Cookbooks: More than Words About Food

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Today, living in the age of food porn and celebrity chefs, amid claims that avocado toast will bankrupt an entire generation, it is easy to forget that cooking isn’t a status symbol. It is a fact of life, which has been facilitated the world over by the transmission of recipes and culinary techniques, at first, like with all human knowledge, orally, but then committed to the written word. In his compelling new book, A History of Cookbooks: From Kitchen to Page over Seven Centuries, literary historian Henry Notaker tells readers that the oldest known written recipes were found on three Mesopotamian clay tablets, dating to 1700 BCE and written in Akkadian, using cuneiform. Over the next millennium Greek authors composed collections of recipes and food revelries in both prose and verse, and across Europe during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries manuscripts were filled with details on how to prepare a wide range of dishes. But the first printed cookbook—On Right Pleasure and Good Health—emerged from fifteenth century Italy, the result of a professional cook and a professional writer amassing their collective knowledge, a “four-handed creation.”

Notaker’s impressive work of research calls for cookbooks to be read and valued the same as literature, making the point that these texts are about much more than food; they reflect and reveal social and cultural characteristics that are as informative as anything found in the traditional literary canon. And, of course, there is the collaborative nature of such endeavors: “A cookbook – written or printed on parchment or paper – is the final merger of many different traditions, primarily cooking and writing, but also editing, design, binding, printing, and photography.”

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Cookbooks as we think of them today make clear this assertion. From the clean and concise designs and line drawings that fill the pages of titles like Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1 to edgier more in-your-face offerings like Hellbent for Cooking: The Heavy Metal Cookbook and Thug Kitchen all the moving parts of making a book are on display. This is true of any book, if you really look, but the best cookbooks excel by virtue of design and editorial harmony being front and center. Because of this, A History of Cookbooks also serves up a wonderful history of publishing, since that first printed Italian cookbook coincides with the advent of Gutenberg’s press.

The forthcoming Bread is Gold by celebrated Italian chef Massimo Bottura is an uncanny encapsulation of many of the traditions Notaker’s book unpacks. This collection of recipes from the world’s most famous culinary figures – think Rene Redzepi, Cristina Bowerman, Ferran Adria, etc. – was inspired by Bottura wanting to craft recipes from the food waste created by Expo 2015 in Milan: “What I was imagining was not a pavilion but a refettorio, the place where monks and nuns have shared meals for centuries.” More than simply wanting to share meals, Bottura’s vision transcended the foodie realm and became a mission to address an unfortunate reality: “One-third of the food we produce globally is wasted every year, including nearly four trillion apples.” And so every morning for six months a truck arrived at Bottura’s refettorio with surplus food that the Expo had deemed unusable, and then the chefs invited from all over the world developed menus for meals that were served to local schoolchildren and residents of homeless shelters.cookbooks

In reading Bottura’s explanation for this admirable project my mind kept going back to the humble beginnings of cooking and cookbooks. As Notaker’s close reading of old cookery manuscripts reveals, being a cook has not always been a reputable line of work, what with all the blood and guts of butchering, along with the hazards of fire and smoke. In fact, most early cooks were likely illiterate, relying on scribes to transcribe their secrets. And while “farm to table” and “nose-to-tail” cooking is de rigueur today, centuries ago there weren’t other options – you cooked what you could get your hands on. Notaker focuses more on the creation of these texts than the delicacies featured in the texts, but if you need detailed proof of old recipes using seemingly eccentric ingredients consult Peter Ross’s The Curious Cookbook: “Lips, noses, udders, ox-eyes, and sparrows on toast” from The Accomplish’t Cook, 1660; “Viper Soup” from The Country Housewife and Lady’s Director, 1736; “Tendons with all the meat removed served in gravy with peas” from The Royal Cookery Book, 1869.

The dishes in Bread is Gold do not call for exotic ingredients; rather they are, in Bottura’s words, “odes to imperfection. On one hand they can be considered ordinary; on the other hand, they just might be the most extraordinary proof that cooking is a call to act. Recipes can change the way we look at the world.” The book’s first recipe utilizes two ingredients that all too regularly are wasted: stale bread and overripe strawberries. Daniel Humm uses these to make strawberry gazpacho. Too many brown bananas? Don’t just make ice cream, prepare banana peel chutney. No pine nuts on hand? Blend up some stale bread or popcorn to make pesto.cookbooks

Along with the culinary similarities that Bread is Gold shares with cookbooks of yore, there is also a crucial design element that connects this new book with tradition: Recipe Notes. Every recipe in Bottura’s book includes blank lines for users to jot down their own notes based on their experiences preparing these dishes. Maybe use more salt? Less vinegar? As Notaker points out, while the printing press did begin the process of codifying culinary traditions, it was a slow process and readers continued to take cues from “scribal culture” adding marginal notes and personal adaptations to the printed recipes. And “from the late seventeenth century, almanacs . . . included blank pages for the readers to fill in, a feature later adopted by cookbook publishers.”

All too often books are treated as little more than product for consumers, who take the products for granted. As Notaker proves, the most interesting cookbooks, the same as an excellent novel, become about much more than the words on the page. Both Notaker and Bottura have written books that hold multiple stories that are about much more than food. They consider how cultures develop and change; they reveal the cultural ramification of commodifying necessities; they demonstrate how design helps shape perspectives on the culinary arts; and they prove that history never ends but remains with us forever if we take the time to pay attention. As Massimo Bottura writes: “Recipes are often the best storytellers.”

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