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Cookbook Trouble : Who's to Blame?

August 04, 1994|ANNE MENDELSON | Mendelson is currently at work on a history of "The Joy of Cooking." and

Overheard years ago in the cookbook section of a large bookstore: "If you make any recipe from a cookbook and it doesn't work, they should give you your money back."

I have to sympathize with this disgruntled browser (a man, by the way, and one who seemed pretty handy with a categorical imperative). Who hasn't stood in front of some kitchen disaster and cursed the recipe? But I also have to say that I bet he was a victim of some badly skewed ideas about what recipes can and can't do.

Anyone who pays attention to friends' experiences knows that the same recipe may come out like a mess or a masterpiece at the hands of two different people, both absolutely convinced that they followed every direction to the letter. The number of hidden banana peels involved is incredible.

Furthermore, every few decades (or years) the experts in the field sharply lower their estimates of what normally intelligent men and women know about cooking. It's not surprising that the kind of kitchen instruction most people would consider adequate has undergone wild shifts in the two centuries of American cookbooks--or even within the memory of cooks born 60 or 70 years ago.

The oldest American recipes mirror an age when few cooks got their knowledge from reading. Most of the formulas in Amelia Simmons' 1796 "American Cookery," a work liberally plagiarized from an earlier work by the English author Susannah Carter, were far less detailed than this entry:

"To preserve Cherries. Take two pounds of cherries, one pound and a half of sugar, half a pint of fair water, melt some sugar in it; when it is melted, put in your other sugar and your cherries; then boil them softly, till all the sugar be melted; then boil them fast, and skim them; take them off two or three times and shake them, and put them on again, and let them boil fast; and when they are of a good color, and the sirrup will stand, they are boiled enough."


The things left out by Susannah Carter and her American cribber--stoning or not stoning the cherries, how large a pan to use, how much sugar to add earlier or later--needed no telling. Even today a cook with experience in preserving could follow the idea. Recipe-writers of the Carter-Simmons era didn't provide detailed blueprints but handy memos summarizing what a woman was likely to have absorbed already.

How did she absorb it? Mostly from having spent much time since toddlerhood in a kitchen where several women, often both servants and mistresses, split up the labor of meal-making--which was too much for a single pair of hands until later advances in household technology.

In 1796, women didn't automatically judge a cookbook by how well it "covered basics." The basics could fend for themselves, and the most common dishes often didn't make it into print. (This leads to awful misconceptions about nobody eating certain dishes at a particular time because they don't happen to show up in printed recipes.) People were more likely to go to a cookbook for what they couldn't find or afford every day.

Methods of recipe-writing would eventually change--but only when people's lives changed. The main causes were the spread of literacy (along with cheaper paper) and upheavals in household organization after domestic servants began following the American dream to independent employment. A woman running a middle-class household was likely to be more isolated in it, and to rely on the printed word, rather than live examples, for a general idea of what she was supposed to be doing.

In other words, more cookbooks full of supposedly infallible recipes did not mean an improved public knowledge of cooking. Domestic how-to books became really necessary only when the woman of the house became justifiably convinced of her ignorance.

This growing vacuum provided a raison d'etre for female "service" journalists and writers of household manuals--professions hardly known until the 1830s or '40s. It also spurred formal courses in cooking, a la algebra or French.

A familiar lobbyists' theme of the post-Civil War period was the need to do something about the terrible state of American food by adding cooking classes to school curricula. In 1879, the then-Commissioner of Education passed on to his boss, Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz, a plea to encourage "training schools of cookery" gotten up by persons concerned about "the extent and serious character of the evils caused by bad cookery." It was not a trivial bit of moralizing but a response to the miseries of the 1873 to 1878 economic slump, when well-meaning philanthropists had seen hungry families sit down to meals worse than mere poverty could have created.

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