Why Study the History of Cookbooks, Or, The Art and the Mystery of Food*

Cookbooks 2 rs
Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

Behind that glossy copy of Ottolenghi: The Cookbook, the one that I wish I’d scored for Christmas, lies a long and fascinating history, filled with stories, mysteries, egos, and more intrigue than it’s possible to imagine. Cookbooks tell many tales, revealing secrets. In fact, just take a look at some of the titles of some of the earliest printed cookbooks:

The Secretes of the Reverende Maister Alexis of Piemovnt (1558)

The Widow’s Treasure, plentifully furnished with sundry precious and approued secrets in Physicke … (1582)

A Closet for Ladies and Gentlewomen (1608)

The Ladies Cabinet Opened: Wherein is found hidden severall Experiments in Preserving … (1639)

The Queen’s Closet Opened (1654/1655)

The Gentlewoman’s Cabinet Unlocked (1666-1688)

The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Knight Opened (1669)

And that, to a large extent, is why cookbooks became popular early on. And remain so.

Primarily focused on Western European books, current scholarship on cookbooks is a relatively new and fresh field of endeavor.

For years, I’ve read cookbooks, like novels, as so many readers say. It’s not hard to imagine that the first written works related to cookbooks were in fact medical in nature, herbals that recorded the trials and errors of treatment, receipts for health. The connection between food, cooking, and health is nothing new, not at all. And it’s tempting to consider the fluctuation of gender issues – early medical knowledge being the domain of women, as was cooking, for the most part, except increasingly becoming a male domain in noble and aristocratic households.

Cookbooks, as we know them, first came to life in the form of handwritten manuscripts and represented the attempts of cooks to share and preserve – in the form of aide memoires – the essentials of their trade for underlings and successors.** After all, it wasn’t until 1448 that the printing press revolutionized the world, in ways far beyond the dreams of Johannes Gutenberg, its visionary inventor. It took printers awhile to apply the new technology to receipt books, and the first printed cookbook – Platina’s De Honesta Voluptate et Valetudine  – appeared in 1470 (likely first written in 1464 or 1465 and also likely based heavily on the work of Martino de Rossi, also Martino da Como).

Prescriptive, aspirational, and functional – these terms describe the contents of many cookbooks, then and now. Although many books now appear in transcriptions – making it far easier to read, meaning there’s no messing around with that blasted “f” that stands for “s” in old printings, nor must one go blind attempting to decipher ancient handwriting – transcriptions could be considered similar to a crime scene overrun by a herd of buffalo – a lot of clues end up being ground out: illustrations, frontispieces, typefaces, colophons, stains, and marginalia.

Signe Rousseau, in Food Media: Celebrity Chefs and the Politics of Everyday Interference (2012) , says “A life less ordinary – a life uncommon – has to some extent always been a selling point of printed recipes and cookbooks.”***

But there are many other reasons for the popularity of cookbooks and for their importance as historical documents, including political spite. Take The Court and Kitchin of Mrs. Elizabeth alias Joane Cromwell (1664), a derisive work aimed at the wife of Oliver Cromwell. (Note that “Joan” was at the time a pejorative term, meaning servant.)

Resources for the study of cookbook history:

Here we start with bibliographies  that give us some perspective on the volume of material available, as well as inklings into general trends and foci. In addition, a few gems on methodology.

Bagnasco, Orazio. Catalogo del fondo italiano e latino delle opera di gastronomia sec. xiv-xix. Canton Ticino: Edizione B.IN.G., 1994.

Bitting, Katherine Golden. Gastronomic Bibliography. San Francisco 1939. Reprint: Mansfield, CT: Martino Publishing, 2004.

Brown, Eleanor and Bob. Culinary Americana. Reprint of 1961 edition. New York: Martino, 1999.

Cagle, William R. A Matter of Taste: A Bibliographic Catalogue of the Gernon Collection of Food and Drink. New York: Garland Publishing, 1990.

Cook, Margaret. America’s Charitable Cooks: A Bibliography of Fund-raising Cook Books Published in the United States (1861-1915).Kent, Ohio: Cookery Bibliography, 1971.

Domínguez, Marta. Bibliografía de gastronomía chilena 1993-2006. Santiago de Chile : Archivo Bibliografico Chileno, 2009.

Driver, Elizabeth. A Bibliography of Cookery Books Published in Britain, 1875-1914. London: Prospect Books, 1989.

Feret, Barbara L. Gastronomical and Culinary Literature: A Survey and Analysis of Historically-Oriented [sic] Collection in the U.S.A. Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. 1979.

Food and drink through the ages, 2500 B.C. to 1937 A.D.; a catalogue of antiquities, manuscripts, books, and engravings treating of cookery, eating and drinking, including books from the library and with the book-plate of Robert Viel, the famous Paris restaurateur. London: Maggs Bros. , 1937.

Hazlett, William Carew. Old Cookery Books and Ancient Cuisine. Popular Edition: London, 1902.

Henssler, Maria Paleari. Bibliografia Latino-Italiana di Gastronomia. Milan: Chimera Editore, 2001.

Lowenstein, Eleanor. American Cookery Books 1742-1860. Worcester, NY: American Antiquarian Society, 1972.

Maclean, Virginia. A Short-Title Catalogue of Household and Cookery Books Published in the English Tongue 1701-1800. London: Prospect Books, 1983.

Notaker, Henry. Printed Cookbooks in Europe, 1470-1700: A Bibliography of Early Modern Culinary Literature. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2010.

Oberlé, Gérard. Les fastes de Bacchus et de Comus: ou histoire du boire et du manger en Europe, de l’antiquité à nos jours, à travers les livres. Paris: Belfond, 1989.

Oxford, Arnold Whitaker. English Cookery Books to the Year 1850. Mansfield, CT: Martino Publishing, year? Or London: Holland Press, 1977.

Pennell, Elizabeth Robins. My Cookery Books. New York: Houghton & Mifflin, 1903.

Simon, André L. Biblioteca gastronomia: A Catalogue of Books and Documents on Gastronomy. London: Wine and Food Society, 1953.

Simón- Palmer, Carmen. Bibliografía de la gastronomia española: Notas para su realización. Madrid: Ediciones Velazquez, 1997.

Vicaire, Georges. Bibliographie gastronomique [1890]. Reprint: London: Holland Press, 1954.

Weiss, Hans U. Gastronomia: Eine Bibliographie der deutschprachigen Gastronomie 1485-1914. Zürich: Bibliotheca Gastronomica, 1996.

Westbury, Lord Richard. Handlist of Italian Cookery Books. Florence: Leo S. Olschki-Editore, 1963.

Wertsman, Vladimir F. What’s Cooking in Multicultural America: An Annotated Bibliographic Guide to over Four Hundred Ethnic Cuisines. Lanham, Md.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1996.


Appandurai, A. “How to Make a National Cuisine: Cookbooks in Contemporary India.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 30: 3-24, 1988.

Gold, Carol. Danish Cookbooks: Domesticity and National Identity, 1616-1901. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007.

Meredith, Peter. “The Language of Medieval Cookery.” In: Eileen White, ed.The English Cookery Book: Historical Essays. Totnes: Prospect Books, 2004.

Sherman, Sandra. “The Whole Art and Mystery of Cooking: What Cookbooks Taught Readers in the Eighteenth Century.” Eighteenth-Century Life 28(1): 115-135, 2004.


 *A slight rephrasing of a title! Born in 1588, Robert May published a superb cookbook in 1660 – Accomplisht Cook, or, The Art and Mystery of Food – at the elevated age of 72, at that time quite a feat, to live that long, that is (as well as to publish one’s first book!).

**Printed cookbooks are relatively new in many parts of the world today.

***p. 23

© 2014 C. Bertelsen


5 thoughts on “Why Study the History of Cookbooks, Or, The Art and the Mystery of Food*

  1. While reading this post, my mind skipped directly to Appandurai and I was glad to see his book in your bibliography. It is a topic close to my heart and I wish you luck in your research. There are also a lot of internet resources out there for early cookbooks – http://medievalcookery.com/etexts.html is one and there is also The Internet Archive – a digital library where I have found a number of old (out of copyright) cookbooks.


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