My Burgundy Club series features a group of Regency era rare book collectors. My first, unconnected, romance, Never Resist Temptation, also had a bookish inspiration: cookbooks. The story features (off stage) Antonin Carême, the most celebrated French chef of the Regency era. Though by no means the first famous cookery writer, he was the first to parlay a career as a chef into one as a bestselling author of cookbooks. Carême’s clients included Napoleon, the Bourbon kings, the Tsar of Russia, Talleyrand and the Prince Regent. He began as a pastry chef and was famous for his extraordinaires, elaborate sugar and pastry creations that were intended not to be eaten but to decorate banquet tables. That tradition continues to this day; there’s a fascinating documentary called Kings of Pastry (available on Netflix) about a modern day competition for such food sculptures.
The oldest known cookbook is a Roman work by Apicius, first printed in 1498. The recipes are mostly lists of ingredients with few indications of quantities or cooking methods. This is quite common in early cookbooks. Writers assumed that their readers already knew how to cook and could figure out an exact recipe from a description of the dish. The first printed cookbook (in 1474) was De honesta voluptate et valetudine(“On honest pleasure and health”) written by the Vatican librarian, Bartolomeo Platina. (Why do I suspect he didn’t do a whole lot of cooking himself?)
Many works followed, mostly from France and Italy, often with fascinating illustrations giving us a view into those old kitchens. The vast majority of these authors were men, reflecting the male domination of the cooking profession in Europe. The English, on the other hand happily hired female cooks and the most popular English cookbooks of the eighteenth century were written by women like Hannah Glasse, Elizabeth Moxon, and Eliza Smith. (I own a facsimile edition of Smith’s The Compleat Housewife and refer to it often when I need a menu for my characters.)
As with most books, colonial Americans relied on English imports or reprints of English works. The first real American cookbook, including native ingredients like corn, was Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery, printed in Hartford, Connecticut in 1798.
A fun, and very American, type of cookbook is the charity compilation. You know them, collections of recipes by members of a church or other civic organization. Examples date back to the nineteenth century. Vegetarian recipes go back a long way, too. John Smith’s Fruits and Farinacea. The Proper Food of Man dates to 1845. And I would love to read Laura Holloway’s The Buddhist Diet-Book, published in New York in 1886.
I own too many cookbooks. At one point I got rid of several boxes of them, but I just counted and I still have about 80 on my shelves. The oldest is a 1912 edition of Mrs. Beaton’s Household Management, a tome the size of a cinder block. I frequently use the classics: Elizabeth David, Julia Child, and Marcella Hazen. I love the new Joy of Cooking and I have some international favorites: Penelope Casas book on Paella; Claudia Roden’s The New Book of Middle Eastern Food; Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian; and Art of Indian Cuisine by Rocky Mohan, a wonderful book I picked up on a remainder table.
What are your favorite cookbooks, old or new? I’m sure you can tell me a few more I can’t live without.