This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Cooking the Books with Yotam and Nigella, first released on March 13, 2018. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
SOUND OF SAWING
CYNTHIA GRABER: So, Nicky, what exactly is this sound? Are we now one of those do-it-yourself HGTV shows?
NICOLA TWILLEY: No, although those shows are super popular, so maybe? But that, Cynthia, is the sound of an out-of-control cookbook collection. So out-of-control that I have to build special shelving just to house it.
GRABER: How many cookbooks are we talking about here?
TWILLEY: I am a little ashamed to reveal this. But, OK, here goes: my name is Nicola, I am a cookbook addict, and I have more than 100 cookbooks.
GRABER: Now I want to go count mine. I love them though I don’t tend to buy an insane amount. But, Nicky, you are nothing compared to two of our guests this episode.
YOTAM OTTOLENGHI: I am not good at culling. I do have a big cookbook collection. It’s… I want to say probably about a thousand but I’ve never counted it.
NIGELLA LAWSON: Well, very sadly, a lot of my cookbooks are in store. It’s huge and baggy and completely with no governing principle. Because the truth is, I mean, I’ve got about five and a half thousand cookbooks in store. And where I live is pretty much covered with cookbooks—a lot of them on the floor, otherwise on every available surface. Every now and then I try and do a cull but it’s hard.
GRABER: I’m feeling like I’ve just been given permission to go out and buy a lot more cookbooks. And, in case you don’t recognize those voices, they are cookbook authors Yotam Ottolenghi…
TWILLEY: And Nigella Lawson! Yes! Our famous friends!!
GRABER: We say this with great glee and joy and a more than a little bit of star-struckness.
TWILLEY: I will just pause again for one second and say, if you had ever told me that we would have Yotam Ottolenghi and Nigella Lawson on our very own podcast, I would have not believed you.
GRABER: But we are not here today to to bask in their reflected glory, though that’s kind of all we want to do right now. We invited them onto the show—and they accepted!—because they’re experts in the questions we’re tackling this week.
TWILLEY: Questions such as who first started collecting recipes into cookbooks? That one comes from listener Ellen Press, who got curious while she was browsing through her 1935 edition of Recipes of the World by the fabulous Countess Morphy.
GRABER: Who were cookbooks written for, and who was actually writing them? What can they tell us about what people were eating? And what do the color of paper and the time it takes to say a Hail Mary have to do with recipes? Finally, one more question Ellen wanted to know: why did people switch from general descriptions of how to cook to more detailed ingredient lists and methods?
TWILLEY: By the way, you are listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of history and science. I’m Nicola Twilley.
GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber.
TWILLEY: And this week we are all about the past, present and future of cookbooks.
GRABER: I had never really thought about when recipes were invented. I mean, of course people have always written cooking instructions down. But they haven’t.
TWILLEY: For starters, Cynthia, they haven’t always been writing. The art of making a mark that meant something in a language—that evolved between five and a half and four and half thousand years ago.
GRABER: And then it took about another thousand years before anyone wrote down a collection of recipes — at least ones that archaeologists have found. The oldest ones are from Mesopotamia, which is today in Iraq, and they’re clay tablets with 35 recipes.
HENRY NOTAKER: They are 3,700 years old and and they are written in a language called Akkadian in the cuneiform script that, you know, they used the reeds to imprint the characters on wet clay.
TWILLEY: That’s Henry Notaker. He’s a Norwegian journalist and historian and he just wrote a new book called A History of Cookbooks: From Kitchen to Page Over Seven Centuries.
NOTAKER: And I have actually not only seen them but I was permitted to hold them. And it’s incredible when you look at these tablets and you understand that they were really making recipes for food that could be eaten.
GRABER: These recipes could have been eaten, but Henry told us that experts say they were most likely recipes for food to serve in temples for gods.
NOTAKER: And they are really interesting not only because they are single recipes but because they are probably the first collection of recipes—the first cookbook, we know of, even if it’s difficult to see all these tablets as a book.
TWILLEY: Even though the recipes were intended for the gods, we asked Henry if he’s tried them at home.
NOTAKER: I haven’t tried those recipes but they are very simply described. So they are sort of stews. So I’m sure you could try them and eat them without difficulty because they are not scary in any way.
TWILLEY: They may not be scary, but they’re not *so* easy to follow. This is not your five-ingredients, dinner-in-under-30-minutes type of cookbook. The recipes on these tablets are more like lists of ingredients—some of which archaeologists don’t even know what they are—and then instructions to simmer or boil. Not super detailed. We have links to a couple of the recipes online and a modern attempt to cook from them if you want to have a go.
GRABER: So there have been such a thing as cookbooks over thousands of years, in the Middle East and in Europe and elsewhere around the world. Henry says the ancient Greeks wrote cookbooks, though only fragments have survived, mostly through quotations in other books. There’s the Roman cookbook attributed to a very wealthy man named Apicius. We have no idea if he even wrote it or anything much about him. But Henry’s own book really starts with the first blockbuster cookbook.
NOTAKER: Well, the first printed cookbook as far as we know is from around 1470. It was printed in Rome. The language is Latin. And the whole phenomenon is really fascinating because the book is still read, the book is still printed—was not many years ago a new English translation.
TWILLEY: There’s a lot going on that made this cookbook’s original success possible. First of all, you get the emergence of towns and cities in Europe in the 1200s and, with that, European culture starts to shift from being more oral to being a little more literary.
GRABER: This is also when the actual production of books starts to be more of a business. Up til this point, monks had been carefully copying books by hand, but they couldn’t keep up with the new demand. So they passed their work on to commercial scribes, and then suddenly there are more of those scribes than there are monks doing the writing.
TWILLEY: At this point in Europe, Henry says there were something like 100 to 150 recipe collections—handwritten cookbooks, basically. And then along comes a German blacksmith called Johannes Gutenberg. You might have heard of him. In 1439, he became the first European to use movable type.
GRABER: This all sets the stage for the new super popular—in relative terms, of course, because the majority of Europeans aren’t able to read at this point—but this new best-seller De honesta voluptate et valetudine.
TWILLEY: Which, in case you don’t speak Latin, translates as “On honest indulgence and good health.” Which is a great cookbook title. But De honesta voluptate, as Henry calls it for short—it’s important for more than just the fact that it’s the first printed cookbook in Europe, or that it’s still in print.
GRABER: It’s also because of the writer—he’s the first celebrity cookbook author. His name was Bartolomeo Scacci and he was from the town of Platina, so he’s known as Bartolomeo Platina.
NOTAKER: He was a humanist. He became later the first chief librarian at the Vatican library.
TWILLEY: Platina made his name as an author with a popular history of the popes. And actually, when he came out with this cookbook, he apologized for writing a book about something so lowly as food. Later in life, when he wrote a list of things he’d like to be remembered for, his cookbook wasn’t even on it.
GRABER: There are quite a few reasons that people looked down on cooking—something that many of us love today. Kitchens were smelly and greasy and smoky and they were thought to be full of people with bad hygiene. Cooks were pretty much illiterate and were looked down on as drunk and greedy and likely to steal the best food and silver.
TWILLEY: For centuries, if you wanted your audience to know a character in your play or story was untrustworthy and unpleasant, you made them a cook. Think of the drunken Cook in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, with a giant open sore on his leg. On top of that stereotype, there’s the fact that cooking itself was sort of suspect in the eyes of the Church.
GRABER: Remember in our diet episode, we talked about how a plump body was basically the sin of gluttony written on the flesh. Cooks were considered to be, as Henry writes, dangerous tempters, luring people down the broad road to hell. Pleasure was bad in the eyes of those medieval Christians.
TWILLEY: And, in fact, the cook that most likely worked with Platina to come up with the recipes in the book—he was completely erased by history. Platina only put his own name on the book, but he didn’t invent those recipes in his own kitchen.
NOTAKER: He took the recipes from a famous cook, translated the Italian into humanist Latin and added his medical advice. And nobody knew about this until the 1930s, when a German cook in New York—he collected manuscripts, old manuscripts, and he discovered that a manuscript he had found was very similar to this book. And that manuscript was by this Italian cook Martino who is behind the recipes.
GRABER: The manuscript that was discovered contained the exact same recipes as those in Platina’s book—but written by an actual cook. So the current thought is that they collaborated, though Martino’s name never appeared on the final publication.
NOTAKER: And we can’t know that for sure. But the recipes are the same and probably invented by the Italian cook but put into writing by the humanist.
TWILLEY: In the century or so following the publication of De honesta voluptate, a few more cookbooks were published. The first ones in Italian, French, and German come in the 1480s, then there are first ones in English, Dutch, Catalan, Spanish.
GRABER: But there really weren’t too many of them. Henry says there were only 164 cookbooks published before 1700. Cooks are largely illiterate, and then there’s this idea that cooking is a trade, and so recipes are basically trade secrets. So why write cookbooks at all?
NOTAKER: Some of the early manuscripts are written by people in the palaces and the manors—rich people with access to very good food and with access to paper and whatever was needed.
TWILLEY: And these rich people were basically showing off. Cookbooks were a way to immortalize their lavish banquets so that people knew how rich they were.
NOTAKER: They used it as a form of boasting in line with carriages and jewelry and dress and houses and all the other things that gave status.
GRABER: And the audience was other rich, literate people. They were all just showing off to each other.
TWILLEY: And, of course, the books were written by men for men. As Henry points out, women have been the majority of cooks throughout the history of humanity, but for the most part, their cooking has not been seen or valued, because it took place at home.
GRABER: But there are a few exceptions. The first cookbook written by a woman was published only a hundred years after De Honesta Voluptate.
NOTAKER: The first woman was a German, Anna Wecker, who was the wife of a very famous doctor, and I think she had the prestige very much because of him.
GRABER: But Anna Wecker is one of only a very few women who were writing cookbooks in the first few hundred years after the printing press. Aphra Behn—she’s a playwright who lived right after Shakespeare—Henry says she’s considered the first woman to earn a living by writing, but it turns out that the first woman to make a living by writing cookbooks lived at the same time. Her name was Hannah Woolley.
NOTAKER: She was married twice and in the periods after the first and then after the second husband died, she published books in order to help herself economically.
TWILLEY: In Northern Europe, there were a few other women like Hannah over the next hundred or so years. Mostly, they were just trying to earn money one of the few ways they could, because they were single or widowed.
NOTAKER: In southern Europe—Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Greece—there is no woman writer of a cookbook before the 20th century.
GRABER: Which is crazy. So women were doing a lot of the cooking, but men were writing all the cookbooks for hundreds of years. But then women became increasingly educated. By the 1800s, you have the rise of the middle class. And there are more and more women who can read. And some of them are wealthy enough to be running households.
NOTAKER: And it is evident that many of these readers trusted women writers more than men. Many of them say that men are just wasteful, they put too many expensive ingredients in dishes and so on, while the women knows how to take care of the foodstuffs and use it in a more efficient way, an economic way.
TWILLEY: And, as a result of this feeling? Men carried on writing the majority of the cookbooks, but some of them just pretended to be women. Henry’s favorite example is an English actor called Charles Selby, who published a cookbook in 1860, under the name Tabitha Ticklecloth. He even appeared in drag in a photograph inside the front cover.
GRABER: But one thing that stayed true from Platina onwards: the notion of the celebrity chef.
NOTAKER: Of course there were many, many anonymous books in the beginning but people discovered at a certain stage that royal cooks had a high prestige, so they got books made with the recipes from chefs at the courts. But they also invented names—invented royal cooks that never existed and put the name on the title page.
GRABER: Henry told us about one cook who had worked in Stockholm as a lowly apprentice in the Queen’s palace.
NOTAKER: But when he printed a cookbook in Norway he presented himself as chief cook of King Karl Johan.
TWILLEY: Celebrities, or even fake celebrities, wrote cookbooks for lots of reasons: to boost their own reputation, to earn money, like the single women authors, to impress their social circle—even, once the restaurant was invented, to promote their own dining establishments.
GRABER: As you might remember from our enthusiasm at the beginning of this episode, we spoke to two of our favorite celebrity cookbook writers to find out why they wrote their first cookbooks.
LAWSON: Well, there are many reasons—the reasons fuse into one another.
TWILLEY: That’s Nigella Lawson again, and her first cookbook was called How to Eat.
LAWSON: I was at a friend’s house for dinner and she was in the kitchen and we were sitting rather stiffly around the table. And we got more and more awkward as we heard her sobbing uncontrollably from the kitchen because she had set herself to do this very unnecessarily ambassadorial dinner, I’d say, with too many things that you required a whole restaurant staff to do. And too fussy and too fiddly and altogether too much of it. And I just thought, this is ridiculous that people think they have to cook like restaurants. Because in those days, really—and it’s still the case to some degree, but in those days, the professional chefs completely dominated.
GRABER: At the time, Nigella had been working as a writer for a while, and then had already started to specialize in writing about food. How to Eat was published in 1998.
LAWSON: And the other reason—I mean, my mother and one of my sisters died very young. And I felt very much all my conversations with them really had been about food and what are you eating tonight and what are you cooking tonight. I thought it was a way of continuing that conversation and memorializing their food and that felt important. But I think in a funny way, maybe what propelled me was really the linguistic challenge. You know, food belongs to the world of the senses, and it’s a material entity, it’s physical. It belongs to the physical sphere, and writing is abstract. And I really wanted to see whether it was possible to use language to conjure up if you like, the thereness of food, not simply give orders and formulae. I didn’t realize my first book was going to have recipes when I started writing it, and a lot of the recipes in it indeed are within the narrative.
TWILLEY: So Nigella was deliberately writing against that idea of cooking restaurant food at home. Our other favorite celebrity cookbook author wrote his first cookbook for exactly the opposite reason.
OTTOLENGHI: So what led to the writing of that book was that we had a little restaurant in Notting Hill, or a cafe, and people came in and loved the food. And then an agent said “why don’t you write a cookbook?” And, for me and for Sami, the writing of the cookbook was really just about giving out those recipes, telling people how to make those dishes at home.
GRABER: Yotam’s very first cookbook was called Ottolenghi—though as an American I should point out that his first cookbook published here was called Plenty. Ottolenghi was only published in the US once Plenty became a huge hit.
TWILLEY: But even though it was restaurant food, Yotam was definitely not one of these chefs who wanted to make home cooks cry with his recipes.
OTTOLENGHI: That book for me is a manual in that respect because it was all about how we produced food in that little restaurant or that little cafe and how you could do it at home as well.
GRABER: He wrote the book with his cooking and business partner Sami Tamimi.
OTTOLENGHI: Normally for the savory food Sami would cook four or five dishes for us in a group of friends on a Friday night. We used to go to his house, try the food and then him or I would take notes. And I think in terms of recipes we did like a really thorough job in terms of nailing down the recipes and making sure that they all worked really well and testing them over and over again until we were really happy. But I think we were really— we didn’t have any idea about telling a story. When I read it—I read it back a few years ago and I felt like, oh my God, there’s no stories. Really, I mean there’s some stories but there isn’t really a narrative. And I think this is something that I realized later on with the other books—that what you put out there is not just a set of instructions. The stories are really important
TWILLEY: So Yotam and Nigella are agreed that a recipe should not just be a set of instructions. But what’s interesting is that for a long time, a recipe wasn’t even that.
GRABER: For instance, what genius invented the ingredients list? And if we look back at cookbooks throughout history, are they really representing what people actually were eating?
GRABER: One super important innovation in recipe formatting that is surprisingly recent is the invention of a separate ingredients list.
TWILLEY: Henry found one example in a German manuscript from 1770, which had the ingredients listed in a vertical column the way we’re used to today—but he says it didn’t become common practice for another hundred years.
GRABER: What led to the development of the specific ingredient list was mostly the need to provide instructions for how to make cakes. As many of you listeners probably know, if you want to make a stew, you can substitute one meat or vegetable for another, and mess around with the proportions. But if you want to bake a cake well, those ingredients and the quantities have to be much more exact.
TWILLEY: Which was tricky in the past, because people didn’t have things like scales at home. Instead of saying 2 ounces of butter, cookbook authors would have to instead quantify ingredients by price, like six pennyworth of butter, or by size, so the thickness of a finger or as big as a hand.
GRABER: And then there’s the timing, how long to cook something. Mechanical clocks were invented already before 1300, and there were some in private homes in the 1400s, but they were expensive. And you didn’t keep them in the kitchen.
NOTAKER: When it comes to for example the time something should cook, many of the old recipes say when they are finished, or boil until finished, but some—for example Martino, who wrote the recipes for Platina in the first printed cookbook—he and some others in the Catholic tradition, they say this should boil as long as it takes to say two Lord’s prayers or three Hail Mary.
TWILLEY: The theory was that everyone knew these common prayers, so if your egg needed to boil for as long as six Ave Marias—that was a pretty good guide. Henry says it wasn’t until the 1700s that it became normal for at least British cookbook authors to refer to exact times.
GRABER: And here’s another one of my favorite challenges—people didn’t have ovens with internal thermometers and temperatures you could read. So how would they know how hot to make the fire?
NOTAKER: And you had high fire, low fire, small fire, strong fire. And what one Italian great cook says: “piano, piano”—far from the fire.
TWILLEY: Some cookbook authors found creative ways around this challenge, too. They gave you instructions like when you can run a straw through it or when the crust is brown. But the most ingenious was a Swedish cookbook author. She told her readers to put small bits of paper in the oven near the fire, and then gave instructions like, “put the bread in when the paper becomes a little yellowish.”
GRABER: So, over time, cookbooks became more accurate. They had lists of ingredients, they had time and temperature instructions. But there was still room for creativity in the cookbook’s overall format.
TWILLEY: Henry’s favorite example is Norwegian, of course. It’s a cookbook in which all the recipes are set to music—tunes everyone would have known like the national anthem, hymns, and drinking songs.
GRABER: Another favorite is cookbooks written as dialogues between two characters. In one, there are two kitchen assistants, Martha, who is wise, and Magdalena, who is a simple country girl.
TWILLEY: The whole cookbook is Magdalena being ignorant and Martha dropping knowledge about the differences between various foods and how to handle and prepare them. My personal favorite cookbook experiment? The first novels in England were written in the form of letters exchanged between characters—and it turns out that at the same time, a chef experimented with writing his cookbook that way too. “My Dear Eloise, here’s how to make rabbit soup. Yours sincerely.”
GRABER: You might think that such creative approaches to cookbooks have faded away. But there are still plenty of original ones around. Amanda Cohen of New York’s Dirt Candy restaurant, for example, she wrote a cookbook in graphic novel form. When Yotam Ottolenghi was first toying with the idea of writing a cookbook with Sami Tamimi, some rather unusual ideas were thrown around.
OTTOLENGHI: There was this crazy idea that Noam, one of our other partners, came up with. And that was the book that would be put together or collated by different people—customers. So they would give their recipes and then we would put ours together and they’d compare and it was a kind of book that—I am not quite sure what we were thinking but it was a book that had no commercial merit whatsoever.
TWILLEY: And these commercial considerations—they were becoming more and more important over time, as the market for really any kind of books, but also cookbooks was blowing up. More people are literate, there’s a middle class, printing is getting cheaper. But the biggest shift comes in the twentieth century, and it comes about because of changes in who is doing the cooking.
GRABER: It’s the 1930s, and…
MEGAN ELIAS: Middle class women began to actually have to do their own cooking, because there are better jobs for working class women than cooking in someone else’s house.
GRABER: Megan Elias is the director of the gastronomy program at Boston University, and she wrote a book called Food on the Page: Cookbooks and American Culture.
ELIAS: Okay so that shift where middle class women have to do their own cooking is a really important turning point. And it’s often overlooked because it’s really hard for us in the 21st century to recognize that a person like ourselves would have had a servant, right, a woman doing your cooking for you. But it’s true.
GRABER: So because these middle class American women had grown up with servants, they know what the food they should be eating tasted like.
ELIAS: They have that standard so they know that they have to feed their family that way, but they don’t know how to do it. So what happens then, is that there’s a kind of a need for instruction.
TWILLEY: Of course you might be thinking—cookbooks have always told people how to cook. But, for most of history, actually, the instructions in cookbooks were the kind of instructions you’d give your servants, who already had enough basic culinary know-how to execute. And now, in the 1930s, you’ve got a generation of women in the kitchen who have no servants and no freaking clue.
GRABER: But what does this sea change have to do with the rise of our beloved Julia Child?
TWILLEY: There is a connection! But first, we have a couple more sponsors we want to tell you about.
TWILLEY: So, Julia Child. The standard story line here is that American food sucked and Julia Child moved to France and learned how to cook real food and came back to her native land to share her wisdom.
GRABER: But Megan says that there had been French cookbooks published in America before Julia’s. And Megan also says that not all American food sucked. She says the real secret to Julia’s popularity is this lack of paid cooks in middle class households, and the need for a teacher.
ELIAS: And Child really steps into that, that position of instructress.
TWILLEY: The first half of the twentieth century is also a time where there’s a lot of change for women. Women got the vote in America in 1920. They’re even starting to go out to work—something that really takes off a few decades later during World War II. But they’re still expected to be the ones feeding their families, and even graciously entertaining their friends and their husband’s colleagues.
GRABER: Some women dealt with this pressure by following Julia Child’s lead and spending hours perfecting boeuf bourguignon. But others were more interested in cookbooks that gave them shortcuts. Poppy Cannon’s Can-Opener Cookbook told women how to transform canned stew and make it look fancy.
ELIAS: Some women were feeling a lot of pressure to to cook in a way that they felt was holding them back. So some of them dealt with it by saying I am just going to cut all the corners. And others—Peg Bracken specifically—said I’m going to deal with it by being honest and telling you I hate cooking and I don’t have to like cooking. And there are other things that women can do these days.
TWILLEY: Megan’s point is that some women—like for example, Peg Bracken, author of the I Hate to Cook Book—they were starting to feel that actually cooking was part of what was keeping them down.
ELIAS: Not every woman likes to cook because cooking is so closely associated with women in our culture. And Peg Bracken was saying the same thing—there isn’t any reason that I have to love cooking. If I do, that’s fine. But it doesn’t make me less of a person. And in fact she goes further and says that pretending that you like to cook—she doesn’t use the term anti-feminist but it’s what she means. She says if you spend your time hanging out in the kitchen and not—what does she say?—like, synthesizing polymers in a lab, you’re wasting your potential.
TWILLEY: This is really still kind of a raw spot for me. For a long time I didn’t want to be into cooking because it felt so domestic and domesticity felt oppressive.
GRABER: Nigella Lawson found herself right in the middle of this minefield. She named her second cookbook How To Be a Domestic Goddess. It was meant to be ironic—Nigella did not mean for “domestic goddess” to be taken literally. But she got some crap for that title.
LAWSON: You know, if I was a columnist at the time, had I been writing a column, I would have said this is terrible. We’re not 50s women who want to be in the kitchen. And I wasn’t saying that at all. And certainly I’ve never indicated that I think of cooking as a job of servitude, nor do I presume everyone who cooks is female and they’re cooking for males. That would horrify me. I do think it’s not altogether good if any activity which has been traditionally belonged to the female sphere—you have to question whether you’re being a good feminist by disparaging those activities.
ELIAS: And that’s something we talk about a lot in food studies is that food has been an instrument of oppression for women. But it’s something a lot of us really love to think about and do. So, as we cook, are we like oppressing ourselves by enjoying learning how to make bread? And it gets very complicated.
GRABER: Yeah. It really does.
TWILLEY: But moving swiftly on. Over time, there’s been these huge shifts in who writes and who uses cookbooks. But what about the food in those cookbooks. Can we look at the actual ingredients and recipes and learn what people were really eating in the past—or even what we’re eating today?
ELIAS: It is a great question and it’s the question that made me start thinking about cookbooks on their own.
ELIAS: Well, because I was trying to figure out what people actually did eat in the 19th century. And so I thought I’d turn to cookbooks. And when I looked to cookbooks, they’re full of food but I didn’t have any actual proof that the food on the page came onto the plate.
TWILLEY: Sometimes there are really obvious examples of the fact that cookbooks don’t necessarily tell you what people are eating. There is no published recipe for bread in English until the fifteenth century, but of course English people were eating bread centuries before that.
GRABER: In part, it’s because people knew how to make basic dishes without needing a recipe.
ELIAS: So I had to start thinking about the cookbook as its own thing. You know, why do cookbooks exist, what are the stories that they’re telling? If we can’t make that step and say, okay, this is what people actually eat.
TWILLEY: So you can’t really go to published cookbooks to find a recipe for what the servants were eating, for example, or the poor.
ELIAS: Because the cookbooks are never written by the poor and they’re never written for the poor. Except in a few cases where they’re pretty patronizing. You know: this is what you ought to be doing with a little bit of food that you have.
GRABER: So cookbooks can’t tell us what the majority of people were eating, because, frankly, the majority of people were poor. So then, what can they tell us?
ELIAS: So cookbooks can tell us what food meant to people. They can tell us stories about who belongs culturally and who is left out. They can obviously tell stories about gender expectations. They can tell us what’s available. They can tell us what’s thought of as normal. One of the things I love about the 19th-century cookbooks was they were full of vegetables that I just don’t find anymore. You know you go to the market today and you can’t find salsify, which was all over the place.
TWILLEY: But cookbooks don’t just document lost ingredients. They can also help you see when new ingredients appear on the scene. When commercial baking powder shows up, when margarine starts to be used.
GRABER: There weren’t any published recipes for tomatoes until 1692, after tomatoes were brought from the New World to Europe. That’s when a guy named Antonio Latini’s Italian cookbook offered readers a preparation for salsa di pomodoro, alla spagnola, which basically means tomato sauce, Spanish style.
TWILLEY: My favorite example of an exotic new food being introduced in a cookbook come from Henry. In his book, he writes that the first published recipe in Germany for a banana appears in 1913. The recipe is called banana sausage. And it involves frying the banana in a pan with sausage spices. Yum.
GRABER: And then, in America, there’s the strawberry.
ELIAS: And it occurred to me that most of the cookbooks that I read in the 19th century and early 20th century and really up through the 50s—there weren’t a lot of strawberries in them. And strawberries are so central to the way that we eat and cook in America now. And so I wondered what had happened. And of course w hat had happened was the strawberry industry.Before that strawberries would be something that you would just get in season. You’d either eat them up right now or make them into jam. What changes with mass transportation of food, right, across international boundaries, is that you can start getting used to something that you weren’t used to before.
TWILLEY: And that brings us to another thing you can track through cookbooks: the evolution of technology. All those strawberries, for example—they were available in such abundance in part because of refrigeration. I love refrigeration so much I’m writing a book about it—but when refrigerators were a brand new technology, the companies who wanted to get them into people’s kitchens wrote refrigerator cookbooks!
ELIAS: Yeah, that was a really fun part for me, was this period in—let’s see—the late 19th century, when there’s a new market for domestic technologies. As soon as household electricity becomes possible, there are electric toasters, electric coffee makers, electric frying pans. And these electric chafing dishes, which became this sort of fashionable statement and enable people to have chafing dish parties, which were very apparently very fun and interesting at the time. But what comes along with the new technology is the company that makes the thing needs to explain to potential customers what the thing is and how it fits into your life. But it has to fit into your life in a way that makes you comfortable with it, but also excited to have it. So the cookbooks have this wonderful balance of familiar and exotic.
GRABER: Which is exactly what those Frigidaire cookbooks were all about. Frigidaire cookies were rolled into a log and stored in the fridge, and you could slice them as needed. Cookies, of course, were very familiar. And yet these were exotic, because nobody beforehand was rolling cookie dough into a log and keeping it in the fridge for later.
TWILLEY: Today’s cookbook authors are still doing this kind of thing—introducing new foods and new technologies. Think of the current rash of Instant Pot cookbooks. Or the exotic Mediterranean ingredient found in Nigella’s new book, At My Table.
LAWSON: In my new book I’ve got, you know, some preserved lemons. So I’ve given quite a few recipes for them because otherwise, I don’t want to go to the shops to buy a new ingredient just for one recipe. And I don’t presume other people want that either. So, OK, you’ve gone out, you’ve got your preserved lemons, here are other things you can do with them.
GRABER: Nigella and Yotam don’t just introduce these new ingredients in their cookbooks, they have a huge impact on what people are buying, and then also what grocery stores sell. Nigella’s recipe for coq au Riesling made Riesling sales in the UK go up thirty percent. Because of Yotam, it’s much easier to find the spice sumac in many stores.
TWILLEY: Preserved lemons and sumac—they’re not traditional British or American ingredients. And, to be honest, even though Nigella is trying to make it worth your while to buy a jar of preserved lemons, not everyone who buys and reads these cookbooks is actually cooking with all these exotic ingredients.
OTTOLENGHI: So cookbooks are somewhere between a manual and a novel—I mean, I think, good cookbooks, at least for me. Which means that they instruct you but also at the same time they also take you somewhere.
GRABER: That’s part of the reason people read cookbooks. It’s not just a list and what to do with it. They’re often gorgeous and compelling and make you imagine all the things you could create and enjoy.
ELIAS: They’re definitely fantasy fiction, I think. And that that aspect of them—which people who have them don’t seem to recognize, right? They always tell me I have a million cookbooks but I don’t use any of them. And I always say well, like, of course you use them, right? They’re in your house.
TWILLEY: Megan’s point is that you can use a cookbook without ever cooking from it. A recipe is basically a pretend meal. And a cookbook full of recipes—that can add up to a vacation’s worth of pretend meals. Or even a whole different pretend life.
OTTOLENGHI: They take you somewhere and they tell you a story or tell you the story of how a thing came to be and how it works and I think good cookbooks give some kind of idea about the social context and historical context of what you eat. So I remember being fascinated, wanting to learn about the field but also feeling like I’ve been taken somewhere—I’ve been taken on a trip somewhere really, really exciting. And that was one of my first experiences with cookbooks, that sense of being transported.
GRABER: For Nigella, a cookbook’s ability to transport you goes beyond the place, it’s the connection and companionship she feels with the author.
LAWSON: I don’t want just the bare formula. It’s got to be more than that. What I want to know when I read a book is—I need to feel I’m with someone I want to hang out with. I trust their palate. I like their views.
TWILLEY: Which is a big part of why Cynthia and I were so excited to talk to Yotam and Nigella. But cookbooks haven’t always been these lavishly illustrated beautiful things that Nigella and Yotam are famous for. Particularly in the past, cookbooks might have had one or two or even no illustrations at all.
GRABER: In the really old cookbooks, these would have been woodcuts or etchings. Then printing technology changed. Color plates appeared in the late 1800s.
ELIAS: So then the really, really big shift is around 1980, when you start to see just just food pictures, right? Like, the naked radish you know becomes this beautiful picture. And lots of vegetables. This is like the big turn to vegetables. And that all has to do both with the new interest in freshness. But also it has to do with printing. So it becomes possible to print really beautiful color-saturated pictures that don’t lose their color over time. So if you look at a cookbook from 1980, it probably still looks delicious. If you look at a cookbook from 1950, it does not look delicious at all. The color’s really faded so that everything is gray.
TWILLEY: But, even since the 1980s, cookbook photography has ramped way up. There are luscious photographs of a single dewy fig. There are high-tech cutaways of popcorn popping. There are carefree dinner parties on the patio with lots of delicious-looking sharing plates and attractive people. We live in the era of food porn.
ELIAS: So food styling is a profession, food photography is a profession. Everybody does it, everybody expects to see something beautiful. Because most people can figure out how to take a good picture on Instagram. So the bar is really raised.
GRABER: Not only can some people figure out how to take a good picture on Instagram, there are a lot of people who also think they know how to write a good recipe and then post it online. There are lots of great recipes online for free, both from amateur and professional food writers. And for most of us, frankly, the internet is the first place we look for recipes
NOTAKER: And I admit that I sometimes look up internet to have a quick idea about how I should cook something. It’s so easy. I talk to so many people, they look up the internet. At the same time, cookbooks are sold more than ever. I know that many people read cookbooks even if they don’t make the recipes from them. People give cookbooks as gifts to friends. And it seems to me that many objects have value as a physical object and cookbooks may be one of them.
TWILLEY: But there are literally 90 zillion recipes online. Magazines and newspapers publish more recipes than you could hope to cook in a lifetime, every month. So does the cookbook have a future? Are Yotam and Nigella worried?
GRABER: Yotam thinks that the cookbook landscape is shifting really quickly.
OTTOLENGHI: And I don’t know exactly where it’s heading. It used to be the case that as a cookbook author or as someone that writes in newspapers and magazines, you ended up being like the voice of authority. I think breaking down that barrier helps because it means that the conversation is a bit more constructive and it’s more open and more comes up. The downside I find is that it becomes a little bit same-y. So the novelty of the cookbook or the special moment where you get a cookbook and open it and have a whole world open up to you, a bit like I had when I was cooking from Julia Child’s books—that doesn’t happen so much anymore. And I think that’s a shame. But I think what will happen eventually—my thought, is that books will become more and more kind of a beautiful curated object.
TWILLEY: Nigella is even more optimistic, in some ways.
LAWSON: I love the food internet. I like the way that this sort of high-tech entity, if you like, is really like the village square, with people swapping recipes. So I think that’s a good thing. In terms of doing quick research, you can find out an awful lot. But it always interests me that however successful some food blogger or Instagrammer or whatever it is might be with their millions and millions of people following them, they always want to bring out a cookbook. There is something about a cookbook that lives in a different way. You know, I do look up recipes online and I love it quite compulsively. But that never replaces the relationship you have as a reader with the writer’s voice in a cookbook.
GRABER: And another really important benefit of the way that the internet is feeding the popularity of cookbooks is that some of the new voices are ones that have been left out in the past. For instance, in America, African-American cooking was co-opted by white authors. Native American cuisine was ignored entirely and Native ingredients were used in more European-style dishes again by white authors. But now more and more African-American and Native American cookbook writers are making their own voices heard.
TWILLEY: Not always as easily as they should be, but still. And at least for now, the cookbook industry is not slowing down. Globally, something like twenty-four thousand new cookbooks are published each year, which makes my little collection—even Nigella’s outrageous one—seem kind of like a drop in the ocean.
LAWSON: I think we still want stories. We want stories and we want sustenance. And there you have it. That’s the cookbook.
GRABER: Insanely huge thanks this episode to Nigella Lawson and Yotam Ottolenghi. If it’s not clear, we’re huge fans. Their latest books are Sweet—that’s Yotam’s—and At My Table—that’s Nigella’s. We’ll have links to those books and more on our website, gastropod.com. We are also going to be putting together a special episode with more of Yotam and Nigella for Stitcher premium subscribers. We’ll let you know when that’s out. You can go to stitcherpremium.com/gastropod, and you get the first month free.
TWILLEY: And we’ve saved a snippet more of Nigella for the very end, so listen on. But we also want to thank Henry Notaker, whose new book is called A History of Cookbooks, and Megan Elias, who is the author of Food on the Page. Again, links on our website.
GRABER: Now back to Nigella.
LAWSON: I was listening to the mustard one the other day and I was getting very anxious for a long time that English mustard hadn’t been talked about. Because strictly speaking, as you said, you know, French’s is not really mustard.
TWILLEY: Exactly. No. No. America has no real mustard. Sadly.
GRABER: I’m OK, I’m comfortable saying that with you, too. I agree.
LAWSON: No, I love what you do. Congratulations.
GRABER: Thank you. Thank you. We have a lot of fun.
TWILLEY: Yep, we’ll be playing that one in our heads for a while…