Review: ‘Cookbook Library’ marks an amazing evolution in cuisine

Image from "The Cookbook Library" by Anne Willan.
(Willan / Cherniavsky Collection / University of California Press)
Los Angeles Times

The Cookbook Library

Four Centuries of the Cooks, Writers, and Recipes that Made the Modern Cookbook

Anne Willan with Mark Cherniavsky and Kyri Claflin

University of California Press: 333 pp., $50


What is a cookbook? More than simply a collection of recipes, a cookbook can be a window to the larger world beyond the confines of the kitchen, as La Varenne Cooking School founder and award-winning cookbook author Anne Willan and her co-authors illustrate in the excellent new book “The Cookbook Library.”

Willan and her husband and co-author, Mark Cherniavsky, have a cookbook library any food historian — and any serious self-styled “foodie” — would lust after. A half-century in the making, their antiquarian collection dates to the earliest days of the printing press (their oldest volume is from 1491), chronicling the evolution of cuisine within Europe and early North America. In what began as a series of notes on their personal library, “The Cookbook Library” has become a broader exploration of food and its relation to everything from the makeup of a medieval kitchen to issues of colonialism, gender, economics, science, philosophy and politics. It even explores the emergence of the celebrity chef.

“Printing followed the beginning of humanism,” writes Willan as she introduces the first printed cookbooks. These early cookbooks, the first of which was printed in 1474, were written by professional cooks (the title of “chef” would not become a common term until the 18th century). The advent of humanism revived “classical learning and (added) a more secular orientation to medieval culture.” Trades like cooking were given recognition, inspiring those who practiced them to document their work. Cookbooks, which were once available to only the most wealthy, were made accessible to a larger audience with the introduction of the printing press.

Many of the earliest cookbooks were commissioned by wealthy patrons, the manuscripts — documenting feasts and lavish displays — kept as a record of that patron’s affluence and power. Over time, cookbooks moved beyond merely documenting recipes for a limited audience and took on wider applications, serving as guides for kitchen stewards and housewives, even offering gardening tips or useful hints, perhaps medicinal remedies.

Willan describes how cookbooks and recipes evolved and adapted to reflect the latest fashions in food to stay current with the times. Willan notes, “A sharp eye on new ingredients, perhaps calling for vanilla rather than the old-fashioned rose water, gives the reader a sense of immediacy.” As ingredients were introduced through trade and exploration, items such as tea from Asia, coffee from Africa, and New World ingredients like chocolate, corn, tomatoes and potatoes worked their way into the culinary landscape and traditions of Europe. Recipes also took accessibility into account: At one time a pound of sugar cost the equivalent of two days’ pay for a laborer; as availability increased and prices decreased, sugar’s use in the kitchen expanded. The term “terroir,” or “taste of the earth,” that is so fashionable in the food world today actually dates to the 16th century, though the concept goes back even further.

Willan tackles fun tidbits of culinary history too. For instance, who knew the fork could generate such controversy? While knives and spoons may have been common utensils at the medieval table, the addition of the fork caused a bit of a stir, its two prongs seen as a symbol of the devil. “God preserve me from forks,” Martin Luther is said to have remarked.

Many of the early cookbooks were written for a limited but powerful readership: households with a large staff and a complex hierarchy. Whereas later French cookbooks were similarly geared toward the military-style organization found in professional kitchens, other works focused on the modest home kitchen; this split style — whether reaching for a professional or domestic audience — is found in cookbooks to this day. Willan notes the emerging female market for cookbooks, first as an audience as women’s literacy rates increased, and later as authors themselves. “American Cookery,” the first cookbook published by an American cook in 1796, was penned by a female author, Amelia Simmons. Simmons, Willan notes, “was writing, she said ‘for the improvement of the rising generation of Females in America, the Lady of fashion and fortune,’ as well as those who ‘are reduced to the necessity of going into families in the line of domestics.’”

Willan also explores the emergence and evolution of the authorial voice. Where it is virtually nonexistent in those early cookbooks meant to demonstrate the power of a patron, later books give rise to the first-person author. Willan writes that “an almost messianic fervor is characteristic of many great cooks no matter what their nationality.” As the popularity of named cooks increased, so too did the sales of their books. All of this helps to give rise to the first “celebrity chef,” French chef Marie Antonin Carême in the 19thcentury. “The books of Carême, artworks in their own right,” she writes, “lead directly to Escoffier and the master chefs of today.”

Willan spends a lot of time delving into the art and evolution of recipe writing, noting that the roots of today’s recipes began in the medieval kitchen.

It’s fascinating that early culinary recipes did not always include specific quantities, though medicinal remedies of the time — which were often included in cookbooks — did. Willan points to none other than Nostradamus as an example; perhaps better known today for his astrological predictions, he was trained as a physician, highly regarded for his success concocting plague cures. His remedies included highly detailed instructions, with a precision Willan notes was far ahead of what was found in recipes by contemporary cooks. Of his recipe for quince jelly, Willan writes, “He wastes no words, but omits no instructions either, remarkable in any era.”

As with a lack of quantities, many early recipes were also vague with respect to time. The ominous phrase “cook until done” was often included in a recipe simply because it was so hard to gauge the level of heat when cooking a dish over the embers of an open hearth. Not until the introduction of the cast-iron closed stove in the 19th century could recipe writers begin to give firm estimates for timing.

“The Cookbook Library” is broken into chapters that generally address culinary developments by century, though the chapters also contain shorter essays devoted to singular topics (recipe writing, bread, the rise of gastronomic commentary, etc.). Structured more as an academic work than a cookbook, it does include its share of recipes. The recipes, while representative of a particular time and place, are accessible to and tested for the modern home cook. A wonderfully researched and beautifully illustrated work, “The Cookbook Library” is at once an engaging read and an invaluable resource for anyone passionate about food and food history.

For sample recipes from “The Cookbook Library,” check out Food’s Daily Dish blog.