Recommend some cookbooks that are also history books.
December 21, 2009 3:32 PM   Subscribe

Recommend some cookbooks that are also history books.

A few months ago, I bought Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World by Lilia Zaouali and have been having a ball making, adapting and interpreting the recipes. However, what makes this ten times more interesting for me is all the colour Ms. Zaouali provides about the history, culture and context of the recorded recipes and the fact that they are not re-written in modern recipe format (but they, of course, translated into English). I'd love to repeat this process for other areas of the world/historical timeframes. Do mefites know of other good, historical cookbooks that have additional cultural and culinary notes about the food?
posted by Kurichina to Food & Drink (27 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
I received Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China as a gift. It features recipes and historical anecdotes about western China and mostly feature traditional recipes from the Kazakh, Tibetan, Mongol and Tuvan peoples.

It isn't exactly a "historical" cookbook, but it has great insights into food unavailable in Western cuisines (or Eastern, for that matter). The dumpling recipes are worth the price of admission.
posted by rabbitsnake at 3:41 PM on December 21, 2009

Although this is not exactly what you're asking for, I think you would enjoy MFK Fisher, who wrote, not cookbooks per se, but books about cooking. They include both actual recipes and historical and cultural context.
posted by bingo at 3:41 PM on December 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

Some friends and I have been wanting to get our hands on a copy of Around the Roman table.
posted by Tchad at 3:51 PM on December 21, 2009

Again, probably not quite what you have in mind, but Colette Rossant's memoir, Apricots on the Nile is about her WWII childhood in Egypt and the food that they ate.

My general suggestion is to go to an academic library and hit the area that has cookbooks and history of food. I believe that it is the TX area. I don't have access to a good academic library these days, but when I did, I remember there being a reasonable number of books on this subject.
posted by sciencegeek at 3:54 PM on December 21, 2009

A book that does this for the U.S. is The Brooklyn Cookbook.
posted by gudrun at 4:00 PM on December 21, 2009

This is also medieval, but The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy is a great book, with lots of recipe and ingredient origins and some general history of cooking.
posted by cacophony at 4:01 PM on December 21, 2009

Square Meals by Jane and Michael Stern is a great resource if you have any interest in the eating habits of the United States during the first half of the last century.
posted by chez shoes at 4:35 PM on December 21, 2009

Dear Francesca is the story of two Italian-Scottish families, and the food they ate from I suspect the 1850s to the present day. It's beautifully written, and every one of the recipes I've used has been a winner (especially the butter sugo). It's one of the few cookbooks my mother and I like so much that we each have our own copy.
posted by featherboa at 5:00 PM on December 21, 2009

This book isn't just for kids - The Little House Cookbook is an amazing resource for American food in the 19th century. The notes are very good - it takes a complex subject (capturing a period in American cookery when hearthside, open-flame, and stovetop cooking were blending into each other at the same time as canned foods and rail transportation were coming into ascendance) and makes it very accessible. It talks about how different foodstuffs are today, how different cooking methods compare, describes where food came from and how it got there, incorporates lots of cultural/social notes, etc.

Elizabeth David's English Bread and Yeast Cookery is full of fun essays and historical recipes that call for outmoded units of measure, with American "translations".
posted by peachfuzz at 5:02 PM on December 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

American Food by Evan Jones combines discussion of food in American history with some excellent recipes.
posted by maurice at 5:06 PM on December 21, 2009

Count my vote for "The Little House Cookbook", which I own and actually use on occasion! I also own "The Medieval Cookbook" by Maggie Black, which is a cookbook from a specifically British perspective.
posted by LN at 7:29 PM on December 21, 2009

You may enjoy:

"The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York" by Claudia Roden;

"Food and Cooking in Roman Britain: History and Recipes" by Jane Renfrew (this is actually part of a series of books on the history of English food including, Victorian cooking, Tudor cooking, and Georgian cooking).

or, "Taste of Ancient Rome" by Giacosa (in translation).

Good luck!
posted by johnxlibris at 7:30 PM on December 21, 2009

Thanks for this post. it's helped me to identify a real passion.
In doing my own searches (prompted by this post), I've come across the Online Culinary History Network.
Not what you asked for, but the fact that they are trying to compile listings of culinary texts from throughout history makes it relevant.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 7:34 PM on December 21, 2009

To add, using OCHN in conjunction with Google Books, you find some wonderful things such as The Forme of Cury, a cookbook supposedly compiled in England around 1390AD.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 7:39 PM on December 21, 2009

Great thread!

You might like Food of a Younger Land, edited by Mark Kurlansky (of Cod, Salt, and The Basque History of the World). He collected and edited the first-hand documentation that resulted from a WPA project that was never completed. The original authors gathered regional recipes and interviews, etc. about food traditions. The WPA project intended to combine all the first-hand documentation and edit it into a monograph with a "consistent voice," but Kurlansky says (and I agree) that the primary sources are way more interesting than a monograph would have been -- it's a fascinating snapshot of American food and foodways and culture in the late '40s. It's not strictly a cookbook, but it's really interesting, and you could gather a lot of recipes from it, especially if you are comfortable in the kitchen and don't need step-by-step directions.
posted by librarina at 7:49 PM on December 21, 2009

Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking is not a cookbook, more of an encyclopedia of the kitchen. It has old recipes (roman, medieval, colonial) and a lot of history of ingredients and techniques.
posted by shothotbot at 8:18 PM on December 21, 2009

Yet another thing that isn't quite what you're looking for, but the amazing folks at The Historic American Cookbook Project have digitized and put online both scans and written-out transcripts of a ton of antique/historical American cookbooks. I've been reading through them, and they're pretty great!
posted by ErikaB at 8:20 PM on December 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

Ginormous and sounds very like the book you mention, full of yummy stuff: A Mediterranean Feast.

A literary slant to this one with excerpts from books of the period ('Chaucer's London', 'Johnson's London'), occasionally dry and statistical but I like it: London's Larder. Kind of suffers from the fact that English food historically was pretty horrible, it can be a bit Fear Factor.

Ooooh in googling for this post found this:
Historic Food -- recipes, pictures, all kinds of stuff. I have to sign up for one of those courses!

And be sure to have a look at the BBC's Supersizers Go.. History! series, not officially out for some reason but lots of clips on YouTube.
posted by Erasmouse at 2:52 AM on December 22, 2009

nthing Little House Cookbook
posted by spec80 at 6:58 AM on December 22, 2009

I don't remember where I originally saw this, it may have been on the blue or in another thread, but this list of online historic cookbooks is pretty extensive.
posted by motherly corn at 7:29 AM on December 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

Sephardic Flavors: Jewish Cooking of the Mediterranean by Joyce Goldstein is great. It has a long opening chapter about the history of the Sephardic Jews, their persecution in Spain and Portugal and their ensuing migration, and how it altered their cuisine and made it so unique. She then goes into detail about how holidays are celebrated and from there into recipes including where every single dish comes from, why it has the ingredients it does, its proper Sephardic name, etc. Fascinating stuff.

American Home Cooking by Cheryl and Bill Jamison is similarly detailed about the history of regional cooking in the States. They talk about regional variation within recipes too. It's All American Food by David Rosengarten is similar, but delves into the history much less. His book Taste (one of my favorite food books ever) is similarly as much about the origins and global arguments behind each dish he chooses as the final recipe.

Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome by Apicius has been argued to be the world's earliest cookbook. It is fascinating. This was my immediate reaction to it on my account on LibraryThing:
Food as historical-social documentation is fast becoming one of my favorite subjects to dally in, and this book takes the title. It has been argued as civilization's first real, official "cookbook," and it's completely fascinating. You get a glimpse into the mechanics of the spice trade and migration of ingredients a la Waverly Root's Food Encyclopedia, as well as insight into what the Romans thought would render food safe. It's a fascinating document in the way the Ancient Chinese forensic manual The Washing Away of Wrongs is fascinating--a sort of window into historical and cultural modes of epistemic and moral codification. If you're into this stuff as I am, check it out. Similar food anthropology excavation stuff, albeit in entirely different contexts, comes up in Harvard essays deconstructing post-WWII Betty Crocker cookbooks, and museum entries on pioneer cookbooks, etc. I just totally get off on this sort of thing.
Elizabeth David, England's answer to Julia Child, has some fascinating accounts in her cookbooks and other food writing. Not nakedly historical per se, but you can map the maturation of British kitchen trends--globally influenced cuisine--by following her own personal account (stood to inherit land in England, decided for a life of adventure instead on a boat to the Mediterranean with her lover, came back with a new-found love of spices). She really is a lot like Julia Child, with her personal kitchen awakening as sort of synecdoche for her country's thanks in part to her...

Judith Jones has a book out called The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food which includes recipes and accounts of the cooking revolution she helped create by nurturing people like Julia Child, Marcella Hazan, Edna Lewis, Madhur Jaffrey, etc.

Food: A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present by Albert Sonnenfeld

For food and cookbooks that serve as first-hand accounts and documents of particular historic time periods, the following are excellent:

The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook for the lost generation's expatriate, "wartime in Europe" experience.

The Taste of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis, about the recipes, seasonal celebrations, and general community of Freetown, a farm town of freed slaves.

How to Cook a Wolf by M.F.K. Fisher, about depression-era survival in the kitchen.

And not cookbooks, but there's a whole subgenre of food writing about this stuff. Salt was pretty popular a few years ago, and I know some press has been releasing one-dish histories for a while on hamburgers, one on pancakes, etc...
posted by ifjuly at 9:05 AM on December 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

And I forgot: someone did a book called America Eats!: On the Road with the WPA which is a pretty important slice of US food history.
posted by ifjuly at 9:06 AM on December 22, 2009

I always do this, forget everything in pieces: aaand, not a cookbook, but infamous New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling's Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris is an excellent firsthand account of bygone French bistro culture.
posted by ifjuly at 9:14 AM on December 22, 2009

The Feeding American database linked above is amazing.

For U.S. cookery, I recommend:

Anything by William Woys Weaver. My favorites are Sauerkraut Yankees and The Christmas Cook.

Karen Hess is an amazing food historian who supplies great historical commentary to her cookbook facsimilies. I like Carolina Rice Kitchen and Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery.

The editor of the now defunct Food History News (sigh), Sandra Oliver, also published some neat historic cookbooks. Check out Saltwater Foodways.

And I'm frequently amazed by the Food Timeline--mainly a reference but it does cite a lot of recipes.
posted by Tall Telephone Pea at 10:49 AM on December 22, 2009

Response by poster: Wow! I've got a veritable cornucopia here! I'm really looking forward to trying a bunch of these! Keep them coming!
posted by Kurichina at 2:57 PM on December 22, 2009

Junior's Cookbook, which also teaches you a brief history of Brooklyn.

The Mafia Cookbook, which is full of anecdotes about "The Life". I actually don't like a lot of the recipes - the author relies on adding Accent (MSG) to many of his dishes, in order to boost the flavor of his dishes.
posted by Citrus at 8:21 AM on December 23, 2009

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