A 600-Year History of Cookbooks as Status Symbols

Tracing the path from 15th-century royal kitchens to 1992’s The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous Cookbook and beyond

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Early cookbooks were fit for kings. In the 15th and 16th centuries in Western Europe, the oldest published recipe collections emanated from the palaces of monarchs, princes, and grandes señores. At this time, no one was trying to build a business out of selling cookbooks. Instead, they were often created within a court culture, partly intended as aidés-memoire for chief stewards and partly for royalty to demonstrate the luxury of their banquets.

Gradually, technology broadened cookbooks’ intended audiences. The introduction and spread of modern printing in the 15th century eventually made it viable to think beyond the wealthiest customer bases. During the following centuries, publishers began putting out cookbooks (and books of all sorts) with less well-off readers in mind. Sometimes, this targeting was made explicit, as was the case with Plain Cookery for the Working Classes, published in England in 1847. In time, as new ideas formed about equality, democracy, and social stratification, presenting certain books as best suited for rich or for poor was no longer considered effective marketing, but culinary literature nonetheless has borne class markers for as long as it has existed.

Publishers know this well, as I explain in my recent book, A History of Cookbooks: From Kitchen to Page Over Seven Centuries. When printing technology granted them the ability to reach a broader audience, they began putting out cookbooks with gentlemen and their housewives in mind, not just kings and princes. The “housewives” found in the titles of English cookbooks and household books in the 17th century—for example Gervase Markham’s 1615 text The English Housewife—were not thrifty suburban mothers of three with a husband in an office in town. They were ladies or gentlewomen of the landed gentry who had great responsibilities at their estate, where they directed not only cooking, brewing, and baking, but the production of butter and cheese, the preservation of wines, the dyeing of textiles, and the management of medicines for the whole household, servants included.

But during the 18th century, publishers set their sights on the urban bourgeoisie, as the richer segments of the emerging middle classes had ambitions to imitate the lifestyle of the elite. Publishers printed special works to satisfy these aspirations. In Germany and England many of the books were written by women, who better than men saw what was needed in households with fewer servants, and also had a grasp of the subject that made it possible to simplify the dishes with less expensive ingredients, but at the same time gave a more detailed and understandable description of the preparation. One example is Martha Bradley, who in 1756’s The British Housewife took recipes from earlier books but reworked them in her own personal style.

This development, though, doesn’t mean that signaling of rank and status disappeared from cookbooks—particularly not in pre-revolutionary France, where these old distinctions are best documented. Several authors found it necessary to emphasize that when they wrote for the bourgeoisie, they were not interested in the lower ranks of this class, what the cookbook writer François Massialot called “le dernier bourgeois.” Certain cuts of meat and simple roots and vegetables were not worth mentioning in their opinion, so instead they concentrated on “noble” foods. They also knew that the broader public was not sufficiently literate to enjoy their books, and probably did not have room in their budgets for the purchase of elegant published works.

Meanwhile, a clear line also had to be drawn between the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy. This was particularly evident in chapters about game, which was an ingredient that many royals and aristocrats hunted. Game receives very different treatments in two different books by the prolific 18th-century French author Menon. In 1755’s Les Soupers de la Cour (“Court Dinners”) he has a long chapter with detailed recipes for red deer, roe deer, and wild boar. In his La cuisinière bourgeoise (“The bourgeois cook”), published nine years earlier, however, these animals are only mentioned in a general introduction and no recipes are given.

The difficulty for readers of the latter book to obtain such a high-class ingredient led early on to experiments and the development of ersatz dishes; meat from domestic animals was prepared in ways that made it look (and taste) like game. Some recipes even recommended that cooks use coal to darken the bristle of a pig, in order to make it look as if it came from a wild boar. In the European middle classes of the 19th century, popular recipes recommended rolling up slices of veal and seasoning them like birds. The great Italian cookbook writer Pellegrino Artusi called them tordi finti (mock thrushes), and Dobromila Rettigová, the author of an 1826 Czech classic named them špaňhelské ptáčky (Spanish birds). Other similar dishes were called “legless birds” and “veal chicken.” But the most successful ersatz dish was Mock Turtle Soup, made with meat from the head and feet of calf, which was reputed to have a consistency and taste similar to turtle meat—a prized ingredient 200 years ago.

During the 19th century, literacy rates shot up, particularly in Northern and Western Europe and the United States, where larger sections of the population gradually reached an income level at which better food was affordable. This created new opportunities for the book industry, and some publishers responded differently than others.

Certain publishers kept the old distinctions, but in addition to labels such as “for the wealthy” and “high class cookery” in England and “vornehme”­ (noble) and “herrschaftliche” (stately) in Germany, they now also offered books for the lower classes. Fifteen Cent Dinners for Working-Men’s Families was published in New York in the late 1870s, and similar books could be found at the same time across Europe. Below “working-men’s families,” in publishers’ eyes, were more marginalized people, for whom books such as The Poor Man’s Larder and Kitchen (Sweden), For Poor Housewives (Norway), and Soyer’s Charitable Cookery; or, the Poor Man’s Regenerator (England) were printed.

Other publishers dropped references to special groups and labeled their books “for all households,” “for all classes,” or “for everybody.” But titles and subtitles were not the only indicators of whom a book was meant for. One thing was the price: Some of the most elegant works, bound in calf, cost 20 to 30 times as much as small booklets. Another distinctive feature was the selection of ingredients. The use of vegetables in two Swedish books from 1896 give an idea of these differences. Husmanskost, a title that refers to solid everyday fare, mainly contained recipes using roots and pulses, but also cabbage, cauliflower, spinach, asparagus, and parsley. The elegant and expensive Kok-konsten som veteskap och konst (Cuisine as science and art) brought on the other hand also recipes calling for artichokes, tomatoes, olives, bell peppers, lettuce, celery, rhubarb, and broccoli, many of them very exclusive products at that time.

By the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century there were few cookbooks that specified which social groups they were meant for. This does not mean that singling out certain groups of readers was a problem, per se. Catholics had cookbooks with fasting dishes, Jews with rules for kosher dishes, and vegetarians with recipes for meatless dishes. But to distinguish between rich and poor people was another matter. Even if the differences between the classes still existed, there was more discussion about how poverty could be reduced and more people given a decent life. Whatever the reasons were, an important change in perceptions of status took place, as illustrated neatly by the renaming of a single recipe: In an 1897 Norwegian cookbook, one dish was called “Poor Man’s Roast Goose.” Since goose was an expensive food, the recipe suggested using the more cheaply available liver, larded and prepared as roast goose. In the 1911 edition of the book, however, the dish was simply called “Liver Roasted as Fowl.”

Class distinctions in cookbooks—however subtle—should not be read as snobbery on the part of authors and publishers, but rather as marketing savvy. Authors such as Alexis Soyer in England and Hanna Winsnes in Norway published cookbooks for all social classes and wanted to give their best advice to each of them. These writers also searched for new didactic methods, Soyer by using the epistolary form made popular through Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel Pamela, and Winsnes with a systematic progression from porridge and bread to more complicated dishes.

Beginning in the 18th century and into the 19th, authors strove for greater precision when describing quantities of ingredients, cooking time, and temperature. (For centuries exact instruction had been provided only sporadically—more common were expressions such as “a handful,” “over low fire,” or “boil until finished.”) In Scotland, England, Germany, and the United States, books grounded more in science were published, many of them written by members of a new professional group, teachers in cooking schools and home-economics courses, such as Fannie Farmer in Boston. These pioneers became an inspiration for many of the successful cookbook writers of the 20th century, who offered important lessons for the housewives in the expanding middle classes in Europe and the United States.

Several of these authors and the housewives they were writing for had to come up with cheap dishes during the wars and hard times that dominated long periods of the first half of the 20th century. It was necessary to find alternatives to foods that were no longer within most people’s budgets, and identify new and creative ways to use leftovers, as Irma Rombauer did in The Joy of Cooking, originally published during the Depression. In many European countries, food rationing introduced during World War II lasted into the 1950s, but after that time the situation improved rapidly, particularly in Western Europe (and even more in the United States, where rationing ended in 1946).

The production of cookbooks increased during the second half of the 20th century, an era of unprecedented food abundance. Cooking instruction began to appear on TV, bringing new ideas to a broader part of the population. One of the most famous TV cooks was Julia Child, best known for bringing classic French cuisine to the United States. In his book The Craftsman, the sociologist Richard Sennett points to Child as a unique example of someone who, in books and on the screen, managed to identify with the inexperienced cook when confronted with a difficult technical operation. “Her story is structured around empathy for the cook; she focuses on the human protagonist,” Sennett wrote.

Despite this democratization, class and status markers were (and are) certainly legible in cookbook titles. Fine food in books “for banquets” gives very different associations than cheaper food in books “for everyday use.” It seems the increasing disparities between rich and poor in Western countries have sharpened these distinctions once again. Now and in recent decades there have been cookbooks just as targeted as ones published several hundred years ago. Publishers can be quite specific, as in the 2015 cookbook Good and Cheap, which offers recipes “for people with very tight budgets, particularly those on SNAP/Food Stamp benefits.” And on the other side there is 1992’s The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous Cookbook: Entertaining Secrets from the Most Extraordinary People in the World.

Given the history of cookbooks, this sort of differentiation is not surprising. But some of the content in present-day cookbooks is. These days, simple recipes that were centuries ago lower-class fare have been brought back; one German cookbook published in 2006 was called Arme-Leute-Essen—Heute Delikatessen (Poor People’s Food—Today’s Delicacies). One might interpret this development as the final chapter of the breakdown of social stratification in cuisine. Instead, though, adopting a simpler, more rustic lifestyle is often a choice available only to those with the time and money to curate their consumption in the first place. Gorgeously photographed cookbooks showcasing peasant food would likely surprise people hundreds of years ago who had nothing else to eat.