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Review: 'Cookbook Library' marks an amazing evolution in cuisine

The history of food and cooking is told in vivid detail by co-authors Anne Willan, Mark Cherniavsky and Kyri Claflin.

May 06, 2012|By Noelle Carter | Los Angeles Times

Willan also explores the emergence and evolution of the authorial voice. Where it is virtually nonexistent in those early cookbooks meant to demonstrate the power of a patron, later books give rise to the first-person author. Willan writes that "an almost messianic fervor is characteristic of many great cooks no matter what their nationality." As the popularity of named cooks increased, so too did the sales of their books. All of this helps to give rise to the first "celebrity chef," French chef Marie Antonin Carême in the 19thcentury. "The books of Carême, artworks in their own right," she writes, "lead directly to Escoffier and the master chefs of today."

Willan spends a lot of time delving into the art and evolution of recipe writing, noting that the roots of today's recipes began in the medieval kitchen.

It's fascinating that early culinary recipes did not always include specific quantities, though medicinal remedies of the time — which were often included in cookbooks — did. Willan points to none other than Nostradamus as an example; perhaps better known today for his astrological predictions, he was trained as a physician, highly regarded for his success concocting plague cures. His remedies included highly detailed instructions, with a precision Willan notes was far ahead of what was found in recipes by contemporary cooks. Of his recipe for quince jelly, Willan writes, "He wastes no words, but omits no instructions either, remarkable in any era."

As with a lack of quantities, many early recipes were also vague with respect to time. The ominous phrase "cook until done" was often included in a recipe simply because it was so hard to gauge the level of heat when cooking a dish over the embers of an open hearth. Not until the introduction of the cast-iron closed stove in the 19th century could recipe writers begin to give firm estimates for timing.

"The Cookbook Library" is broken into chapters that generally address culinary developments by century, though the chapters also contain shorter essays devoted to singular topics (recipe writing, bread, the rise of gastronomic commentary, etc.). Structured more as an academic work than a cookbook, it does include its share of recipes. The recipes, while representative of a particular time and place, are accessible to and tested for the modern home cook. A wonderfully researched and beautifully illustrated work, "The Cookbook Library" is at once an engaging read and an invaluable resource for anyone passionate about food and food history.

noelle.carter@latimes.com

For sample recipes from "The Cookbook Library," check out Food's Daily Dish blog.

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