The word recipe comes to us from Crusaders returning from the Holy Land, zealously enthused about healing techniques they found there. Chief among them was mixing ordinary foodstuffs into medically beneficial concoctions. Recipe, which they pronounced “recheepay,” was the singular familiar of the Latin verb accipere, meaning to receive. It was spoken—Receive!/Recipe!—as a spoonful of the medicinal blend was thrust at the mouth of the patient. The word evolved into a synonym for the concoction, and eventually the way to make it.
So a recipe is now a set of instructions for blending various edibles, and as you can see every time you pass a pharmacy with its mortar-and-pestle icon, recipes are important to the apothecary as well as the home cook.
Culinary guidance like this is as old as human beings. There are remnants of recipes on cuneiform tablets from Egypt and from Sumer, its most famous being a hymn to the goddess Ninkasi, which has been decoded as step-by-step instructions for brewing beer. The first recognizable collection of recipes, what we now call a cookbook, is a series inscribed on parchment by a Roman gourmet named Apicus. In sixth-century China, the first written recipe appears in monastery writings as how to make doufu (tofu), described as morning meditation practice.
Gutenberg and his printing press exponentially expanded possibilities. In the 15th century, the Bubonic Plague wiped out thousands of laborers, creating a whole new class of better-paid laborers who could suddenly afford new luxuries. Cookery books appeared to allow these nouveau riche to emulate the aristocracy by eating like them. They particularly offered recipes that used precious spices from the East because these status symbols were finally affordable.
The post-plague recipe collections were essentially manuals for how to be—and show yourself to be—a member of a higher class. In 1896, an American named Margaret Huntington Hooker published extensive research as the book Early American Cookery or Ye Gentlewoman’s Housewifery. It begins: “No housewife has any pretensions to rational economy who boils Animal Food [her capital letters] without converting the Broth into some form of soup.” That’s another big hint that cookbooks are about more than food.
A particularly urgent motive for recipe publishing was to teach how, in the Crusader tradition, to use food as medicine. This task usually fell to women, whose kitchen domain included caring for the household sick and invalids. American cookbooks are often traced to Hannah Glasse, the Englishwoman who in 1747 published The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. Glasse had an abiding interest in helping the sick and convalescing, which led her to explore and examine and collect recipes. Eventually she published them as something for the convalescing and also for those who wanted to be strong enough to avoid sickness in the first place.
About 150 years later, an American invalid took to cooking and changed the world. Fanny Merritt Farmer’s medical troubles left her with a pronounced limp and an interest in convalescent food. At 30, she enrolled in the Boston Cooking School and trained there as one of its best students until 1889. Two years later, she became the Boston Cooking School principal.
These were the years settled Bostonians like Fanny Farmer felt themselves drowning in a tidal wave of European immigration. Among other more overtly reactionary responses, a new movement in what was called domestic science was launched. (It was later known as Home Economics.) Its most critical elements were proper nutrition and diet for the healthy, convalescent cookery, techniques of cleaning and sanitation, chemical analysis of food, techniques of cooking and baking, and household management. It was intended for females.
The impetus was panic that all these immigrants were bringing their own eating habits, their own cooking ways, their homeland sanitation habits—Italians were often accused of smelling of garlic, the Irish of drinking too much alcohol, etc. These differences were diluting and disappearing what was by now considered a distinct American Protestant civilization, a unique New World way of doing things. Standardization seemed urgently necessary to assimilate the immigrants and make their difference disappear.
At the same time, much of the immigrant labor was employed as household help. And so the Boston Cooking School tried to be the great unifier, the great leveler, the great transformer, propagating to the heterogeneous hordes a homogenous diet: the American diet. And no one was a more dedicated diet reformer than Fanny Farmer. She turned from curing medical ills to providing a remedy for society’s when in 1896, with a sense of patriotic duty, she published The Boston Cooking School Cook Book, to bring the outsiders in line with traditional Boston/American cooking. Despite the original publisher’s opinion that a book like this had a very limited audience, it flew off the shelves, and as we all know became so popular as The Fanny Farmer Cookbook, it is still selling today under that eponymous title.
What was she doing? For starters, no matter which side of the Atlantic they were issued on, cookery books had very broad, vague instructions. They assumed prior knowledge handed down from mother to daughter and cooking experience on the part of the person reading them. After all, that woman had already to be literate. Here is an early New England recipe for pumpkin pie:
“Cut out the seeds and pare the pumpkin, stew and strain it.
Take two quarts of scalded milk and eight eggs and stir your pumpkin into it. Sweeten it with sugar or molasses to your taste. Salt this batter and season with ginger, cinnamon or lemon peel to your mind. Bake with a bottom crust.”
If today you go into your kitchen and follow a recipe that says: 1 cup of milk, two teaspoons of cinnamon and so forth, you owe that clarity to Fanny Farmer. In her determination to standardize recipes so there could be no variations or mistaken identity, she introduced the concept of standard measuring spoons and cups and level measurements. If today you see in your recipe “two tablespoons,” that meant to Farmer the large spoon put on the table for soups and puddings. If you see “one teaspoon,” that was the standardized equivalent of the volume in a spoon used to stir or sugar your tea. A “cup” was standardized as the liquid volume of what was then the average drinking vessel. Farmer’s systematic discussion of measurement—“A cupful is measured level ... A tablespoonful is measured level. A teaspoonful is measured level.”—led to her being nicknamed “the mother of level measurements.”
Farmer’s original book included essays on housekeeping, cleaning, canning and drying fruits and vegetables as well as nutritional information. Farmer even provided scientific explanations of the chemical processes that occur in food during cooking. Cookbooks and cooking were never again the same. (Until now, when the hottest new cookbook is one with vague, figure-it-out-yourself recipes.)
Fanny Farmer’s cookbook was followed in 1901 by The Settlement Cookbook written by Lizzie Kander, essentially to assimilate the Jewish immigrants in East Coast settlements. It is sometimes referenced as the first American book about ethnic cooking because Kander tried to provide the immigrant population she was addressing with ways to adapt the foods they knew to their new circumstances. She also introduced Fanny Farmer’s concept of exact measurements. The book was extremely popular and eventually became a traditional wedding gift. Still today you can buy what’s called The New Settlement Cookbook.
The third big book that became the final leg under America’s kitchen table came in 1931 from a Midwestern woman of German origin named Irma S. Rombauer. The Joy of Cooking starts with the idea that the foods we can eat are pieces of a puzzle we need to know how to interlock, then demystifies recipe terms and procedures so we can fit them together. Rombauer introduced Midwestern Americans to the domestic science of standard measurements, standard recipes and, surpassing Fanny Farmer, the new fast-evolving discoveries of food science and its corollary, food processing. As we all know, that book was for decades a standard wedding gift and is still published today.
This triumvirate ruled the kitchen from the end of World War II through the dynamic 1950s. The reformist standardization efforts transformed us into one nation eating one menu. Or, as the country’s motto says: E pluribus unum—out of many, one. Then came the infamous 1960s, when the ascendance of Jackie Kennedy and glamour, air travel and mass college education, protests against the status quo and what was called “the counterculture,” stirred, flambéed and flavored America’s cooking.
For one thing, men loudly barged into the kitchen. A man from Oregon put on an apron and purveyed his mother’s home cooking to become America’s first culinary influencer. James Beard and his cookbooks became the definition of classy and classic American fare. With his ascent came newspaper restaurant reviews that made the reviewers equal celebrities, and news pages dedicated to food, much of it reporting about chefs and recipes to set status standards. And now we have prestigious chef awards in his name.
The presence of so-called breadwinners at the stove unleashed a whole new realm of commercial possibilities. Restaurant supply stores sired kitchen supply stores for the home cook. Television added food shows, like “The Galloping Gourmet,” in which the Scotsman Graham Kerr from 1969–71 encouraged men into the act. Men were chefs; women merely cooked. Men had the barbecue and important stuff; women did the thankless grunt work of getting food on the table day after day. Bring on Hamburger Helper and Peg Bracken’s famous I Hate to Cook Book.
Perhaps more importantly, the foreign food Fanny Farmer fought against became all the rage in the monied classes who could now afford to fly to Europe and taste what Jacqueline Kennedy had served at the White House. The main souvenirs many first-time travelers brought back were recipes, recipes that quickly eroded the hegemony of the so-called American diet. The new jet set admiration for and acceptance of other cultures’ eating habits was the beginning of the food class divisions and food fights still going strong.
You could say the anti-Fanny was another Bostonian, the legendary Julia Child, whose 1960s encyclopedic book Mastering the Art of French Cooking began the divide between the snob or elite or status seeking culinary class and those using Hamburger Helper and TV dinners. The most powerful station of the nascent what was called educational television in those days was Boston’s WGBH (because you can’t beat Boston for education). As food became a topic of conversation and a conveyor of status, a kind of code for who you were, producers there decided to put it on the air. They found a local Italian couple and put on a show about home-cooked Italian food called “The Romanoglis’ Table.” A cookbook came out of it. The same producer, a man named Russell Morash, then brought on a local gardener named Jim Crockett to do shows called “The Victory Garden.” Crockett explained how to grow your own food, and this inevitably led to Morash’s wife, Marian, coming on the air in 1979 to show people how to cook that produce they were now growing. And from the show, she wrote a book called The Victory Garden Cookbook, which goes item by item around the garden and gives you pages of ideas about what to do with it—with exact measurements, of course.
It was Russell Morash who put on television a reluctant local widow whose cookbook was already a bestseller. That was Julia Child and nothing has been the same in the food world since. What Julia Child essentially did was to get many educated Americans to understand the only food processor near your food should be you. To produce a real meal, you had to know where the ingredients came from and how to competently handle and combine and cook them into something glorious to behold and taste. Julia Child convinced a whole segment of the population that cooking was important. Your food mattered.
The success of Julia Child and airplane travel unleashed a torrent of international cookbooks, mostly by foreign-born American residents who became household names in a certain class of household. Paula Wolfert introduced the exotic tastes of Morocco, Ken Hom introduced the real cooking of China, Joan Nathan explored Jewish recipes from around the diaspora, Darra Goldstein The Russian Table and Carol Field The Italian Baker. Emboldened and enriched publishers kept up the flow: Marcella Hazan on The Cooking of Italy, diplomatic wife Penelope Casas on The Foods of Spain, the Bollywood movie star Madhur Jaffrey on A Taste of India and a New York Times reporter’s wife, Diana Kennedy, who with great precision documented the varied regional foods of Mexico in The Cuisines of Mexico.
These books with their demands for ingredients and cookware transformed not just the kitchen table but the supermarkets that now saw profit and began to stock “foreign food” sections. They also created insight for a man named Joe Coulombe in Southern California, who realized the grocery business had to change to address these newly educated and empowered shoppers. And to offer them the tastes of their travels and the fruits of their cookbook reading, he created Trader Joe’s—a grocery store not like any other, a grocery store with a very loyal following. In fact, so loyal maybe many of you remember that we got our own Trader Joe’s in Portland only after about 10,000 people signed a petition and sent it to the headquarters begging for a store.
These cookbooks also led to the proliferation of cookware stores like Williams Sonoma and Sur La Table and what is today Portland’s LaRoux’s, Bath’s Now You’re Cooking and Ellsworth’s Rooster Brothers. A Connecticut entrepreneur imported a popular French cooking appliance known as the Robot Coupe—mechanical chopper—and marketed it in the U.S. with the French-sounding name Cuisinart. These books launched a thousand gourmet stores and gourmet growers at farmers’ markets who will provide you with Indian eggplants, Thai eggplants, Italian eggplants, Greek eggplants and thus the need for books to tell you which is which and what to do with them. Upper-middle-class America’s obsession with food—a new bona fide status symbol—crescendoed to such a peak in the early 21st century that journalist David Kamp wrote a book about the massive and relatively fast transformation of American cooking called The United States of Arugula.
In the ferment of the mid-’70s food movement, Maine produced its own celebrity: a writer named John Thorne, who left New York City for Hancock County and began to write a newsletter to all his friends back in New York, which he called Simple Cooking. He attempted in each missive to inspire city dwellers with the naturalistic life in Downeast Maine, while he dissected, digested and above all demystified a foreign recipe, starting with the endless debate in Italy over whether the rice and peas dish known there as risi e bisi was a soup or a risotto. The newsletters became a literary phenomenon and eventually the cookbook Simple Cooking.
The counterculture also produced cookbooks, most famously The Moosewood Cookbook from a cooperative restaurant in Ithaca, New York, and then from a Zen-inspired restaurant in San Francisco, The Greens Cookbook. And for those who wanted to show they were the opposite of humble, simple and mindful of meat, there was The Silver Palate Cookbook.
The sudden popular interest in new foods and natural foods spiked a tremendous revival in what had been farmers’ markets. For a century several cities had been known for—indeed, identified by—their traditional food halls: Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal, Seattle’s Pikes Market and Los Angeles’ Fourth Street Farmers’ Market. New York was known for its Fulton Fish market. What had been America’s first market, its first agora—agora being the Greek word for food market synonymous with public political gathering space—Faneuil Hall, was brought back from shambles into a vibrant food market for downtown Boston. Cities suddenly included in planning and zoning public spaces for public farmers’ markets like New York City’s Union Square Market and San Francisco’s Ferry Terminal Market. Portland relocated its historic market to busy Monument Square.
In the 1990s when fascination with foreign cooking seemed saturated, publishers, TV producers and news reporters broadcast the sudden awakening of America’s regional consciousness, implying one region’s food was foreign to another and thus worth exploration. James Beard had been alluding to regional differences, but it was the made-for-TV spectacle of Paul Prudhomme that unleashed the movement in Louisiana. Cajun cooking and Cajun spices became all the rage. Then Edna Lewis released a definitive book on African American cooking in the South, which was followed by a food historian named John Mariani putting forth the case for distinct North Carolina cuisine. Suddenly there was Low Country cookery and defenses of Tex-Mex, adulation for New Mexican dishes that were not Mex and not like anything else anywhere else. Wisconsin was the Cheesehead State, Boston was Bean Town. Jane and Michael Stern crisscrossed the country in their car eating and writing about all the local restaurants and dishes they could find. NPR hosted several cooking series including one by the Kitchen Sisters, who also crisscrossed the country finding unique dishes with stories behind them.
As the millennium turned, all bets had the internet supplanting the cookbook. After all, you could now just type in a recipe you wanted and variants would appear in seconds. So cookbooks were reimagined and reinvented to express the interests of the moment—to purvey more than just recipes. Foreign cookery books got more esoteric and larded with travelogue for the savvy: China was broken down by region, ditto India. You could buy a book called Samarkand and go to Central Asia in your armchair and kitchen or a book called Supra, A Feast of Georgian Cooking. Or the material got simpler like The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Tapas and Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day. Cookbooks featured molecular biology, Space Age techniques, plant genetics as in Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Literacy in which she explores the family connections between vegetables to learn why they cook well together. There are books to bolster every 21st century diet fad: vegan, vegetarian, gluten free, dairy free, paleo, keto, raw, even The Allergen Free Baker’s Handbook. You can buy books featuring a favorite ingredient, like Love and Lemons or The Classic Pasta Cookbook. Or books like Souper Duper Soups or Asian Noodles. And of course, celebrity cookbooks. And books more about the sensational photography than the food.
And finally, we come to what are known as Community Cookbooks. These are a distinctly American invention created in the horrific aftermath of the Civil War when the wounded and sick veterans of the North were left on the streets, often bloody and moaning. Embarrassment eventually led to the establishment of what is now the Veterans Administration, but more immediately, city women—mostly housewives and their teen daughters—were appalled and shamed by these sights on the streets and wanted to do something to help. They wanted to at least get bandages to the wounded and walking sticks to the lame. But at that time in our history, women had no independence, no separate financial or economic life from their husbands. All they had was the weekly food allowance for the household.
Nobody knows who first got the idea but before long many upper- and middle-class women were secreting away a small portion of that food allowance to purchase bandages and medicines. But their money didn’t go that far. As they cast about for how to raise more, someone hit upon a most ingenious scheme: Each household had as its own treasure, unique recipes passed down in the family. And other households could always use new recipes. A recipe exchange was organized where some of the food allowance money went to pay and the money was collected for the veterans.
Before long the women were compiling pages of recipes and selling their little booklets for this charitable endeavor. The idea spread and community cookbooks took root as an American tradition. They are still today compiled and sold for charitable purposes. There is an extensive collection of these modest little recipe books at the Radcliffe Library because they are viewed as historic, anthropological and sociological documents that can reveal much about life in America.
In Georgetown, Maine, the wives in the wealthier families of the island center collected their recipes and sold them first as Ladies Aid and used some funds to refurbish their local church. Over time Ladies Aid morphed into what remains today as the Working League, a group of women who make handicrafts and food to sell to raise money for all sorts of island causes including scholarships for the children, like a Community Chest or United Way.
“My how small he makes the street look,” someone is supposed to have exclaimed as Victorian Portland’s most illustrious resident, six-foot-three, 300-pound Congressman Thomas Brackett Reed, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, walked through town. Reed was not the only man bulging from the city’s blazing hot recovery from the 1866 fire. On April 1, 1872, the new Customs House was inaugurated with a steamship round of beef and a ham massive enough to be inscribed: “Success and Prosperity to Portland.” We know all this, know how prosperous and fat Portland became in the 1890s, because of surviving community cookbooks. Food was, in fact, one of the ways Portland flaunted its new wealth. In lieu of Yankee thrift and Puritan simplicity, its cookbooks were filled with recipes for potted pigeons, fig pudding, pickled oysters, Welsh rarebit, escalloped sea foods … In other words, they conveyed more than recipes.