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COOKBOOKS. Though essentially manuals of instruction for the preparation of food, cookbooks are now coming into their own as a genre. They are rich sources of information not only about the foods of a given period but about the people who cooked and consumed those foods. Scholars are turning to cookbooks for evidence of cultural values, and are showing a new appreciation for knowledgeable writers who write well about food and its context. Cookbooks have been moving away from their origins as humble recipe books to glamorous books with lavish photographs, more likely to be found on living-room coffee tables than kitchen counters. As a result of these enhancements, cookbook collectors are not only cooks and food scholars, but people who enjoy reading recipes with beautiful photographs of dishes they may never cook.

The history of cookbooks within a culture reflects its food traditions, so that while France has produced a rich cookbook literature, other countries have not. The evolution of restaurants in France, especially since the early nineteenth century, generated books written by chefs who have codified their recipes. But in a country such as Ireland, which has no restaurant tradition, historic recipes are to be found in the handed-down oral tradition of home cooks.

In America, early settlers brought with them books written in England, and later plagiarized recipes from British books for an American audience. Not until 1796 did an authentic American cookbook appear when Amelia Simmons published American Cookery, a collection of recipes that included such New World ingredients as corn meal and cranberries. Other decidedly American landmark cookbooks were published by Mary Randolph, Eliza Leslie, and Lydia Maria Child, whose Frugal Houswife, published in 1829, was later published in England and retitled American Frugal Housewife.

Nineteenth-Century Cookbooks

Because the mission of a cookbook is to instruct, the voice present in the text is authoritative and often didactic. In nineteenth-century America, the division of labor within most families required women to be responsible for the smooth running of the home and the proper feeding of husbands and children. Apart from offering recipes, cookbook writers of the period who saw themselves as guardians of the public morality took on the added responsibility of advising housewives on how to manage their duties.

Catherine Beecher, who carved out a career for herself by promoting the concept that housewives were professionals, believed that American women had control over the well-being of the country's democratic system and its future as a Christian nation. Beecher dedicates The New Housekeeper's Manual (1873) "to the women of America, in whose hands rest the real destinies of the republic, as moulded by the early training and preserved amid the maturer influences of home." To her mind, cooking well was the patriotic duty of homemakers. Beecher, who came from a family of preachers, was given to florid pronouncements such as these comments on the results of bad cooking: "Green biscuits with acrid spots of alkali; sour yeastbread; meat slowly simmered in fat till it seemed like grease itself, and slowly congealing in cold grease; and above all, that unpardonable enormity, strong butter!" She introduces her recipes declaring, "How one longs to show people what might have been done with the raw material out of which all these monstrosities were concocted!"

Another influential nineteenth-century voice was that of author Marion Harland, pen name of Mary Virginia Hawes Terhune, a woman whose privileged circumstances never prevented her from commanding the practical details of housekeeping. She published successful novels and advice manuals that gained her the confidence of readers. Her extraordinarily popular Common Sense in the Household (1871) holds that "it is a mistake of Christian civilization to educate girls into a love of science and literature, and then condemn them to the routine of a domestic drudge." Her task, as she saw it, was to encourage and reassure her readers by calling a kitchen disaster "a stepping-stone to success," for, as she puts it, "not to do it right is the next thing to success." Her book is a thick collection of typical American dishes that probably would have been cooked and served to Harland by the servants she employed in her affluent home. On the other hand, the assured Catherine Beecher, who had developed a system of scientific housekeeping, never had a home, husband, or children.

While the writings of Marion Harland and Catherine Beecher may project images that were different from the real women, there is consistency in their belief that a moral society depended on the skills of women working within the domestic sphere. Another writer of this period, Hetty Morrison, was, however, an out-and-out opponent of this view as her book, My Summer in the Kitchen (1878), makes abundantly clear. Morrison rails against the social forces that put women into the kitchen as though it were their natural habitat, and like Harland, deplores the quandary facing girls who were given no training in the domestic arts, yet were expected to be highly skilled homemakers when they married. But, unlike Harland, Morrison confronts the injustice of it all:

The cunning of the serpent was nothing to that of man when he founded the institution of the kitchen and then placed woman there to tend it for him. Woman left to her natural instinct, would satisfy her appetite with a few chocolate caramels and an occasional cup of tea. But when her 'lord and master' appears upon the scene, then and there is hurrying to and fro, and fires and faces blaze, and terror, and death, and destruction go forth among the feathered, and furred, and fanny tribes.

Wartime Cookbooks

The authoritative voices in cookbooks can support the status quo by reinforcing current social values or they can dissent from conventional thinking. Another important function of cookbooks has been to help families in times of war when customary foods are scarce and often rationed. But even in times of national crisis, cookbook authors have varied in their approaches to how this challenge should be met.

During World War II, home economists and dietitians threw themselves into the war effort by educating the public about nutrition, and by trying to persuade all citizens to eat their fair share of what was allotted. Often wives would turn over their portion of the ration to husbands and sons, a sacrifice food writers hoped to correct. For instance, it was suggested that, instead of boiling eggs, they could be stretched further by scrambling them with breadcrumbs.

British wartime cookbooks. This theme of making-do was found in British cookbooks (cookery books) with titles such as Cookery under Rations (1941), Health for All Ration-Time Recipe Book (1948), and Feeding the Family in War-Time (1942). Their authors tended to be domestic scientists or dietitians whose task was to suggest cooking tips to keep families eating as well as possible within the limitations imposed by wartime rations. Their books make clear that monotony of diet was a big challenge. While such old-shoe crops as cabbages, Brussels sprouts, and oats grew comfortably in the British climate, such favorites as peaches, tomatoes, and wheat had to be imported and were therefore scarce. Most British wartime cookbooks are fairly somber in their instructions for plain and healthy recipes, often substituting ingredients at hand for more desirable ones.

One writer, Margaret Brady, saw fit to use the crisis of war as an opportunity to promote her prewar commitment to vegetarianism, seeing virtue in brown rather than white bread, less meat and more vegetables, and sugar-free desserts. Health for All Ration-Time Recipe Book (1948) has directions for such concoctions as nut and carrot rissoles, nut meat stew, and oatmeal soup, and puts emphasis on the healthful properties of raw foods, a reminder that cooking fuel also had to be conserved.

Wartime exigencies turned cookbook writers into virtuous citizens. For example, Doris Grant, who was not a food or health expert before the war, was motivated to learn more about these subjects. Feeding the Family in War-Time (1942) has advice on healthy living followed by recipes for such fare as wartime ice cream (made with soy flour), potato sausages (made with oatmeal), and salads made with grated carrots, a vegetable that grows abundantly in the British Isles.

Marguerite Patten sums up wartime conditions in England in We'll Eat Again: A Collection of Recipes from the War Years (1985), a backward glance at how the country managed on the available food supply. She offers the surprising information that there was an improvement in overall health as measured by a decline in infant mortality and an increase in the average age of death from natural causes. The recipes and advice collected in this book make clear that poor people who subsisted mainly on bread and other starches were urged to eat more meat, eggs, and fresh produce than ever before, resulting in improved health statistics. The diet of the upper classes was also improved because people were obliged to ease up on the traditional prewar English breakfast of fatty meats and eggs, and the customary rich cakes and pastries served at afternoon tea.

Not all wartime cookbook writers addressed the needs of the body alone. In her Come into the Garden Cookbook (1942), Constance Spry explains, "I write this book for the people who see nothing unseemly in being enthusiastic about food, and who are willing to turn attention and energy into procuring and preparing it." Not for her are sausages extended with breadcrumbs or cabbage stuffed with oatmeal. She aims to grow good food in her garden, cook it skillfully, and pass on to others directions and encouragement for doing the same. All too aware that British cooks did not prepare vegetables with the respect they deserved, she offers excellent recipes to get people through wartime eating not just well, but deliciously so. As for gardening, she sees such activity as "a cure for frayed nerves and restless minds [that] can ease unhappiness and lighten apprehension." Spry's wartime cookbook is written as much for the spirit as for the body. Unlike other books of the time, hers does not reduce food to its nutritional components but instead describes it as a way to bring comfort and joy as well as sustenance to a population under stress.

American wartime cookbooks. In America, abundant advice about wartime cooking routinely appeared in articles and books, most of them offering practical information about gardening and canning as well as thrifty tips for dishes not requiring too much of what was rationed. A recurring theme in this material is that American housewives were performing their patriotic duty by following the advice offered by this assemblage of experts.

Alice Bradley, the principal of Miss Farmer's School of Cookery in Boston and an influential food writer of the time, published books that explained how to plan meals, shop for ingredients, and cook well despite shortages. Her dedication in The Wartime Cook Book (1943) is to "Women who are cooperating in winning the war by using those foods of which we have an abundance in such combinations as to make themselves and their families strong." The moral message was not dissimilar to what nineteenth-century women had been told by cookbook writers who believed that the health of the nation relied upon the smooth running of the home and the proper cooking of family meals. Bradley's wartime tips include substituting soybean flour for wheat in thickening sauces and soups, using a pressure cooker to conserve heat and retain vitamins in vegetables, replacing sugar with honey or syrup in fruit desserts, and making use of such animal parts as the liver, heart, kidney, sweetbreads, tripe, and tongue. She has a recipe for "heart ragout" that calls for "leftover heart" as its first ingredient, causing one to wonder what else Miss Bradley kept in her refrigerator. Always in the role of a teacher who dispatched cooking information with clarity and economy, Miss Bradley was never given to moments of speculation about living through difficult times.

Such thoughts were more in the mind of M. F. K. Fisher, who in 1942 brought out How to Cook a Wolf, a book about eating well during wartime. She states: "I believe that one of the most dignified ways we are capable of, to assert and then reassert our dignity in the face of poverty and war's fears and pains, is to nourish ourselves with all possible skill, delicacy, and ever-increasing enjoyment." Fisher was speaking to the human heart and not just to its stomach, and in so doing was taking on the food-writing establishment, who never looked beyond the mundane issue of the well-balanced meal, a concept Fisher loathed. Convinced that human requirements vary, Fisher reserved the right to eat just toast for breakfast if she felt like it, while others might feel better dining on protein alone. This is not to say that Fisher is never practical, for she does provide seventy-three wartime recipes for favorite foods using cheap and available ingredients, and it is a measure of her acclaim as a food writer that those recipes continue to have wide appeal. She talks about the comfort of such simple dishes as polenta, spaghetti, and kasha. But she is careful to say that the polenta must be made with coarsely ground cornmeal from Italian grocery stores, the spaghetti must not be overcooked, and the kasha can be made heavenly by the addition of butter and sauteed mushrooms. How to Cook a Wolf, a book about food that should have lost its audience when the war was over, is still read with curiosity and pleasure. For M. F. K. Fisher, writing about food was a way to share experiences and feelings, with her most memorable writing coming out of the exigencies of war. At a time when most other food writers were watering down butter or extending meat loaves and hashes with still more breadcrumbs, Fisher was advising her readers that "since we must eat to live we might as well do it with both grace and gusto." It was an inspiring message for a frightened world.

Modern Trends

Cookbooks have continued to reflect changes in American life in every decade following World War II. Some cookbooks of the 1950s reflect the prevalence of shortcut cooking and the use of technology. In The Can-Opener Cookbook (1951), Poppy Cannon tells us that "The use of a can opener may not be news, but the gourmet approach definitely is." The home freezer, an appliance that was increasingly popular after the war, inspired such books as Anne Seranne's Your Home Freezer (1953), which taught how "gourmet" dishes could be prepared in batches and frozen for a rainy day. Postwar inflation also prompted books that emphasized thrift. For example, Ida Bailey Allen's Solving the High Cost of Eating (1952) and James Beard's How to Eat Better for Less Money (1954) taught Americans how to best manage their food budgets. By 1961, Lila Perl had published What Cooks in Suburbia, with a table of contents that refers to "Pot-luck from the deep freeze" and special recipes for dinner parties that were in vogue during this period. In the same year, Julia Child published Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the book that inspired many adventurous American cooks to take on the challenges of French cuisine.

By the late 1960s and the 1970s, the country was seeing a radicalized youth culture developing in response to antiwar protests and the movements for civil rights and women's rights. A group called the Friends of the United Farmworkers produced a cookbook in 1976 to raise money in support of grape pickers seeking fair wages. This book is a reminder of the successful grape boycott that was observed by many American families. A short time later, the Bloodroot Collective, a feminist commune that runs a Connecticut restaurant, produced The Political Palate, a Feminist Vegetarian Cookbook (1980). Their political convictions included the use of vegetarian, organically grown foods and excluded the celebration of traditional holidays that were seen as endorsing "a theology and value system which continues opposition to abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment [and] believes homosexuality to be a sin or disease." The collective's political approach to food is inclusive in that their recipes take in Native-American sources as well as a range of other ethnic influences.

American cookbook publishing has become noticeably ambitious in that it covers international cuisines of all kinds. Cookbooks are often lavishly illustrated, many of them authored by well-known chefs. Another trend has been in books with a nutritional slant, most frequently on weight loss, a clear indication that the American book-buying public is not suffering from deprivation or the need to economize. An affluent, increasingly overweight society has become a ready audience for a continuing supply of books that promise painless solutions to the vexing problem of weight control.

Cookbooks have value as historical documents that can provide us with insights into people or groups by examining their relationship to food. Any culture that has a tradition of cookbook writing can be similarly approached. Until recently, researchers have overlooked or trivialized cookbooks. Now these books are beginning to be recognized as valuable records of our past, full of information waiting to be interpreted.

See also Beard, James; Child, Julia; Community Cookbooks; Fisher, M. F. K.; Food Studies; Leslie, Eliza.


Bower, Anne L., ed. Recipes for Reading: Community Cookbooks, Stories, Histories. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.

Brears, Peter, et al. A Taste of History: 10,000 Years of Food in Britain. London: English Heritage, in association with British Museum Press, 1993.

DuSablon, Mary Anna. America's Collectible Cookbooks: The History, the Politics, the Recipes. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1994.

Grover, Kathryn, ed. Dining in America, 18501900. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987.

Inness, Sherrie A. Dinner Roles: American Women and Culinary Culture. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2001.

Mendelson, Anne. Stand Facing the Stove: The Story of the Women Who Gave America the Joy of Cooking. New York: Holt, 1996.

Toomre, Joyce Stetson. Classic Russian Cooking: Elena Molokhovets' 'A Gift to Young Housewives'. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

Trubek, Amy B. Haute Cuisine: How the French Invented the Culinary Profession. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.

Wheaton, Barbara. Savoring the Past: The French Kitchen and Table from 1300 to 1789. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.

Williams, Susan. Savory Suppers and Fashionable Feasts: Dining in Victorian America. New York: Pantheon, 1985.

Wilson, C. Anne. Food and Drink in Britain: From the Stone Age to the Nineteenth Century. Chicago: Academy Chicago, 1991.

Barbara Haber

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