02 June 2012

Weekend Cooking: Historical Cooking

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It's been a while since I've given you a look my cookbook collection. Today I'm talking about four books that have a historical bent: Two from the New World and and two from the Old.

Thomas Jefferson's Cook Book by Marie Kimball (University Press of Virgina, 1976) is a slim volume that contains not only an assessment of Jefferson's tastes but a reproduction of a small family cookbook. Apparently there were a number of Jefferson recipe collections made by different family members and in both Europe and at Monticello. Kimball has reprinted a Monticello collection made by Virginia Randolph in the early 1800s and a French collection likely compiled by Jefferson himself.

Although I doubt I'd ever cook from this book, the text is informative and the recipes are fun to read. Kimball notes that Jefferson was the first to introduce vanilla to America and that he imported both olive oil and wine. When he returned to Washington after his time abroad, he particularly missed figs, mustard, anchovies, good vinegar, and Parmesan cheese.

Jane Carson's Colonial Virginia Cookery (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1985) is a well-researched look at recipes, equipment, ingredients and cooking methods. It's beautifully illustrated with pencil drawings by Linda Funk. What makes this book a little different from other historical cookbooks is that Carson did not rework the recipes for a modern kitchen. Instead they are presented as she found them, including spelling and punctuation.

Each cooking method (baking, roasting, stewing, etc.) is explained in terms of what it meant for the colonial cook; for example, baking over a wood fire requires different knowledge and skills than baking in a modern oven. The recipes are accompanied by explanations of the ingredients and vocabulary. Carson includes many delightful contemporary opinions about cooking methods and foodstuffs, including one cook's "distrust of French chefs, who 'beggared' the great families they served"; she believed in more moderately priced substitutions.

Interested in ancient Mediterranean food? Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger's The Classical Cookbook (J. Paul Getty Museum, 1996) explores the dining tables of the ancient Greeks and of the Roman Empire. The book includes color photos of paintings and pottery that have a food theme.

The recipes in this book are translations of a variety of texts dating from roughly 700 B.C.E. to 450 C.E. and have been adapted for the modern cook. Each chapter has a theme; for example, the first chapter is titled "The Homecoming of Odysseus." Dalby and Grainger describe typical foods and cooking methods and then present several period recipes, including (for Odysseus) roast lamb and an olive relish. Another chapter focuses on a Macedonian wedding feast, and another on the food of the upper classes. Hours of great reading!

For food in the Middle Ages, take a look at Maggie Black's The Medieval Cookbook (Thames and Hudson, 1992). Black researched historic recipes, literature, and primary sources when putting together her book, which includes accounts of medieval cooking, farming, and customs. The text is generously illustrated with color plates of paintings, drawings, and wood block prints.

Each chapter has a specific focus, such as Chaucer, the clergy, the court, and Christmas. Recipes begin with a reproduction of the original, which is followed by the modern adaptation. Black includes notes about unusual ingredients and tips, when necessary. The last chapter contains herbal remedies for such common ailments as migraines and colic.


Marg 6/2/12, 6:26 AM  

Last year I went to a historical township and while I was there bought a recipe book from the 1850s. My intention was to do a Weekend Cooking post on it, but that never has happened. It is still here somewhere!

caite 6/2/12, 6:37 AM  

after taking many trips to Williamsburg I must say I would love to have a look at the Jefferson and Colonial Virginia book...

Uniflame 6/2/12, 7:04 AM  

Hmm.. I never really looked at historical cookbooks before. Maybe I should try to find one with historical Dutch recipes :D

(Diane) bookchickdi 6/2/12, 7:15 AM  

What an interesting collection of cookbooks you have. Have you ever been to Bonnie Slotnicks Cookbooks on 10th St. near 7th Ave. in the West Village in NYC?

You would love it there, she has this little store filled floor to ceiling with nothing but cookbooks, lots of them antiques. I took my SIL there and she had a blast.

Hope to see you next week at BEA.

Carol @ Always Thyme to Cook 6/2/12, 7:16 AM  

Terrific collection. I've never really looked at historical cookbooks, I'd love a peek at them!

Beth F 6/2/12, 7:22 AM  

Diane: I *have* been there. It was all I could do not to spend my life savings there. Plus she is so nice.

jama 6/2/12, 7:29 AM  

Historical cookbooks are my weakness. I have the Jefferson one, and would love to see the others. Thanks so much for spotlighting these!

Sandy Nawrot 6/2/12, 7:52 AM  

The couple of times I've been to Williamsburg, I've spent a good deal of time in the kitchen portion of the tours, and I must say, THE FOOD DISGUSTED ME!!! I would have been a waif if I'd lived back then because nothing sounded good. I do find just the idea of the historical aspect fun though...as long as I don't have to sample.

Patty 6/2/12, 8:50 AM  

Although I would probably not like to taste historical recipes (way too fat for my taste), I follow with great interest documentaries on the subject, just so as to understand the customs and traditions of different eras.

Alex 6/2/12, 8:58 AM  

I have gone to a few things where historical cooking was demonstrated and could be sampled, so your post really appealled tome, though I think the medivalist in me would like The Medival Cookbook best.

rhapsodyinbooks 6/2/12, 9:20 AM  

I should look into these. I always like the parts of histories and/or historical fictions when they talk about the food or food prep. And don't forget: you *know* you would love Founding Foodies! :--)

bermudaonion 6/2/12, 9:24 AM  

What fun cookbooks! I bet you could come up with a recipe for just about every mood.

Libby 6/2/12, 9:50 AM  

Yep. I would definitely have hours of fun with your cookbook collection!

The Colonial Williamsburg description made me think about baking using a wood fire. If you think about it it seems daunting. Getting the temperature right. It would take a lot of practice I would think.

JoAnn 6/2/12, 10:07 AM  

Historical cookbooks are a lot of fun, but not always appetizing. When the girls were younger, we cooked our way through several American Girl recipes... with mixed success.

Melanie 6/2/12, 11:10 AM  

These cookbooks look really interesting! Not sure I'd be brave enough to try a recipe, though, but I could spend hours looking at the illustrations.

Fay 6/2/12, 11:14 AM  

I remember with pleasure the 4th of July when my teenaged daughter prepared a dinner from The Thirteen Colonies Cookbook. It was labor-intensive but delicious. That was my first historical cookbook and got me hooked. I do like Mediterranean food, especially Italian, and the classical one looks wonderful.

Gilion at Rose City Reader 6/2/12, 11:34 AM  

What interesting books! The Medieval Cookbook reminds me of a story from the Ruth Reichl book I just read where a chef is excited to try a Medieval recipe for turkey for Thanksgiving. It turns out horrible! Too tough to even carve. They conclude there was a reason the recipe didn't survive the middle ages. :)

Vicki 6/2/12, 12:27 PM  

What a neat group of cookbooks! Very interesting!

Carole 6/2/12, 3:59 PM  

The trouble with cookbooks is they make you hungry! Hi Beth, hope the week has treated you well. I have put in a pork curry and also a link to Food on Friday which was all about pizza. Have a great week.

Beth Hoffman 6/3/12, 11:18 AM  

I have cover lust for Thomas Jefferson's Cook Book!

Trish @ Love, Laughter, Insanity 6/3/12, 3:31 PM  

Hmmm--wonder what the cure for colick is according to the last book. That would have come in handy! ;)

Thomas Jefferson sounds like a fascinating man. Bill Bryson talked a bit about Jefferson's home and eating habits a bit in At Home.

I don't have any historical cookbooks unless you count my 1970s Betty Crocker cookbook. My favorite part about it (well, other than the beloved recipes my mom makes from the book) is the "New Microwave Cooking" section. Ha!

Anonymous,  6/3/12, 9:58 PM  

A huge thank you to Jefferson for the introduction of vanilla...it's one of my favorite flavors.

Margot 6/6/12, 8:45 PM  

I have always enjoyed your posts when you share your fantastic food-book collection. I'm especially interested in the early American cookbooks. I have great respect for those early cooks. Quite some time ago we visited Williamsburg and listened to a short lecture (in one of the old kitchens) about baking an cooking with a wood stove. It seemed to add a lot of work to the job of the cook/baker.

Anonymous,  6/9/12, 3:34 PM  

I collect original publications of old cookbooks, so I find these later publications that file the same suit to be of particular interest. Thank you for sharing a variety of cookbooks that feature some older recipes.

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