What You Need to Know About Cookbooks

When viewed as texts, cookbooks have the potential to be deceiving. But, when viewed within the context of the time in which they were written, you can learn a great deal about how preferences and possibilities evolved.

What You Need to Know About Cookbooks
What are the essentials of understanding cookbooks? Photo by Dan Gold / Unsplash

Cookbooks are among the oldest written records. The first recipes were written down on clay tablets. Cookbooks were among the first printed books, alongside the Bible. With such a long history, the temptation is to use cookbooks to learn something about what people ate in the past.

However, a closer look at the history of cookbooks reveals that they only allow us to judge the possibilities of cooking. Ethnographic descriptions, archival documents, memoirs, and other historical sources can tell us much more about actual meals.

The recipes written down are only a small part of the repertoire of recipes of a particular time. The further back in time, the more information about cooking was passed on orally. For example, housewives knew how to bake bread because they had learned it through experience, most often in the family. Cooked bread recipes came about when knowledge wasn't passed down from one generation to the next or when bakers had to deal with totally new situations.

Rye bread recipes can be found in exile cookery books in the second half of the 20th century, as rye bread was not baked at home in the countries where the emigrants settled. Therefore, neither bread ovens nor rye flour was available. The cookery books advised on how to cope with this situation. Also, when bread machines came out, recipes came out that showed how to use the new technology.

Cookbooks react to changing circumstances, so the fact that there are no bread recipes in cookbooks at a certain time does not necessarily mean that bread was not baked and eaten at that time.

Cookbooks often aim to teach something new, to adapt to new situations. If something is well known, it is no longer worth talking about. If everyone knows how to eat with a fork and knife, then cookbooks show how to use an oyster knife or a dessert fork.

Moreover, such recommendations suggest that a change was desirable or necessary but do not imply that it happened. In terms of propaganda, for example, there was a big push for sugar in the 1930s, and there were even cookbooks about all the ways sugar could be used.

It should also be borne in mind that cookery books represent only a narrow slice of reality. The author represents a particular social class or ethnic group and gives an impression only of the dietary habits of his community. However, over time, such cookbooks can be generalized to an era or an area as a whole.

Historically, cookbooks were addressed to professional cooks, describing the habits of the elite and, above all, recipes for festive dishes. The diet of the lower classes was not recorded for a long time, and recipes for popular dishes were disseminated by word of mouth. Even everyday dishes were not written down because they were too well known.

Therefore, to interpret the information in cookery books, attention must be paid to the author, the purpose of publication, and the context of the time. Also, it's important to remember that the information in cookery books can be affected by things like typos, factual mistakes, inaccuracies, and even censorship.

Repeated editions reinforce such inaccuracies and lead the later reader astray. For example, when transferring cookery books produced in old print to new print, even a tiny typographical error can result in a new name for a dish. A mistranslation of ingredients can completely change a recipe.

Cookbooks have been worked on by people who knew a lot about the text but not always as much about the food: medieval monk-transcribers, profit-hungry publishers, and imaginative translators. And imaginative authors who created recipes while dreaming of faraway lands or a better life.

Of course, there is no reason to say that cookery books do not provide any useful, historical information. They tell us how to set a table in a fashionable way at a certain time, how to serve guests, and how to behave according to the norms of propriety. Pictures give an idea of visual taste.

The list of ingredients tells you what products were grown, bought, or imported and what machinery or equipment was used to process them.

For example, 20th-century cookery books focus a great deal on preservation, as new techniques, new equipment, and new preservatives—wine vinegar replacing alcohol vinegar, barrel curing replacing pasteurization, boiling in syrup replacing drying in electric ovens—continue to appear.

Cookbooks are not a dispassionate record of past processes; they seek to change, not to record what has been. Because of this, cookbooks can be misleading if you look at them as documents, but when you look at them in the context of their time, you can learn a lot about preferences and options.