What’s Cooking?

September 1, 2020

Bisquick coverHungry? Distributed Proofreaders volunteers have contributed over 225 cookbooks to Project Gutenberg, with recipes ranging over many centuries, many regions, and many styles. So keen is the interest that a Cookbook Lovers Team was recently formed for DP volunteers to break bread together, as it were, and talk about working on cookbook projects past, present, and future.

Among the oldest surviving cookbooks from antiquity is Apicius de re coquinaria (Apicius on Cooking). If your Latin is rusty, Project Gutenberg also has an English version, Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome, with fascinating notes on the work’s provenance and history. The recipes are attributed to a 1st-Century Roman gourmet, Marcus Gavius Apicius. Much like a modern cookbook, it’s organized in sections relating to different types of foods – including exotic poultry from far-flung corners of the Roman Empire, like flamingo or parrot. There are also helpful hints, like disguising a “goatish smell” emanating from game birds that are a tad too aged with herbs, spices, vinegar, and other aromatics.

The French are famous for their haute cuisine, which goes much farther back than its 19th-Century heyday. Le viandier de Taillevent, a collection of recipes from medieval manuscripts, dates back to 14th Century. The eponymous author, whose real name was Guillaume Tirel, served as chef to Philip VI of France. His observations on the use of spices, the creation of sauces, and the presentation of dishes (like embellishing roast meats with gold leaf) are all still key to French cuisine today.

Not to be outdone, the English had their own medieval cookbook, The Forme of Cury. Compiled around 1390 by “the Master-Cooks of King Richard II,” it is the earliest known recipe collection in English. It contains common dishes like roasted meats, as well as special dishes fit for a royal banquet. It also incorporates expensive rarities for the time, like spices and sugar.

Jumping ahead to the 17th Century, we find a comparative explosion of cookbooks. Just as the ancient Romans flavored their cuisine with a dollop of imperialism, so, too, did the European nations who explored even farther-flung corners of the world, acquiring exotic foods and flavorings. Spices and sugar were still expensive, but more readily available, and seem to be incorporated, along with some odd ingredients, into as many recipes as possible. One example is The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight Opened, a 1669 cookbook compiled by a servant of the learned and adventurous Sir Kenelm Digby. Here’s a recipe for a black (or blood) pudding:

Take three pints of Cream, and boil it with a Nutmeg quartered, three or four leaves of large Mace, and a stick of Cinnamon. Then take half a pound of Almonds, beat them and strain them with the Cream. Then take a few fine Herbs, beat them and strain them to the Cream, which came from the Almonds. Then take two or three spoonfuls (or more) of Chickens blood; and two or three spoonfuls of grated-bread, and the Marrow of six or seven bones, with Sugar and Salt, and a little Rose-water. Mix all together, and fill your Puddings. You may put in eight or ten Eggs, with the whites of two well-beaten. Put in some Musk or Ambergreece.

That last ingredient is ambergris, a waxy substance found in the digestive system of a whale and, like musk, mainly used in perfumery. Its chief merit in a dish had to have been more to add to its impressiveness than to enhance its flavor.

The 19th Century brought a wealth of cookbooks designed for the home cook of middle-class means. The best-known of these is Isabella Beeton‘s Book of Household Management, first published in book form in 1861. It is not just a cookbook, but also a comprehensive guide to managing a Victorian household, still being reprinted today. Its most memorable recipe has to be the one for turtle soup that begins: “To make this soup with less difficulty, cut off the head of the turtle the preceding day.”

Specialty cookbooks gained great popularity in the 20th Century. The First World War brought us Foods That Will Win the War. The Complete Book of Cheese tells us everything we need to know about, well, cheese, including a humorous riff on “rarebit” vs. “rabbit.” There are even cookbooks targeted at single men, like 1922’s The Stag Cook Book, and for suffragist women, like 1915’s The Suffrage Cook Book. The latter has this recipe among the real ones:

Pie for a Suffragist’s Doubting Husband

1 qt. milk human kindness
8 reasons:
War
White Slavery
Child Labor
8,000,000 Working Women
Bad Roads
Poisonous Water
Impure Food

Mix the crust with tact and velvet gloves, using no sarcasm, especially with the upper crust. Upper crusts must be handled with extreme care for they quickly sour if manipulated roughly.

Food manufacturers also got into the cookbook game. Spices take center stage in McCormick & Company’s 1915 recipe booklet, aptly titled Spices, posted to Project Gutenberg just last month. And American cultural icon Betty Crocker (a fiction of General Mills) gives us 157 easy recipes in her Bisquick Cook Book of 1956 – you can make pancakes for 25 people with just three ingredients!

This is just a tiny sampling of the tasty delights to be found at Project Gutenberg. Take a look at the Cookbooks and Cooking Bookshelf, with its many culinary contributions from Distributed Proofreaders volunteers, and find out what’s cooking.

This post was contributed by Linda Cantoni, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer and devoted amateur cook.


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