600 years of cookbook history

History of CookbooksWe are living in a golden age of cookbooks, one where almost everyone can find a book filled with recipes for a reasonable price. It wasn't always like this - centuries ago, only the wealthiest people had cookbooks, which were seen as a status symbol. Henry Notaker traces the history of cookbooks for seven centuries in his book A History of Cookbooks, (watch for a promotion for this title soon) which provides a sweeping literary and historical overview of the cookbook genre, exploring its development as a part of food culture beginning in the Late Middle Ages. 

Notaker explains why cookbooks were once viewed as status symbols in an article in The Atlantic (hat tip to a sharp-eyed Member for pointing us to this piece). He says that beginning in the 15th century in Western Europe, "the oldest published recipe collections emanated from the palaces of monarchs, princes, and  grandes señores.  At this time, no one was trying to build a business out of selling cookbooks. Instead, they were often created within a court culture, partly intended as aidés-memoire for chief stewards and partly for royalty to demonstrate the luxury of their banquets."

Along with other publications, cookbooks began to see a broader audience once  the printing press was developed in the 1600s. These new books were frequently aimed at housewives and often included housekeeping tips in addition to recipes. Although cookbooks were no longer exclusively the province of royalty, they did not become egalitarian overnight, says Notaker. Indeed, authors in  pre-revolutionary France often took pains "to emphasize that when they wrote for the bourgeoisie, they were not interested in the lower ranks of this class." 

Notaker has studied cookbooks from various Western cultures and languages, and his book traces the transformation of recipes from brief notes with ingredients into detailed recipes with a specific structure, grammar, and vocabulary. In addition, he reveals that cookbooks go far beyond offering recipes: they tell us a great deal about nutrition, morals, manners, history, and menus while often providing entertaining reflections and commentaries. 

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