By | Tuesday, January 18, 2011 Leave a Comment
At the most recent Key West Literary Seminar there was a panel of cookbook writers who spoke about their process in writing cookbooks. At the end there was a question-and-answer period during which I asked if they thought about who their reader was and what they expected that their reader knew. To frame my question I referred back to Apicius (the world's earliest cookbook) in which many of the recipes consist of nothing but a list of ingredients, others give directions that are very vague. The author of Apicius assumed that the reader would know what to do with those ingredients. Recipes in 19th-century cookbooks would give a set of ingredients and describe the techniques that were significant to that recipe, but would often conclude with something like "cook in the usual way.”

The first person on the panel basically blew off my question. She said that she assumes her reader knows nothing. If I had been in a pushy mood (and if I still had the microphone,) I could have challenged her on that saying, "That's not true at all! You assume that your reader knows quite a bit: You assume that your reader knows how to read! You assume that your reader knows the difference between a pot and pan; that they either own teaspoons and tablespoons, or are at least aware of their relative sizes; that they know what part of a chicken is the "breast" (chickens have breasts???); and so on." In her defense, she had spoken earlier about the great lengths she goes to writing about the recipe, testing her recipes, and providing photographs to make sure the reader understands not only what the recipe should look and taste like, but also what its context is in her culture.

To my great pleasure, Michael Ruhlman, who was on the panel, took up my question saying, "wait, that's an important question." A brief conversation among the panelists did ensue, considering the roles of different kinds of cookbooks aimed at novices versus experts, as well as primers that give the beginner a fundamental set of basic cooking knowledge. One panelist pointed out that in the introduction to Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia states, "stand facing the stove.”

As a culinary historian who spends his time reading old cookbooks, the question of who the reader is, and who the author thought the reader would be, is a vital component of understanding the book. In the earliest days of the publishing of cookbooks it is not clear that the author was writing for someone who was going to cook from the recipes. Those that could read, and those that could afford to purchase books, probably had someone who cooked for them. Those who cooked had neither the ability to read nor access to books. Some of the earliest cookbooks were guides to all domestic tasks, written by a master or gentlemen of the house for his wife or for his head servant. Over time as literacy became more widespread, professional chefs began writing cookbooks for each other. Later still, cookbook authors saw themselves as educators, providing guides for those that they presumed didn't know how to cook it all. Some of the most famous of these books, such as Fannie Farmer’s The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, were written by people who instructed at or had started cooking schools – intending the books to be used either by their students or by those not fortunate enough to be able to attend their school.

My favorite piece of text in any cookbook is found in the introduction to the first edition of The Picayune's Creole Cookbook, dated 1901:
Time was when the question of a Creole Cook Book would have been, as far as New Orleans is concerned, as useless an addition to our local literature as it is now a necessity, for the Creole negro cooks of nearly two hundred years ago, carefully instructed and directed by their white Creole mistresses, who received their inheritance of gastronomic lore from France, where the art of good cooking first had birth, faithfully transmitted their knowledge to their progeny… But the civil war (sic), with its vast upheavals of social conditions, wrought great changes in the household economy of New Orleans, as it did throughout the South; here, as elsewhere, she who had ruled as the mistress of yesterday became her own cook of today… the only remedy for this state of things is for the ladies of the present day to do as their grandmothers did, acquaint themselves thoroughly with the art of cooking in all its important and minutest details, and learn how to properly apply them.

I keep returning to this quote because I think it beautifully illustrates the reasons why cookbooks were written, as well as the reasons why cookbooks weren't written. Those that could read didn't cook, and those that cooked didn't read. Further, it shows so clearly the way changes in social structure, and historical events, change this equation. I have significantly edited the above paragraph for brevity. The original betrays significant racism. This too provides an important window into the worldview that created The Picayune's Creole Cook Book.

I appreciate the fact that Michael Ruhlman picked up on the larger meaning of my question, and I love the fact that culinary historians are being accepted as social scientists that can provide a new view into the motivations of the past.
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