A Selected History of Cookbooks

By Rosalinda Hernandez Linares

One of my recent summer reads was L.A. son : my life, my city, my food, a cookbook and memoir written by well-known chef Roy Choi. A fascinating read about street culture and growing up in the diverse landscape of Los Angeles, the recipes in the book were phenomenal. I became curious about the history of cookbooks, so I did a little digging.

Apitii Svm

Image courtesy of http://bit.ly/1r3IXZY

The earliest Western book of recipes was compiled somewhere around the 4th or 5th century, C.E. Although the writer is unknown, the ten book work is attributed to Marcus Gavius Apicius, a notorious foodie in 1st century C.E. Rome, as noted by the first English translator, Joseph Dommers Vehling. The text is often referred to as De Re Coquinaria, or On the subject of Cooking. Each of the ten books are arranged much like a modern cookbook, with chapters focused on types of food, such as the garden, birds, and four-legged animals.

A sample recipe, roughly translated:

Beans and chickpeas

  1. Green beans and chickpeas are served with salt, cumin, olive oil, and a bit of unwatered wine
  2. Another way: beans and chickpeas are cooked in a wine sauce and seasoned with pepper, and boiled, in a rich way, with eggs, green fennel, broth, and served with a little reduced wine on a small plate, or more simply, as you are accustomed.

Care to take a look at the Latin text? You can find it in our library at Decem libri cui [i.e. qui] dicuntur de re coquinaria et excerpta a Vinidario conscripta

Moving through the centuries to 16th century England, cookbooks really hit their stride amongst the nobles, who tried to outdo each other with not only recipes, but descriptions of outlandish feasts given in their households. The average palate ‘evidently liked their dishes strongly seasoned and piquant’, as noted by 19th century cookbook publisher Thomas Austin.


A sample recipe from A book of cookry, by A.W., 1587, taken from the original text

How to bake watered Herrings.

Let your herrings be wel watered, and season them with Pepper and a little Cloves and Spice, and put but a …minced Onions, great Raisins and …, a little sweet butter, and a little Sugar and so bake them.

Find more recipes in the database Early English Books Online under the subject search term ‘cookery’.


A translated recipe from Dos manuscritos mexicanos de cocina , siglo XVIII , by Anonymous, 2002

Across the pond to the Americas, two intact anonymous manuscripts outline Colonial Mexican cooking in the 18th century, including many recipes, but as with the others no measurements or little indications of proportion sizes. In his introduction to a recent edition, Enrique Asensio Ortega, Mexican historical food writer, notes that this common method of recipe writing is more indicative of recipes as an historical ledger, whereas the deftly-handed cooks of the time would know how to season and how long to cook the meal.

Dark Chicken

While cooking chicken or ham, put in chorizo, yerba buena, onions, salt, lard, vinegar, chilies, olives, capers, and thicken with a little piece of toasted bread, together with oil and vinegar.

Spanish readers can find the book at Dos manuscritos mexicanos de cocina : siglo XVIII.

And now back to Kentucky, and its culinary predecessors. In her latest book, Fiona Young-Brown traces local recipes all the way back to their German, Irish, Scottish, and Cherokee (to name a few) roots. Check out all the classics in A culinary history of Kentucky: burgoo, beer cheese, and goetta.

Culinary History of Kentucky

Culinary History of Kentucky

Find more cookbooks up on the 4th floor in the TX 350-750 call number range. Enjoy, and happy eating!

*All translations by the author of the post

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