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According to Henry Notaker, journalist and author of A History of Cookbooks: From Kitchen to Page Over Seven Centuries, the first cookbook that archaeologists have discovered is 3,700 years old. It consists of 35 recipes written on clay tablets, and its recipes are thought to have been intended for gods rather than humans. Still, it demonstrates that humans have been collecting cooking instructions for millennia. A few things have remained the same for much of the cookbook’s history: They are still anthologies of imaginary meals, often fueled more by aspiration and desire than the reality of what’s for dinner, and they still promise an almost alchemical transformation of raw ingredients into status and well-being.

Others aspects of today’s cookbooks are much more recent. Such seemingly essential formatting elements as a separate ingredients list only became standard relatively recently. Meanwhile, the content, authorship, and user base of cookbooks have shifted dramatically in response to technological innovation and social change. Notaker points to the first German recipe to include bananas as a sign that the exotic fruit was becoming available in Europe: Published in 1913, it recommends frying the fruit with marjoram, like a sausage. (The recipe was literally titled “banana sausage.”) Meanwhile, Megan Elias, author of Food on the Page: Cookbooks and American Culture, traces the introduction of refrigeration and mass transportation through the strawberry’s rise to glory in early 20th-century recipes. Finally, in a world where more recipes are published online every day than anyone could hope to cook in a week, we ask: What is the role of the cookbook today—and what might it become in the future? Listen in this episode for more of the surprising story of cookbooks, including men in drag and Norwegian drinking songs, as well as cookbook authors Nigella Lawson and Yotam Ottolenghi’s tales of writing their very first cookbooks.


This post appears courtesy of Gastropod.