The History of Recipes
I went into this expecting to be covering one woman and her contributions to the culinary arts and ended up finding all manner of fascinating discourse and well, here we are. It's a typical HEX topicSo I guess we'll start with this: I love to cook. That wasn't always the case, in fact my interest in cooking was birthed almost out of spite. I grew up with my brother, dad and grandmother. My grandmother did all the cooking, and while some of y'alls grandmothers I am sure are fabulous cooks, mine was not.She had grown up during world war 2 on a small farm in Germany, her family struggled to keep food on the table and sometimes the food they did have wasn't always in the best state. But when that's all you have, you made do and then would proceed to cook it to absolute death.
This was my grandmother's exposure to cooking. So when she came to Canada with my grandfather and they started their homestead, that is the skills she started with. Living off the land can be bountiful, you get a good crop and you'll get more food than you could ever possibly eat, but when those crops fail, well.
Neither of my grandparents were expert farmers and the land they ended up buying had poor soil quality and was filled with rocks. So it was an uphill battle from the get-go, so my grandmother's ability to stretch food and find a way to eat even the most dubious crops kept her, my grandfather and their five children fed
By the time my brother and I came into the picture, the garden had been tilled and worked into a fully functional source of food. There were orchards of fruit, potatoes to last all seasons and so much lettuce, it was not humanly possible to consume it all.
Food was plentiful, that and she and my dad both brought in an income so they had access to the grocery store and all that entailed.
But my grandmother's cooking never really went beyond the war-style cook everything to mush. My mother on the other hand was a good cook and while she wasn't really involved in our lives, when we did see her, the food was always memorable. And I couldn't understand how my grandmother and mother could cook the same dish and taste so dramatically different.
Then came my entitled, privileged teenage-ass who complained to my dad about my grandmas cooking until one day he was like "If you don't like it, then you can cook."
And well. I did. I am sure, especially in the beginning my meals were far from glamorous or delicious, but I took the challenge on
I ended up taking home ec throughout high school and it taught me so much, and food is something I have actively continued to learn about ever since. And before it sounds like I completely usurped my grandmother in the kitchen, I want to say she was an excellent baker and she really enjoyed this, so me taking on the meals gave her a break from her 50+ years cooking and she could do what she really liked which was making pies, breads and all manner of cakes. So what the hell am I getting at? The evolution of recipes and culinary education
Since life has existed on this planet, it has needed sustenance, that's just how we grow and function. Biology dictates this. But biology doesn't dictate that it has to taste good, at least not for the sake of survival. We could put all our required daily nutrition in a slurry and just drink that every day to get all the vitamins, minerals and calories we need. But we don't.
It's likely that at least since humans discovered fire there have been attempts to make our food taste better. Like hey, meat tastes better with a little char and you're less likely to get sick, that's a win all around, just gotta figure that fire thing out.
But of course, we can't prove that. But I can tell you that at the very least since 1700 BC, we've been mixing stuff together and cooking it in all sorts of ways just cuz it tasted good.
I am referring to the Yale tablets, a set of three clay tablets from 1700 BC Ancient Mesopotamia. These are the earliest recipes we have found.
Naturally with the tablets being so old, some bits have broken off or worn away but after much expert examination at Yale University, we have a pretty good idea of what they said.
The most intact of the tablets is more of a listing of ingredients that amounts to 25 recipes of stews and broths; the other two, containing an additional 10-plus recipes, go further in depth with cooking instructions and presentation suggestions, but those are broken and therefore not as legible.
The tablets, while fractured, tell us a lot. One being that the ancient Mesopotamians recognized that different regions had their own cuisines, and as such some of the recipes listed here were marked as foreign. Not marked as bad in any way, just different and having been adapted for local palates and ingredients.
One of the foreign dishes is called Elamite Broth which uses blood for the basis of its broth, which would be completely forbidden in Islamic and Jewish tradition today. Researchers believe this recipe originated from what is now Iran based on the use of dill, which was not used in any of the local recipes. In modern day Iraq (where these tablets were found) dill is still not used frequently, but in neighboring Iran it plays a big role.
As for the local dishes,
One such recipe is for a soup called Pashrutum. It appears this soup was given to someone when they had a cold, so the oldest school chicken noodle soup, but without the chicken and the noodles.
The recipe consists of a mild broth, coriander, onions and leek.
Another is for a soup called Tuh'u, which includes lamb, onions, beets, coriander, shallots, cumin, beer and more. AND there was even a garnishment suggestion of a finely chopped spring leek and coriander seeds coarsely crushed. A possible predecessor to borsch.
Another recipe resembles a chicken pot pie, with layers of dough and chunks of bird smothered by a sort of Babylonian bechamel sauce.
The recipes tell us that even 4,000 years ago our ancestors used complex spice blends, used multiple ingredients and different textures and cooking methods to create meal worthy of king. Just as these recipes were originally intended.
The Yale team even went through and reproduced four of the recipes to great success, which is pretty cool and I will include a video in the show notes
Since then cookbooks have provided a unique insight into the lives of people at the time, though if sometimes with a very narrow scope
By the 1300s cookbooks had become the norm for kings and nobles. For example in 1390 Forme of Cury (The rules of cookery) was published for King Richard II. It contained recipes by the master-cooks for the king and featured all his favorite recipes.
You can see a 1780 version here
This cookbook utilized a large variety of Southern European cooking staples like saffron, sugar, almonds and various pastas, making quite a diverse selection. But it's important to remember that this decadence and variety came at high costs to the lower class who often were the ones farming and preparing such ingredients with little opportunity to indulge themselves.
By the 15th century mass printing had become more prevalent and by 17th century public literacy had greatly increased, making the concept of buying and reading a cookbook a lot more accessible to the average person.
Though there were still significant differences between foods prepared depending on your class and cookbooks were targeted to specific audiences
The titles of cookbooks exemplified the role they played in perpetuating social hierarchy between the rich and poor, such as "Plain Cookery for the Working Classes," "The Poor Man's Larder and Kitchen" or "Fifteen-Cent Dinners for Working-Men's Families" to name a few. On the other hand, recipes and books like "Les Soupers de la Cour" and "La Cuisiniere Bourgeoise" for royals and aristocrats.
In 1727 The Compleat Housewife would be published this would also prove to be one of the first cookbooks also authored by a woman and it's re-release in 1747 to be the first cookbook published in America
It contained the first published recipe for "katchup", and appears to be the earliest source for bread and butter pudding.
The book includes recipes not only for foods but for wines, cordial-waters, medicines and salves.
The structure of the recipes is interesting as well:
There are no lists of ingredients, these simply being mentioned as needed in the recipes. Most recipes do not mention either oven temperature or cooking time
Recipes are described tersely, and do not generally spell out basic techniques such as how to make pastry; the recipe for "A Battalia Pye" does not mention pastry at all, though it is called for with the instruction to "close the pye"
Recipes are provided for home-made medicines and remedies such as "To promote Breeding" for women wanting to become pregnant. The recipe calls for a spoonful of "stinking orrice" syrup to be taken night and morning, and for "good ale" to be boiled with "the piths of 3 ox-backs,[d] half a handful of clary, a handful of nep (or cat-bos)",[e] dates, raisins, and nutmegs. The woman drinking this mixture "at your going to-bed" is enjoined "as long as it lasts, accompany not with your husband."
Books like this give us a unique insight into societal expectations the housewife having to function as " chef, doctor, pharmacist, exterminator, chemist, laundress, and all-around handy-woman."
Eliza Acton - Modern Cookery
The first modern cookery writer and compiler of recipes for the home was Eliza Acton. Her pioneering cookbook, Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845), was aimed at the domestic reader rather than the professional cook or chef.
the publication introduced the now-universal practice of listing the ingredients and suggested cooking times with each recipe
Also I wanted to share that "Modern Cookery for Private Families" was not the full name of the book but instead:
Modern Cookery, In All Its Branches: Reduced to a System of Easy Practice, for the Use of Private Families. In a Series of Practical Receipts, Which Have Been Strictly Tested, And are Given with the Most Minute exactness.
Time for me to get the person this topic was originally about a woman named Fannie Merritt Farmer.
Fannie was born on Mar 23 1857 in Boston, the eldest of four daughters in a family that placed great importance on education.
Fannie had big dreams, she was bright and had a hunger for knowledge, she had dreams of attending college and becoming a schoolteacher, one of the few professional avenues open to women at the time. That was until at the age of 16 she suffered a paralytic stroke.
The stroke left her unable to walk and she was forced to remain in the care of her family. The prevailing medical wisdom at the time dictated that she could not leave home or apply herself intellectually.
But she was nothing if not determined, she worked hard to regain her ability to walk and she was successful, leaving her with only a limp in her left leg. But this healing process was not a quick one, there were many years where she was confined to the house, so she needed to something to maintain her sanity.
She began to cook.
Her mother ran a boarding house and Fannie began to cook meals for its residents, and soon word got around about the quality meals served there, Fannie gaining quite the reputation
So at age 30 she enrolled in the Boston Cooking School. This was the height of the domestic science movement, which is a really fascinating period of time. The school was founded as a philanthropic venture to enable women of modest means to find work as cooks in private homes and institutions. Its stated promised was "to lift this great social incubus of bad cooking and its incident evils from the households of the country at large."
The Domestic Science Movement
You might be wondering why there was a sudden need for a domestic science movement and that women suddenly needed to go to school to learn to cook. It's a good one, and the civil war played a big part in, care to guess?
1865 was the abolishment of slavery. See, since day 1 of America, white folk had slaves, especially those living in the south. They came to a continent to make a new country, with slaves. By this point we were probably a good half dozen generations in, and that entire time, many of those families, had slaves.
Slaves did a lot of things, well let's be honest, pretty much everything. So suddenly, this entire workforce had its well deserved, long overdue freedom. Much of America's economy at the time was being supported by slavery, whether it be the trade of the slaves themselves, or use of slaves as workers on plantations or in other lines of work.
This had a devastating impact on the men in many families, particularly those that had owned slaves. Their income plummeted and many were forced to declare bankruptcy. It's pretty easy to see the obvious impacts to the men
But this also had a huge impact to women, who had never cared for their own house sometimes even their own children. They had never entered a kitchen or cleaned a dish, or hung laundry to dry. The domestic sciences are often mocked, delegated to women yet considered unimportant. But, your life would fall apart pretty damn quick if everything that entailed suddenly disappeared.
We take a lot of things for granted we all have a pretty strong notion that living in a clean house is just a good idea, but this was a time when the idea that tiny microorganisms existed and could make us sick was laughable (we call that germ theory now). Imagine how fast things could go wrong when your left to manage your household with absolutely no concept of what that actually entails.
All that and the fact that now your husband wasn't bringing in the money and you needed to find some way to help with that but have no marketable skills other than drinking tea and gossiping. Ok that's an exaggeration and more than a little facetious, but you catch my drift.
Women needed to learn a trade and they needed to learn how to care for their families and homes (cause god knows a man wasn't going to do it at the time). Thus was the rise of the domestic sciencesNow all of this did make people realize the value of the knowledge that the African American populace had in spades. And it led to careers for many black men and women, taking on paid jobs to care for the more well off families.
We even have our first cookbook published by a black woman named Malinda Russell in 1866, just one year after abolishment.
And as a fun little aside, another book came out in 1874 to help with this sudden void of knowledge, called Miss Beecher's Housekeeper and Healthkeeper.
This book was written by Catherine Beecher, the sister to abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe. Catherine was an early feminist and advocate of women's education, she was at the forefront of the home economics movement, which sought to provide a scientific foundation for women's work in the home.
Although Miss Beecher's Housekeeper and Healthkeeper contains more than five hundred recipes and household hints, it is much more than a cookbook. Beecher devotes an entire chapter to the argument that it is more important for women to receive scientific education than men, because their traditional roles as wife, mother, and homemaker directly affect the entire family. She includes chapters on the latest medical, chemical and scientific advances as they relate to cooking and nutrition, including diagrams of the body's systems, a discussion of cells and microscopy, and a breakdown of the chemical components of foods.
Which is pretty damn cool, this Beecher family had a thing or two figured out
Anyways back to Fannie
As a post-Civil War institution founded by reformers and philanthropists, the school gave women of modest means an entry into professional work at a time when more women needed employment and few had career options. With its emphasis on science and domesticity, it provided upper-class women with what would have been perceived to be a respectable way to support themselves should they suffer a reversal in fortune
Among cooking she also learned about nutrition, diet, convalescent cookery, techniques of cleaning and sanitation, chemical analysis of food, techniques of cooking and baking and household management.
Fannie was considered one of the school's top students, graduating in 1889, and staying on as assistant to the director, only to become the principal two years later (1891)
In 1896 Fannie would publish The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, a follow up to the 1884 edition written by Mary J Lincoln.
No one expected much from this book, even the publisher Little, Brown and Company did not expect good sales so only printed 3,000 copies at the expense of Fannie, but it meant she got to keep the rights and most the profits, which turned out to be a very good thing
But this wasn't any old cookbook, over the years multiple editions would be published culminating in 1,850 recipes under Fannie's direction. On top of recipes the book as included essays on housekeeping, cleaning, canning, drying and nutritional information.
Fannie's goal had been to create a book anyone could follow and would have consistent results.
In her Preface, Farmer sums up her aim and her eventual achievement: "It is my wish that [the cookbook] may not only be looked upon as a compilation of tried and tested recipes, but that it may awaken an interest through its condensed scientific knowledge which will lead to deeper thought and broader study of what to eat."
Recipes have included ingredient amounts for some time but measurements were very inconsistent. Fannie not only included standardized measurements but also included directions on how to make them. The most revolutionary aspect of this was the leveled measure, which was the practice of filling a measurement cup then using a tool like a butter knife to remove any excess ingredients that surpassed the top of the cup.
You would think this wouldn't make a ton of difference, and in cooking, it's more forgiving, but in baking? Your damn right that makes a difference.
"Correct measurements are absolutely necessary to ensure the best results," Farmer famously wrote.
She also went above and beyond just providing simple directions, she also explained chemical processes that occurred during cooking, the why of everything. There's a reason you seared things, it's to put that delicious Maillard reaction to work and beating your egg whites into stiff peaks is what gets you the fluffiness of Angel Food Cake. You didn't learn this stuff unless you went to school, but through this book that knowledge became available to everyone
And everyone wanted it much to the publisher's surprise, in her lifetime alone it sold 360,000 copies. The book continues to be published today, well over a hundred years since its original 3,000 count run, while it's now known as the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, in honor of its author.
The success of the cookbook allowed Fannie to leave the Boston school and instead open her own called the Miss Farmer's School of Cookery in 1902. Her target audience was not the professionals like housekeepers and hired chefs like the Boston school had been, but instead housewives and gentlewomen.
"She made it possible for any woman to put a meal on the table, even if she couldn't cook at all," Shapiro said. "There's nothing more democratizing than that."
She taught everything from plain cooking to fancy cooking. And the school was an all round success! Allowing her to buy land, build a house and support her parents, sisters and other family members
Fannie believed that everyone should have access to good food, and it was in part of this mission, and her own personal enjoyment, that she was always seeking out new recipes. She would go to restaurants and find new dishes, sometimes she was able to get the recipe from the chef, but if not, she would take an order to go and take it to her school's laboratory where she could examine and attempt to reproduce it.
And naturally she would then go on to share that recipe with her students or in the next edition of her cookbook.
But she still felt she could bring more to the world, working on her next book Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent.
This book included complete diet and nutritional information for the ill or bed-bound. She even included a full thirty pages on diabetes. This work would lead her to be invited to be one of the first women lecturers at Harvard Medical School and began teaching convalescent diet and nutrition to doctors and nurses.
She felt very strongly that food played a large role in the recovery and happiness of those who were in need of care. Farmer understood perhaps better than anyone else at the time the value of appearance, taste, and presentation of sickroom food to ill and wasted people with poor appetites; she ranked these qualities over cost and nutritional value in importance.
That's not to say that nutrition wasn't important, it absolutely was and she recognized that, unlike many at the time. The more she learned and experimented with recipes, the more convinced she became that there was a significant connection between diet and health
The Boston Evening Transcript published her lectures, which were picked up by newspapers nationwide. Farmer also lectured to nurses and dietitians, and taught a course on dietary preparation at Harvard Medical School.
She hoped that this work is what she would most be remembered for, but sadly it is not talked about nearly as much as her directions on how to properly level measure
During the last seven years of her life, Fannie used a wheelchair, yet despite her immobility she continued to write, invent recipes and lecture, giving her last ten days before her death.
Fannie passed on January 16 1915 at the age of 57 due to complications in relation to a stroke. Her school would carry on in her mission until 1944 when it would eventually close.
Even though Fannie was a best-selling author and influential public speaker, the New York Times did not report on her death because it typically only used obituary space for men. They corrected this omission in 2018.
Her book continues to be published to this day, with over 7 million copies sold
As the World Wars commenced in the early-mid 1900s, food gained a new meaning: they were about thriftiness, preservation, rationing, and efficiency. But after World War 2 as men came home and women were then expected to be traditional housewives, a domestic and feminized ideal in the kitchen and cookbooks emerged, coinciding with the rise of industrialized, canned, and processed food
From a 1950 Betty Crocker's Picture Cookbook: "Just as every carpenter must have certain tools for building a house, every woman should have the right tools for the fine art of cooking." Throughout these post-war cookbooks, it was clear that much of a woman's worth was determined by her husband's judgements of her adequacy as a mother, wife, or cook to her husband
On August 15 1912 Julia Child would be born, while today we immediately associate her with her love of french cooking, that had never been her original plan
Her 20s was spent meandering through secretarial jobs and come 1941 she became really interested in helping with the war effort, despite neither of the two branches of the military that accepted women turning her down because she at 6'2, she was just considered too damn tall
But that didn't stop her and she would go on to work for the Secret intelligence branch of what would become the CIA. It was through this career that she met her husband, Paul Child and it was through him and his posting in Paris that she entered famous Le Cordon Bleu cooking school.
While cooking had never been her plan, she did have some experience growing up in her mother's kitchen, citing that Fannie Farmers' "The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book" was her mother's primary reference, and that she cut her teeth as a cook on its pancakes, popovers and fudge recipes.
While at school she met two other women and the three would go on to publish Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1961, the first cookbook to bring French cooking to the American public
From there, she became one of the most well-known chefs of our day. She became one of the first television chefs with her show The French Chef and spent the rest of her life up until her death in 2004 continuing to bring her love of cooking and her no-nonsense methodology to the world.
The rest, well that's now. The way we learn to cook has changed, the explosion of popularity of the food network, which began in 1993 has only expanded the horizons of the general population all the more.
Suddenly we had access to all manner of instructors and to learn about foods from all over the world. Many of these chefs, walking in the footsteps of Julia have become some of the biggest culinary names in the industry, everyone knows Gordon Ramsey, Jamie Oliver and Rachel Ray, and that's just the tip of the iceberg.
Then came food blogging, started mostly by stay-at-home moms looking for something to do or young people trying to tackle what they never learned growing up. Not only was the knowledge on how to cook now available to anyone and everyone, those same anyones and everyones could also share their own knowledge (and mishaps) where once you needed a publisher or a broadcaster to speak to the world, now you just needed an internet connection
This would evolve to include youtube channels and now there's tiktok and instagram
Cookbooks are in a strange space right now, when most recipes can be googled, you would think the internet would be the go-to place for recipes, but it's many of those food bloggers that are now publishing some of the most successful cookbooks.
As much as we like to mock food bloggers and their 5,000 word essays on each recipe, when you stop and think about it, it is kind of amazing. Women that once upon a time wouldn't have had a place anywhere but in the kitchen, now have a platform for their voices, stories and knowledge.
This really is no different than the space we have given television chefs for years, or even just male chefs. Let's not forget that Anthony Bourdain's claim to fame was Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, a book where he basically bitched about the food industry, talked about the nitty gritty details and his own struggles with substance use.
And while we can whine and moan about the extra scrolling it takes to get to the recipes, you have to give credit where credit is due, it's all these only food bloggers that popularized including pictures of every recipe, of including pictures of the different steps along with different recipes. Of including video!
Where once upon a time, this was the standard for a recipe:
We get this
And we get this all for free. Isn't this exactly what Fannie Farmer wanted for us? For anyone to have access to the means and knowledge to make something delicious.
I'm sure I am still always going to click the "jump to recipe" button (or better yet, 'print recipe') but fuck it, all the power to them, every single one of them that takes the time to share their knowledge, take all the pictures and make it accessible to most anyone that can use google
And if you still wanna cry about it, as food blogger Deb Perelmen once said:
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