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. Continue reading