Cookbook Trouble : Who’s to Blame?


Overheard years ago in the cookbook section of a large bookstore: “If you make any recipe from a cookbook and it doesn’t work, they should give you your money back.”

I have to sympathize with this disgruntled browser (a man, by the way, and one who seemed pretty handy with a categorical imperative). Who hasn’t stood in front of some kitchen disaster and cursed the recipe? But I also have to say that I bet he was a victim of some badly skewed ideas about what recipes can and can’t do.

Anyone who pays attention to friends’ experiences knows that the same recipe may come out like a mess or a masterpiece at the hands of two different people, both absolutely convinced that they followed every direction to the letter. The number of hidden banana peels involved is incredible.

Furthermore, every few decades (or years) the experts in the field sharply lower their estimates of what normally intelligent men and women know about cooking. It’s not surprising that the kind of kitchen instruction most people would consider adequate has undergone wild shifts in the two centuries of American cookbooks--or even within the memory of cooks born 60 or 70 years ago.


The oldest American recipes mirror an age when few cooks got their knowledge from reading. Most of the formulas in Amelia Simmons’ 1796 “American Cookery,” a work liberally plagiarized from an earlier work by the English author Susannah Carter, were far less detailed than this entry:

“To preserve Cherries. Take two pounds of cherries, one pound and a half of sugar, half a pint of fair water, melt some sugar in it; when it is melted, put in your other sugar and your cherries; then boil them softly, till all the sugar be melted; then boil them fast, and skim them; take them off two or three times and shake them, and put them on again, and let them boil fast; and when they are of a good color, and the sirrup will stand, they are boiled enough.”


The things left out by Susannah Carter and her American cribber--stoning or not stoning the cherries, how large a pan to use, how much sugar to add earlier or later--needed no telling. Even today a cook with experience in preserving could follow the idea. Recipe-writers of the Carter-Simmons era didn’t provide detailed blueprints but handy memos summarizing what a woman was likely to have absorbed already.


How did she absorb it? Mostly from having spent much time since toddlerhood in a kitchen where several women, often both servants and mistresses, split up the labor of meal-making--which was too much for a single pair of hands until later advances in household technology.

In 1796, women didn’t automatically judge a cookbook by how well it “covered basics.” The basics could fend for themselves, and the most common dishes often didn’t make it into print. (This leads to awful misconceptions about nobody eating certain dishes at a particular time because they don’t happen to show up in printed recipes.) People were more likely to go to a cookbook for what they couldn’t find or afford every day.

Methods of recipe-writing would eventually change--but only when people’s lives changed. The main causes were the spread of literacy (along with cheaper paper) and upheavals in household organization after domestic servants began following the American dream to independent employment. A woman running a middle-class household was likely to be more isolated in it, and to rely on the printed word, rather than live examples, for a general idea of what she was supposed to be doing.

In other words, more cookbooks full of supposedly infallible recipes did not mean an improved public knowledge of cooking. Domestic how-to books became really necessary only when the woman of the house became justifiably convinced of her ignorance.


This growing vacuum provided a raison d’etre for female “service” journalists and writers of household manuals--professions hardly known until the 1830s or ‘40s. It also spurred formal courses in cooking, a la algebra or French.

A familiar lobbyists’ theme of the post-Civil War period was the need to do something about the terrible state of American food by adding cooking classes to school curricula. In 1879, the then-Commissioner of Education passed on to his boss, Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz, a plea to encourage “training schools of cookery” gotten up by persons concerned about “the extent and serious character of the evils caused by bad cookery.” It was not a trivial bit of moralizing but a response to the miseries of the 1873 to 1878 economic slump, when well-meaning philanthropists had seen hungry families sit down to meals worse than mere poverty could have created.

Somebody could have a field day arguing that more cookbooks and teachers make cooking worse, not better. But more likely--at least in this case--both the bad cooking and the push for more instruction reflected some of this country’s demographic growing pains. Many poor immigrants were marooned in the kitchen with no knowledge of how to produce edible and affordable meals from American ingredients, while middle-class housewives were similarly up the creek from lack of the childhood training that had come automatically when mistresses and servants ran the household together.

The schools and cookbooks may have helped women on an individual basis. But on the whole Americans became steadily more ignorant of cooking, and more inclined to try teaching themselves from a book. Pictures of women at work in kitchens toward the beginning of the 19th Century usually show them handling ingredients, or minding hearth or stove. By the end of the century they are routinely drawn poring over a cookbook. Unfortunately, they had more and more trouble understanding what the recipe said.


They weren’t floundering for lack of cheerleading. Instructors and authors were busy vaunting their absolutely foolproof directions. Cooking, they liked to think, was a branch of “domestic science,” and the ideal recipe was as precise as a lab formula. You ticked off items on a checklist of ingredients at the head of the recipe, then you executed one step at a time. Photographs of cooking classes circa 1910 or 1920 tell the story: calibrated measuring cups and spoons lined up as for a chemistry experiment, aproned students lined up to act on the same command at the same moment.

The written recipe of these teachers worked hard to eliminate little sources of individual variation, which might have made one person’s result taste different from another’s. Fannie Farmer, who took over the Boston Cooking-School in 1893 and soon produced the main kitchen bible of the early 20th Century, perfected an especially rigorous version of this recipe-approach. For instance:

Sauce a l’Italienne 2 tablespoons onion, finely chopped 2 tablespoons carrot, finely chopped 2 tablespoons lean raw ham, finely chopped 12 peppercorns 2 cloves Sprig marjoram 2 tablespoons butter 2 1/2 tablespoons flour 1 cup Brown Stock 1 1/2 cups white wine 1/2 tablespoon finely chopped parsley.

Cook first six ingredients with butter five minutes, add flour, and stir until well browned; then add gradually stock and wine. Strain, reheat, and after pouring around fish, sprinkle with parsley.


It’s a carefully condensed script, broken down into one piece of information at a time, with all the unnecessary baggage of the English language--like “A sprig of marjoram"--eliminated to avoid distraction from the task at hand (and save printing costs). Nothing was left to the student’s or reader’s judgment, not even a tiny amount of flavorings. Instead of mincing a little onion with a little carrot and ham, Miss Farmer’s pupils or readers of the 1896 “Boston Cooking-School Cook Book” were to take the ingredients separately and mince enough of each to obtain two tablespoons, thus frustrating the whole idea of the Italian battuto (aromatics chopped together to help marry the flavors). Instead of grabbing a bit of parsley and chopping enough for a garnish, they had to maneuver the pesky stuff into a measuring spoon after it was chopped.


Refinement followed refinement as the century progressed. In the 1930s the way to be the model of a modern recipe-writer was to give exact oven temperatures (not possible in Miss Farmer’s day) and cake or pie pan sizes. Irma Rombauer, no fan of lab-manual recipes, nonetheless filled her 1936 “Joy of Cooking” with directions for adjustments of stove-burners (“Reduce the heat to a low flame”; “Do not permit the water to boil as that robs the fish of its delicate flavor”) that Miss Farmer--if she used one of the old firebox ranges--hadn’t had at her command.

Eventually even the Farmer or Rombauer idea of precision wasn’t precise enough for a new breed of recipe-writer. Around the time of the gourmet revolution in the early 1960s, books like “Michael Field’s Cooking School” replaced directions such as “Brown the chicken in a skillet” with “Choose a large, heavy frying pan, preferably enamel, which can be covered securely later, and in it heat the 4 tablespoons of butter and 2 tablespoons of oil, until they fairly sizzle. Over high heat brown the chicken pieces, a few at a time, starting them skin side down and turning them with kitchen tongs.”


If you’ve ever browned chicken pieces for a braised dish like Field’s “Chicken Vallee d’Auge ,” you certainly can see the point of every detail. On the other hand, do five pages spent breathlessly dissecting this one recipe help a new cook more than the three matter-of-fact lines the French writer Curnonsky devoted to Poulet Vallee d’Auge in “Recettes des Provinces de France"--or do they intimidate? Some of both, I suspect.

But the Field book, one of the standbys of “serious” cooks when I started, was primitive compared to Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” with its double-column recipe format spread out over stunningly spacious one-detail-at-a-time page layouts.

To the standard checklist of ingredients it added pieces of necessary equipment (“A 2-quart mixing bowl”; “A 2 1/2 quart heavy-bottomed, enameled saucepan"--heaven help you if you just had a nice Farberware saucepan). The directions might include something like “Measure out ingredients” or--in the second volume, which had organizational refinements beyond the first--"Note that there is also a sauce base in Step 6, which you may prepare now if you wish.”

Miss Farmer herself might have quailed under such onslaughts of exactitude. It was like being talked through performing an emergency appendectomy on the kitchen table with shortwave radio instructions from the bush hospital. Did all the vaunted precision of the gourmet-revolution recipes indicate that American cookbooks had gotten more sophisticated, or that the intended user couldn’t tell her hind end from her elbow? Just whose fault was it if a recipe “didn’t work?”


Let’s face it, folks. There are strong limitations on the written word’s ability to convey knowledge to people who lack a minimum shared frame of reference. That frame has been shrinking all the time that recipe-writing has been getting more “precise” and “sophisticated.” This is probably one reason some observers see cooking videos as the wave of the future.

We’ll have cooks who aren’t thrown by recipes when Americans start spending more time in the kitchen actually getting their hands on knives and saucepans and ingredients. I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for it.