An appetite for history

An appetite for history

Cookery books have a heritage going back to the Middle Ages, and can provide an interesting insight into changing lives down the centuries. Mairead Mahon gets a taste for the subject

Mairead Mahon, Social History expert

Mairead Mahon

Social History expert

Almost every week, a cookbook is to be found on the bestseller lists and most bookshops display an enormous range of them. They are written for every type of cook: from the cordon bleu chef to the person who can’t boil an egg. However, they are not a new invention: they have a long and interesting history and by looking carefully at them we can find out a great deal, not only about the things our ancestors loved to eat but also about the type of society that they lived in.

creme of almondsgruel of almonds
Recipes for ‘creme of almonds’ and ‘gruel of almonds’ from The Forme of Cury, published in 1390 John Rylands Library, Manchester

The earliest surviving British example is one which was published in 1390 and entitled The Forme of Cury. It was written by the Master Chef to King Richard 11 and it gives a wonderful insight into the food eaten by the Court. Written on parchment, it contains 196 listings of exotic, rich and expensive dishes which were full of sugar and spices and meant to be enjoyed only by the elite of the court. Some of the ingredients, like porpoise and swan, are no longer used today but others are surprisingly familiar, for example quiche and loseyns, a type of lasagne.

In the Tudor age some great ladies would compile private recipe books to be used by their household. However, they saw no reason to distinguish between cooking and other domestic areas, such as which herbs could be used to cure specific illnesses, or rules about table etiquette. These books were often passed on through the family, complete with little notes and food stains, but the majority of printed cookbooks tended to be written by men and were usually directed at the professional chef.

However, in 1747 one woman decided that she had had enough of fancy recipes containing expensive ingredients that were far beyond the pocket of most people and she decided to publish her own. Her name was Hannah Glasse and her book, The Art of Cookery made Plain and Simple was unusual in that it was written for women by a woman. Hannah, who had eight children and a husband who was just about making a living as an attorney was sure that she was not alone in trying to cater for a large family on a limited budget. She confidently advertised her book by declaring that it would “far exceed anything of the kind yet published”. She was right to be confident: her book was still being published in 1843.

mendelkitchen in middle-ageskitchen utentsils
Kitchens and equipment in medieval times

In her introduction that she declared that all her recipes would be easy to understand: if a “fowl needed larding” then she would state plainly what it needed larding with. Her recipes would not be extravagant: she described it as “ridiculous” that some cookbooks recommended two pounds of butter to fry 12 eggs when “half a pound is full enough”. Her recipes were economical and included instructions for 20 types of pie; vegetable stews; cheesecake; and even the first recorded recipe for curry.

Hannah Glasse had been a middle class woman who knew what ingredients her contemporaries would like and could afford. The next woman to publish a cookbook of note was Elizabeth Raffald, who in 1769 published a cookbook entitled, The Experienced English House keeper which she wrote in “as plain a style as possible”.

She was aware that many of the people who would use her cookbook would not have lots of money to spare and many of her recipes, such as calf’s foot pudding, were designed to be filling and cheap. Her cookbook was so popular that over the next 41 years, it appeared in almost as many editions.

By the end of the 18th century, many cookbooks were being published and several were very specialised. These included The Art of Carving and How to Fatten and Cook Oysters – a fairly popular subject as oysters were a staple part of a poor person’s diet. One book, The Ladies’ Best Companion, promised to detail recipes that would, “delay the ravages of time on the fair sex” and another promised a healthy stomach if they invested in a cookbook which gave details about preparing and cooking snails.

The next bestseller, Modern Cookery in all its Branches, was written in 1845 by Eliza Acton, and stayed in print until the 20th century. Eliza was very concerned with food hygiene. In the days before refrigeration, this demanded some thought and she devoted sections of her book to describing how food should be kept fresh. She also advised cooks to bake their own breads and cakes and thus avoid the constant and dangerous problem of adulterated food. Her recipes were written in the plainest style and even after Mrs Beeton’s iconic book was published in 1861, many people remained faithful to Eliza Acton.

Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management became an instant classic, far outliving her – she was only 28 when she died
Isabella Beeton

Isabella Beeton built on the success of these earlier writers. She was only 25 when her book, The Book of Household Management, was published, She was a fast learner: her first recipe for Victoria sponge left out the eggs! She was able to exploit the expanding magazine market and, to begin with, her cookbook was published in monthly instalments. This meant that it was affordable and appealed to the rising and burgeoning middle class. Many more people than ever before had their own domestic kitchen and by the middle of the 19th century, these were equipped with a bewildering array of cooking utensils. They needed advice about how to run their modern homes and kitchens and they found it in Mrs Beeton. She told them, with authority, how to lay a table, handle servants and how to raise children as well as cook! Although she relied heavily on earlier writers, Mrs Beeton was the first to list ingredients before the method and also the first to give cooking times.

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Wat-Time Cookery
A typical booklet from 1940 encouraging thrifty cooking in wartime

It is clear, looking at Mrs Beeton’s recipes, that her readers expected to eat lavishly with plenty of cream, sugar and butter. However, in the 20th century all this was to change. War meant that many foods were rationed and people no longer had the luxury of following recipes simply because it was just not possible to get many of the ingredients. During World War Two, the Ministry of Food began to issue a series of pamphlets which described how one could make eggless cakes, curried carrots, nettle soup and mock fried eggs (dried egg in the middle of a piece of white bread!). These pamphlets were often a godsend to women wondering how on earth they could feed their families on very little and many kept and used them, long after the war was over.

The years immediately following the war did not herald an instant cornucopia of ingredients and cooks still had to be careful. Some commercial brands such as Stork margarine began to issue their own booklets in an effort to help people make the best of what was available. These proved to be such a hit that they were produced for many years and were often given to young brides. They covered many subjects and even, in the best Victorian tradition, gave tips on how to entertain elegantly.

Cookbooks are so much more than a mere collection of recipes: they are rich social documents. They can tell us how fashions for food changed, how our ancestors ran their homes, how they liked to entertain and how they dealt with issues such as keeping food fresh. They give a clear snapshot of an area which was as important to our ancestors as it is to us.

entertaining with stork70 selected recipesall about fruit cakesa lesson in pastry making
Companies such as Stork issued their own cookbooks and pamphlets, which were handed down through the family. These pictures are reproduced with the kind permission of the Unilever archives

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