Once Upon a Time, There were No Cookery Books

Celery 1 BW cropped rs

Celery Leaf (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

Cookery books perch on nearly every possible level spot in my house, so much a part of my life that I cannot imagine not seeing them every time I walk to the front door or start cooking dinner in my modern kitchen. I own way more cookery books than a normal person probably does. And more than likely, you too no doubt struggle to find shelf space for yours.

In the United States in 2011, an estimated 3,697 cookery manuscripts left their authors’ hands and ended up printed, published, and packed in cardboard boxes, shipped to bookstores and warehouses, sold to readers clamoring for still more cookery books. A veritable deluge!

With this situation in mind, to contemplate a time without cookery books becomes quite difficult, if not impossible.

And yet, in spite of knowing that traditional cooking knowledge (1) usually passed orally from one “master,” as Jean Bottéro (2) suggests – whether a chef-like persona or one’s own mother –  to a “listener,” who then passes on the information, it is hard to grasp this truth in the face of the thousands of cookery books cranked out year after year in the last century and well into this one.

Anne Willan, author of The Cookbook Library,  believes that most of the culinary heritage of the West stems from the roots of just four antiquarian cookbooks, and it goes without saying that the compilers of these cookery books based their material on the culinary traditions of large, palatial kitchens. There’s no hard proof of this other than linguistic and textual analysis, for cooking cannot be too different than the literary tradition seen in sagas and epics like Beowulf and The Song of Roland. Four books – for all practical purposes – molded the format of cookery books to the present day, so what you see today when you leaf through that glossy Food Network cookery book is a basic pattern that hasn’t changed much since the fourteenth century.

The earliest written evidence of recipes comes from three cuneiform tablets written in Akkadian, several thousand years ago, dating to possibly the third millennium B.C. and certainly by 1750 B.C. (see below) – the recipes convey only essential information, in the form of aides memoires, as it were. Now at Yale, the tablets contain forty recipes and Jean Bottéro has translated them all, very heavy on the meat, the foods would be for the elites, likely after certain religious ceremonies.

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

Recipe for Small Birds:

Remove the head and feet. Open the body and clean the birds, reserving the gizzards and the pluck. Split the gizzards and clean them. Next rinse the birds and flatten them. Prepare a pot and put birds, gizzards and pluck into it before placing it on the fire.

[It does not mention whether fat or water is added -- no doubt the method was so familiar that instructions were considered unnecessary. After the initial boiling or braising, the recipe continues:]

Put the pot back on the fire. Rinse out a pot with fresh water. Place beaten milk into it and place it on the fire. Take the pot (containing the birds) and drain it. Cut off the inedible parts, then salt the rest, and add them to the vessel with the milk, to which you must add some fat. Also add some rue, which has already been stripped and cleaned. When it has come to a boil, add minced leek, garlic, samidu and onion (but not too much onion).

[While the birds cook, preparations for serving the dish must be made]

Rinse crushed grain, then soften it in milk and add to it, as you knead it, salt, samidu, leeks and garlic along with enough milk and oil so that a soft dough will result which you will expose to the heat of the fire for a moment. Then cut it into two pieces. Take a platter large enough to hold the birds. Place the prepared dough on the bottom of the plate. Be careful that it hangs over the rim of the platter only a little. Place it on top of the oven to cook it. On the dough which has already been seasoned, place the pieces of the birds as well as the gizzards and pluck. Cover it with the bread lid [which has meanwhile been baked] and send it to the table.

YBC 8958 Old Babylonian Period, ca. 1750 BC.

Keeping these Western European customs in mind, and turning to other literate cultures, it becomes clear that cookery books may well have first appeared in the form of sagas and epics and theatre and records related to  meals in great palaces.

Take for example the whole concept of cooks and cookery in ancient Greek culture, particularly theatre. Unfortunately, most of the works mentioned by Athenaeus,  Greek by heritage but living in Rome around the third century A.D., disappeared, including the most tragic loss of the cookery book by Mithaikos dating to 400 B.C.(3) In Deipnosophistae, a huge tome of at least seven volumes, Athenaeus listed references to three fragments – which are no longer extant – from Mithaikos, in references to over 1250 ancient Greek writers and 10,000 verses from plays. Several of the authors wrote about cooks and cooking, including Archestratus, of whose poem, Life of Luxury, only sixty-two fragments remain. But those fragments include text that can only be recipes:

“The bonito in autumn when the Pleiades set, you can prepare in any way you please. . . . But here is the very best way for you to deal with this fish. You need fig leaves and oregano (not very much), no cheese, no nonsense. Just wrap it up nicely in fig leaves fastened with string, then hide it under hot ashes and keep a watch on the time: don’t overcook it. Get it from Byzantium, if you want it to be good. . . .” (Fragments 59 -62)

The interesting point to be taken from this very brief foray into this period of Greek culinary history is that Mithaikos represented a trend among the Athenian elites: the hiring of private chefs to cook meals in private homes, which meant that the elites did not confine themselves solely to civic and religious feasting. That, according to Hill and Wilkins (3), “was the motor behind the popularity of the newly-discovered [sic] form of the recipe book,” a phenomenon not unlike the demand for the banquet-management books produced later by chefs such as Messisbugo.

Further afield, Lokopakara (For the Benefit of the People by Chavundaraya II), a Jainist poetic text from medieval India which first appeared in 1025 A.D. in Sanskrit. Chapter eight covers Supa Sastra (the science of cooking) and offers actual recipes. Several recipes suggest making flavored yogurt by means of smearing the side of clay pot with a flavoring agent before adding milk: Smear the inside of a clay pot with mango juice. Add hot milk to the pot. When it ferments, the yogurt will have the fragrance of mango.

And then there’s China, which demands a post all unto itself.


(1) This oral route for divulging cooking secrets still prevails in many parts of the world today.

(2) Bottéro, Jean. The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. Translated from the French edition of 2002. No index, making the book rather difficult to use.

(3) Hill, Shaun and Wilkins, John. “Mithaikos and Other Greek Cooks.” In: Walker, Harlan, ed. Cooks & Other People: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. Totnes: Prospect Books, 1996, p. 144- 148.

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Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

© 2014 C. Bertelsen

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