Nothing speaks of home and hearth more than a well-used cookbook. A favorite recipe for grandma’s noodles, Aunt Betty’s apple crisp pie, Dad’s chili, or Mom’s Thanksgiving turkey is the very definition of ‘comfort food.’
Cookbooks didn’t start as nostalgic compilations of beloved family dishes, however. Up until at least the 17th century, instructions on cooking were largely straightforward functional documents created by the (primarily male) lead chefs for the kitchen staffs of prominent households. Those who lacked the power and prestige to immortalize their culinary creations on paper – aka everyone else –passed down the art and science of cooking through on-the-job training at home, one meal at a time.
The first authenticated book of recipes in book form is De Re Coquinaria, which is attributed to Marcus Gavius Apicius, a Roman gourmet who lived during the reign of Tiberius in the 1st century (or maybe the 5th century, according to some scholars). The recipes, written in Latin, were arranged by meats, vegetables, fish and fowl, and even included housekeeping hints, a practice that later cookbooks would embrace.
After the advent of the printing press, cookbooks slowly turned into a distinct genre. Some showcased local cuisines and reflected whether and how its cooks employed spices, and when they prepared exotic animals for the table, such as the peacock. Tips for running a kitchen and a home appeared as well. As these household mainstays moved closer to transcending the role of the instruction manual, they evolved into anthropological documents that reveal and preserve cultural practices and values.
The first cookbook published in the United States was American Cookery, which was released in 1796 and written by Amelia Simmons, an American orphan. Recognized by the Library of Congress as one of the ‘Books That Shaped America,’ American Cookery was the first to rely on ingredients found only in the United States. Simmons identified pumpkin pie, cranberries with turkey, and the cookie (spelled as the Dutch word ‘cookey’) for the first time in a printed work. American Cookery became a bestseller for nearly 30 years and it continues to be reprinted by the Oxford University Press and Dover Publications.
Measurements for ingredients in cookbooks of centuries past were annoyingly inexact, advising home chefs to add a pinch of this or a bit of that without quantifying the size of said pinch or bit. Cooking temperatures weren’t uniform, either. Nor could they be, as cooks of the pre-Industrial age readied meals in open fireplaces in huge pots and kettles that could feed scores in one sitting or feed a smaller group several days’ worth of meals.
All that changed when Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families was published in London in 1845. She specified the amount of each ingredient in her recipes and standardized the cooking times. So obviously useful was this approach to recipe design that subsequent cookbook authors were compelled to adopt it.
In 1896, Fannie Farmer, the director of Miss Farmer’s School of Cookery, published The Boston Cooking School Cookbook, which standardized cookbooks once and for all. Farmer’s contribution was a byproduct of the domestic science movement of the late 19th century, which ultimately gave rise to the discipline of home economics. Farmer placed supreme emphasis on giving precise measurements that could be confirmed and delivered by teaspoons, cups, and other purpose-made kitchen tools we now take for granted. Farmer’s focus was so intense, she became known as the mother of level measurements. Nor did she overlook the niceties of the presentation of a meal, or the merits of its nutritional qualities. Her cookbooks were so thorough, comprehensive, and revolutionary as easy-to-follow guides that they are still in print. Well-known 20th-century cookbooks such as The Joy of Cooking, Betty Crocker’s Cook Book, Better Homes and Gardens, and Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking followed the format of American Cookery and Fanny Farmer’s works.
Collectors of cookbooks have as many options for approaching and categorizing their libraries as there are goods at a supermarket. Unfortunately, it is impossible to own an antique cookbook that contains what might be the best-known line from a recipe: “First, catch your hare.” The wry comment that captures the wisdom of starting at step one has been attributed to Hannah Glasse’s 1747 best-seller The Art of Cookery, made Plain and Easy, and also to Isabella Beeton, author of the 1861 favorite, Beeton’s Book of Household Management, but the phrase doesn’t appear in either woman’s book. Glasse, however, comes closest in her recipe for roasting a hare, which states, “Take your Hare when it is cas’d [skinned] and make a Pudding.”
Collectors can target books by region, by nation, by language, by era, and by food group. They can concentrate on cookbooks of nouvelle cuisine; on cookbooks that teach how to produce an absurdly wide range of meals with a single piece of kitchen equipment, such as a Dutch oven or a crockpot; and on cookbooks created for religious communities, such as Kochbuch für Israelitische Frauen (Cookbook for Jewish Women) which was published in 1901. The subcategory of the celebrity cookbook long predates the rise of the celebrity chef, and features many authors who made their reputations in other arenas before publishing a tome of recipes.
Diet books have been bestsellers for generations and provide a telling window on the concerns and anxieties of those who first purchased them. Yet another notable cookbook category features one main course or major ingredient, such as The Pescatarian Cookbook, created for people who eat fish rather than any other meat.
Holiday cookbooks are a perennial favorite. Many people who don’t bother with books full of day-to-day recipes clear room on their shelves for seasonal cookbooks, grateful for the refresher on preparing dishes they only make once a year, and grateful for ideas for indulgent, over-the-top dishes that delight the eyes just as much as the stomach. Popular choices in this realm include How to Cook Everything Thanksgiving by Mark Bittman, which was first published in 2012, as well as the annual Christmas with Southern Living titles. Both help steer their readers through the stress of cooking for holiday gatherings.
One thing that collectors of cookbooks are never required to do is put their prizes to the purpose for which they were published. Sure, cookbooks that feature smudges, smoke-scorched pages, or cryptic handwritten notes in the margin gain an aura of authenticity that a rigidly pristine example lacks, but when it comes to book-collecting, clean copies always win. Perhaps the solution is to gather two versions of the same cookbook – one to keep in mint condition, and another that sports the wear and tear that comes with being loved and trusted by generations who rose from kitchen novices to seasoned experts while turning its pages.