from this period though as the 16th century came around you could find more cookbooks aimed at regular people.
Such as the British cookbook which recommends you to “heat water until it was little hotter than milk that comes from a cow”.
Which might sound a little crazy today but back then it was the perfect instruction for a farm worker with no access to a thermometer.
The 17th and 18th Century The Cookbook And The Emerging Middle Class
In the 17th and 18th century, the cookbook was more and more targeted towards the middle class and at the end of the 18th century, the first American cookbook appeared.
Amelia Simmons’ “American Cookery” was “adapted to this country and all grades of life” though it bears noting that many Americans would have been illiterate back then, particularly those on the “lower grades of life”.
The 19th Century The Cookbook And The Growth Of Literacy
As we moved into the 19th century literacy became much more common with the adoption of public schooling and the first cookbook by an African American was published in 1866.
“A Domestic Cookbook” was written by Mrs. Malinda Russell who was described as “an experienced cook” in the blurb for the book.
It is notable for its specific style of recipe in which ingredients were listed in order and the cook was given plenty of leeway to mix things up to their own tastes.
The 20th Century The Cookbook In Times Of War and Plenty
The cookbook came into its own completely in the 20th century thanks to the cheap mass production printing technologies that had been developed.
This also led to the standardization of the culinary industry as a whole.
Recipes needed to be clear to everyone following them, so measuring spoons, cups, etc. became universal measurements.
The first example of modern 20th century recipes was, in fact, published at the end of the 19th century in the form of Fannie Mae Farmer’s “The Boston Cooking School Cookbook”.
We still use this format today.
The 21st Century Looking To The Future Of The Cookbook
The cookbook saw the rise of a major challenger in the digital age and the internet has seen, quite literally, millions of recipes put online for everyone to access, usually for free.
But the cookbook hasn’t died.
Quite to the contrary, it is thriving and in 2019, 17.8 million cookbooks were sold in the United States alone!
This has led to more than 2,000 new cookbooks being published each year!
It appears our appetite for good food is best quenched on the printed page, at least for now.
Final Thoughts On The History of Cookbooks
So, there you have it, a brief, but, on point, history of cookbooks and all the delights that they bring.
The cookbook is not dead, despite the wealth of recipes available online, and we expect to see many more cookbooks emerge in the future.