“First Catch Your Hare”: A Brief Meditation on Written Recipes, Part I

Hare, by Albrecht Drurer

And what is a recipe but a buffer against disorder? A recipe allows us to anticipate, to meld the past into the present, to return to our senses.
~~ “Why I Return to M.F.K. Fisher,” by Lee Upton

Mrs. Beeton never said it. And neither did Hannah Glasse.

The legendary  phrase, “First catch your hare,” long attributed to both of these ladies, ostensibly refers to the beginning of  a recipe for jugged hare. And that bit of apocryphal cleverness points out the difficulties fraught in the study of culinary history, especially that of written recipes.

Cuneiform Recipes (Photo credit: Yale University)
Cuneiform Recipes (Photo credit: Yale University)

The writing of recipes, as far as we know and have evidence for it, began with some clay tablets in Iraq, several thousand years ago, according to Jean Bottero in his The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia (2004). Three cuneiform tablets from the Yale Babylonian Collection provide us with some tantalizing insights into food preparation in that time and place (some authorities suggest that literacy began in order to keep track of grains and other food stuffs, an example of the timeless economic imperative).

An example of a recipe from Tablet A is:

10 (26) Zamzaganu. Scatter cut-up pieces of meat in a kettle and cook. Clean some bâru [could have been some sort of grain] and add to the kettle. (27) Before removing the kettle from the fire, strain the cooking liquid and stir in mashed leek and garlic, and a corresponding amount of raw šuhutinnǔ [Botero groups this with the onions and leeks, but doesn’t define it specifically].(p. 27)

For many periods of history, no culinary records exist and if so, appear to be few and far between. Some modern cooks and chefs sniff at the idea of written recipes, essentially dismissing the whole idea of written recipes, “We don’t need no stinking recipes.”[1] [Note that the strong language employed in this footnote is a direct quote. My apologies if it offends anyone.]

This sentiment is not restricted to just chefs. Time after time, when I lived in certain developing countries, local cooks looked askance at my enormous cookbook collection, laughing at me (gently, mind you), saying the same thing, ”I don’t need any cookbooks, I know how to cook.” And they did, of course. A certain limited, but tasty, repertoire of dishes, using (mostly) local ingredients.

Tomato Up Close
Tomatoes, maybe more than any New World foods other than corn and peppers, profoundly impacted the cuisines of the world. (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

Every cook uses recipes. As long as “tradition,” local ingredients, and other factors (such as the technology of the kitchen)  stayed the same, the need for writing down recipes wasn’t pressing. When power, trade, epidemic disease (like the Black Death), literacy, printing, and the ensuing changes steamrolled over cultures and cooks, cookbooks made more sense.

But as the number of possible permutations on ingredients increases, the need for writing down recipes — or guideline/aide-mémoire (as most early recipes tended to be) — evolved into what we now call cookbooks. Barbara Ketchum Wheaton, a widely renowned and respected culinary historian, wrote in her Savoring the Past: The French Kitchen and Table from 1300 to 1789:

A recipe artificially isolates the actions and ingredients needed to prepare a single dish. In a real kitchen many dishes are being prepared at the same time, and work processes and ingredients for them overlap. A recipe is a cross-section of a portion of the work going forward in a kitchen. From it one begin to get a sense of how cooking was done. By using many recipes from a particular time and place one can acquire an idea of work patterns and of the resultant character of the style of cooking. (p. xix)

To be continued …

[1] Saying taken from B. Traven’s 1927 novel, which formed the basis for the 1948 film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre with Humphrey Bogart:

“All right,” Curtin shouted back. “If you are the police, where are your badges? Let’s see them.”

“Badges, to god-damned hell with badges! We have no badges. In fact, we don’t need badges. I don’t have to show you any stinking badges, you god-damned cabrón and ching’ tu madre! Come out from that shit-hole of yours. I have to speak to you.”

(The popularity of the phrase (in a slightly abridged form)  skyrocketed after the film “Blazing Saddles” appeared in 1974 .)

© 2009 C. Bertelsen


7 thoughts on ““First Catch Your Hare”: A Brief Meditation on Written Recipes, Part I

  1. Cynthia
    I am reading, The Art of Cookery by Hannah Glasse and I am finding it to be a fantastic book. What a great way to learn history and see how other people lived.
    Tracy :)


  2. Cynthia, In the typical manner of foodie elites, I used to rue the over-dependence of modern people on recipes. Oh how people want recipes recipes. Why don’t they just learn to cook.

    But then I had a change one day when mulling over a beautifully produced food magazine offering so many lovely things.

    I realized a recipe provides a sort of story, with a beginning, middle, and end. It is a little process that can be mastered. Even a journey. It makes a promise and the suspense has to do with whether the recipe author can keep that promise. I have started to rethink recipes as a wonderful invention in modern life.



  3. Hi Lila. Good to hear from you. My mother taught me her five or six basic dishes; she owns about 10 cookbooks, none of which she really ever uses. My father, on the other hand, always tries new recipes and subscribes to several cooking magazines. Guess whose genes I got?


  4. Thanks for this excellent article Cynthia. You did it again! It reminds me of what my mother used to say to me! She, too laughs at me every time we talk about my cookbooks collection!


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