October is National Cookbook Month, the perfect time to celebrate the age-old tradition of cookbooks.
By definition, a cookbook is a ‘book containing recipes and other information about the preparation and cooking of food.’
As we all know, cookbooks are almost always so much more!
Like food itself, a good cookbook is a way to visit new cultures and traditions and to revisit the comfort of old memories.
Centuries of Cookbooks
While it is easy to believe that they are a relatively modern invention, cookbooks have actually been around for centuries.
Here are seven of the world’s oldest cookbooks, giving us a peek into the culture and lifestyle of some of the most ancient civilizations on the planet:
- The Yale Culinary Tablets: Dating back to 1700 BC, these three famous Mesopotamian clay tablets may very well be the oldest cookbooks in the world. Currently featured as part of Yale’s Babylonian Collection, they boast some of the world’s oldest recipes including several for bread (from plain bread to intricate sweet cakes). The recipes, which historians believed were created for royalty, list only the ingredients but no directions.
- De Re Coquinaria: This Roman cookbook from the 4th-5th century means ‘The Art of Cooking’ in English. It is also widely known as Apicius, named after the 1st century epicurean Marcus Gavius Apicius because many of his recipes appear in the book. The Art of Cooking gives us insights into what the wealthiest people ate at the time.
- Kitab al-Tabih: Written in 950 AD, this cookbook means ‘The Book of Dishes’ and is a vast collection of 600 recipes, which give us a fascinating view of medieval Islam’s culinary culture.
- Yinshan Zhengyao: Appearing in 1330, this cookbook was authored by Hu Sihui, a court therapist and dietitian during China’s Yuan Dynasty. Yinshan Zhengyao is a cookbook and also a guidebook to Chinese medicine as it includes instructions on the best way to eat properly, be healthy and avoid disease.
- Das Buch von guter Speise: This book means the ‘Book of Good Food.’ Written in 1350, it is the oldest German Cookbook and gives us an excellent look into what the German urban upper class ate during that period.
- The Forme of Cury: In modern day English, this book’s name is Forms of Cooking. Published in 1390, it was written by ‘The Master Cooks of King Richard II” and is the oldest known cookbook in the English language. Some of its recipes include what were considered to be exotic spices at the time including nutmeg, cardamom, ginger, and caraway.
- Le Menagier de Paris: This French book, which was published in 1393, is a cookbook as well as a medieval primer on how wives should behave. Translated in English, it means ‘The Householder of Paris’ and includes instructions on how women should act, the best way to take care of their households, and what to cook. Like many early cookbooks, the recipes list ingredients but exclude step-by-step directions.
With the advent of the printing press in the 16th and 17th centuries, many more books like Le Menagier de Paris emerged, instructing people how to manage households and prepare food.
Many noble families considered cooking a symbol of prestige. Stiff competition grew between the wealthy to see who could prepare the most stunning banquets.
By the 1660s, cooking was elevated to an art form. The most accomplished chefs were in high demand and began to publish their own books, showing off their favorite recipes.
In 1796, the first known American cookbook, American Cookery by Amelia Simmons, was published.
In 1845, Eliza Action wrote an immensely influential cookbook called Modern Cookery for Private Families. It was aimed at ‘regular’ private homes rather than the professional chef.
Not only did this cookbook contain the first recipe for Brussels sprouts, it was also the first to include the ‘modern’ recipe formula where ingredients, preparation and suggested cooking time were all included.
What About the Future of Cookbooks?
Many wonder if, in the age where we can Google ‘recipes’, the cookbook will go extinct.
According to literary food historian Henry Notaker, nothing could be farther from the truth.
Despite a wide variety of food blogs and television shows that share recipes, many of the chefs on these platforms end up printing their recipes in the traditional format of a cookbook.
It appears, therefore, that the Internet is a stepping stone for publishing cookbooks and not necessarily a replacement for them!
In fact, it can be argued that the internet is actually increasing cookbook publication; with the introduction of self-publishing, cookbooks are being released today at an accelerated pace.
Cookbooks are alive and well—and now they are virtually everywhere!
One way to celebrate National Cookbook Month is to revisit one of your old favorites.
Another is to buy a completely new cookbook.
(Stay tuned because we will be debuting THREE cookbooks on Amazon soon!)
In the meantime, you can celebrate cookbooks by whipping up this delicious recipe for Chickpea ‘Crab’ Cakes, found in the 2017 edition of the 21-Day Plant-Based Challenge menu book.