The Biggest Food Revolution Ever: The Printed Cookbook?

Cuisinier francois Varenne rs
Frontispiece, Le Cuisinier françois, by Varenne (Guillaume Tirel) [Photo credit: C. Bertelsen]
Like many women, and quite a few men, I learned to cook some five or six basic dishes from my mother. And even then, it was all oral. Nothing written. Nevertheless, as a modern person, I guess, I desired to know and understand much more about cooking and cuisine and began to accumulate books on the subject. Soon I owned several hundred cookbooks and managed to cart them along with me as I moved to several developing countries to live and work. Coming from a highly literate culture, where memorization played a very small role on a daily basis, I constantly ran into comments, mostly from servants but also from upper-class locals, who expressed amazement that I relied on cookbooks for some, but not all, of my meals. “Didn’t your mother teach you to cook?” went one stream of questioning, while another – unspoken –  focused on what could only be my incompetence with a saucepan. Why else would I need a cookbook?! I could understand their point: if the only ingredients available to you are the same local products historically and currently available to you, or you cannot buy any of the so-called exotic products in the markets around you, then it becomes clear why cookbooks might not be useful.  Not to mention illiteracy and lack of funds to purchase cookbooks. Through this experience I realized just how powerful the role of literacy and access to books has been. Cookbooks from all over the world allowed me freedom at the stove, thanks to the revolutionary invention of printing. (1)

Duke of Burgundy Charles the Bold and book rs
Jean Wauquelin presenting the Chroniques de Hainault (1448), accepted by the Duke Philip the Good. A miniature possibly by Rogier van der Weyden. [Photo credit: C. Bertelsen]
Printing, oh how we take it for granted. And now, with all the Cassandresque voices out there extolling the end of print – and books, we turn to wireless to replace what was probably the most stunning intellectual invention in the history of humankind, aside from writing itself.

Just think about it: with the coming of the book (2), possessing and accessing knowledge no longer required the physical presence of learned/knowledgeable people to share or pass on information/skills. To phrase it another way, the words and ideas of thinkers could move from place to place and wouldn’t be halted by geographical location or the chains and prison cells that held dissidents and heretics, in an attempt to silence them. That said, over 75% of the earliest printed books continued to deal with religious, not secular, subjects. Henry Notaker suggests that only 100 “different [cookbook] titles” appeared between the 1470s and 1700. (3)

The Perfect Cook frontpiece rs
Frontispiece to The Perfect Cook (1656) [Photo credit: C. Bertelsen]
But don’t forget that the invention of paper was also highly important, not just Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of movable type. (4) The Chinese developed paper making as early as AD 105 and Arab traders brought it to Italy in the twelfth century. The advantages of paper became clear early on: paper couldn’t really be erased/scraped like parchment or vellum, both of which were reused by scribes. Printing adapted the screw-type press used for wine and olive oil making. Printing built on the concept of block printing with woodcuts, which existed prior to movable type and the punch-and-mold system. However, the presence of movable fonts made it possible to quickly (relatively!) to create new pages and make changes without having to completely redo the template/page. Other inventions stemming from the invention of printing included oil-based inks, since egg-based inks didn’t adhere well to paper.

Printers and publishers encountered difficulties in marketing books, with new books often advertised by the word of mouth style, essentially still part of oral culture. Raconteurs read books to crowds on the corner, possibly stimulating the desire on the part of listeners to somehow better themselves by learning to read as well.  Printing led to standardization of spelling (eventually).

One of the most perplexing questions, not easily answered, is that of literacy. Who could read and what did they read? Who bought the earliest cookbooks, who was the audience for whom the books were written? And, connected to the issue of literacy, did printed cookbooks bring about changes in the way in which cooks, well, cooked? Once the demand to memorize everything became less important, thanks to the early printed cookbook (aides-memoires), as Notaker suggests, “the mind gets a greater freedom to more original thought and new speculation.”(5) Most of the audience for printed books originality lay with churchmen, students in ecclesiastical schools, and scholars. Vernacular literature tended to lean more toward oral presentations – plays, epic poetry, and so on. Printers and publishers preferred to deal with the vernacular, because their profits increased thus. (6) The truth is that in rural areas, where printed cookbooks were unlikely to be found due to poverty and illiteracy, changes in food patterns were slow. But the story is much different when we contemplate noble courts and cities.

As Stephen Mennell comments, “In cooking as in the case of other social phenomena like codes of manners, fashions in clothing, or styles of eating, printing also very much facilitates the process of social emulation – of the habits, styles and interests of one class or stratum by another.” (7)

Tika masala 1 rs Color Efex
Tika Masala [Photo credit: C. Bertelsen]
Tika Masala (Chicken Curry in a Tomato-Cream Sauce)

Serves 4-6 as main course

Tika Masala is a dish that appears to be a fusion of Indian with touches of Italian, due to the tomatoes and the cream. It appears in many Western cookbooks about Indian cuisine. Likely invented in London in the 1960s, Tika Masala serves as an excellent example of what happens when culinary cultures meet.

Chicken preparation:

2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite-sized pieces)

2 T. garam masala (spice mixture available in Asian or Indian markets)

2 T. melted butter

½ cup plain Greek yogurt (use full-fat yogurt, not the non-fat type)

1 T. garlic, minced fine or pounded in a mortar

1 T. fresh ginger, peeled, and pounded in a mortar

3 T. butter


2 red onions, finely chopped

3 T. butter

3 T. sweet paprika + ½ t. smoked paprika

1 T. garam masala

2 cinnamon sticks

1 t. Kosher salt

1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes + ½ cup water

2/3 cup half-and-half or heavy cream

Preheat oven to 325 F.

Marinate the chicken pieces in the next four ingredients, for at least 30 minutes.

Add the 3 T. butter to a heated skillet, scrape the chicken pieces into skillet, and sauté the chicken until no longer pink. Set aside.

For the sauce: In another skillet, melt the butter and add the onions. Cook over medium-high heat until onions are slightly caramelized, stirring constantly. Add paprika, garam masala, and cinnamon sticks, stir quickly to toast slightly, add salt, and then pour in the tomatoes and water. Reduce heat to simmer and cook covered for about 20 minutes or so.

Add the reserved chicken to the skillet and pour in the half-and-half/cream. Bring to a boil, cover, and place skillet in reheated oven. Cook for about 30 minutes or longer. Serve with Basmati or Jasmine rice.


1. This short and very, very incomplete essay represents only the tiniest tip of the immensely large and complex topic of printing, literacy, and early printed cookbooks. I am aware that cookbooks do not necessarily reflect what actually went on in kitchens in the past or even what people today cook with the deluge of glossy chefs’ cookbooks, food TV, and cooking-related apps. I also would like to point out comments made by Madhur Jaffrey, who ended up in England not knowing how to cook, and craving the foods of her childhood, sought to solve that problem by writing down her mother’s recipes. Jaffrey, by vocation an actress, became quite well-known for her cookbooks about Indian food.

2. This phrase originated with the Febvre book listed in the Further Reading section below.

3. Notaker, Henry. Printed Cookbooks in Europe, 1470-1700. New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll Press, 2010, p. 3.

4. The Chinese, in the person of Bi Sheng, invented movable type about 400 years prior to Gutenberg.

5. Notaker, 17.

6. But I remain perplexed, because since Latin was the usual language of learning in schools, where and how did people learn to read the vernacular? If anyone can enlighten me on this, I would appreciate it.

7. Mennell, Stephen. “Gutenberg and the Cook,” In: All Manners of Food: Eating and Taste in England and France from the Middles Ages to the Present. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985, p. 64.

Further Reading:

Eisenstein, Elizabeth. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Febvre, Lucien and Martin, Henri-Jean. The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing, 1450-1800. 3rd edition. New York: Verso, 2010.

Fischer, Steven Roger. A History of Reading. London: Reaktion Books, 2004.

Houston, R. A. Literacy in Early Modern Europe. New York: Longman, 2002.

Jaine, Tom. “Do Cookery Books Tell the Truth?” In: Martin, A. Lynn and Santich, Barbara, eds. Culinary History. Brompton, Australia: East Street Publications, 2004, pp. 87-96.

Kunjappu, Joy. Ink Chemistry. Chemistry World, Royal Society of Chemistry, March 2003.

Mennell, Stephen. “Gutenberg and the Cook,” In: All Manners of Food: Eating and Taste in England and France from the Middles Ages to the Present. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985, pp. 64-69.

Notaker, Henry. Printed Cookbooks in Europe, 1470-1700. New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll Press, 2010.

Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy. London: Routledge, 2002.

Willan, Anne. “Literacy in the Kitchen.” In: The Cookbook Library. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012, pp. 52-53.

© 2014 C. Bertelsen

6 thoughts on “The Biggest Food Revolution Ever: The Printed Cookbook?

  1. Thanks, Sally, for your kind remarks. The whole subject of cookbooks is fascinating, yes, and very complex, people have tried to define them and their place in our history, an ongoing task, no?


  2. Different cursive versions of the Latin alphabet have been around since ancient times. In the early Middle Ages some of them were introduced by Christian missionaries into northwestern Europe and adapted to reproduce local vernaculars. Reading/writing in the vernacular was necessary for many kinds of medieval record-keeping, not to mention transcribing literary works — more and more as time went on.


  3. Great post, Cindy. I never really thought about how cookbooks would not be necessary in a culture where one would only be cooking the same type of food all of the time.


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