I am most interested in the style of cookbook that provides the historical context for recipes. I find the history of food as interesting as the recipes themselves. This is especially true if the book covers a period of history over several hundred years. That longer time-frame allows the author to trace the evolution of a local cuisine that results from the confluence of new ingredients, new classes of cooks, advances in cooking technology and the recipe adaptation that results when native cooks relocate; the latter being associated mostly with immigrants.
I have several such cookbooks in my collection. The two I will reference in this article are:
· The Newport Cookbook by Ceil Dyer, published in 1972 by Foremost Publishers, Compton RI.
· Danish Cookbooks by Carol Gold, published in 2007 by University of Washington Press, Seattle WA.
Both books cover the period from the early seventeenth century to the early twentieth century, roughly 300 years. Both supplement the historical discussion with recipes from each corresponding period. In some cases the food or culinary event itself is the history being discussed.
In The Newport Cookbook, Ceil Dyer traces Rhode Island cuisine from early colonial times to modern times; from before the French and Indian wars to World War II. She illustrates her book with historical black and white sketches and photographs. In the earliest years we find the convergence of native American cooking with the English cookery of the settlers. This adaptation was mandatory for the early settlers in order to acclimate to the harsh realities of unreliable, extended supply lines from England, not to mention the problems of obtaining livestock or fresh food from such a great distance. Once farming took hold, local sources became available for some ingredients common to England, and where not, other local produce like turkey, bear and venison were adopted. Seafood was abundant and became a mainstay of the colonial diet, obviously. Corn was an important grain. Dyer includes recipes for Codfish Cakes and Jonny-Cakes in her book. In the latter half of her book, Dyer traces the growth of Newport into a haven for the wealthy (and related social climbers) and describes the endless fancy parties and their elegant multicourse menus.
In Danish Cookbooks, Carol Gold traces the audience, format and recipes of Danish cookbooks from 1616 forward to 1910. She does this in an entertaining and insightful way. Although the book is sequential in its presentation of history, the actual chapters are not ; they are topical. The chapters are a series of courses and intermissions. The first chapter, entitled Appetizers, consists of simply reprinting the title pages of each of seven cookbooks, published in 1616, 1637, 1804, 1867, 1888, 1893 and 1901. The next chapter, First Course, is a discussion of cookbooks as historical source material. I found three things interesting in her overall presentation. First, she traces the changes in the audience for whom the cookbooks were written, from the cooks of the wealthy in the seventeenth century to the middle class housewives that emerge in the nineteenth century. Second, she traces the changes over 300 years to specific recipes, e.g., the recipe for herring changes very little, but there are more obvious changes to the recipe for Frikadeller, a kind of Danish meatball. In the latter, the meat changes from lamb to veal to beef. Third, she includes some very interesting material on the rising importance of potatoes to Danish cookery and ties that adoption to political and nationalistic trends. The potato, introduced to Europe soon after the discovery of the Americas, was not accepted by the Danish as human food until the late eighteenth century. Eventually, the potato became so important that when a Danish national day was assigned to the potato, it was made to coincide with their equivalent of our fourth of July!