Cookbooks or cookery books are so much more than collections of recipes. They are a mirror into peoples’ most intimate lives: the way they use food as nourishment of both body and soul. Cookbooks also reflect a society’s economic condition, its dietary restrictions governed by religion and even political and racial attitudes. For many women cookbooks served as a diary where favorite recipes were recorded next to the growth charts of children; where teardrops fell over personal losses; where simple additions reflected the meager balances in old tin cans; where prayers for better days competed with thanks for past rewards.
Crude recordings of recipes have been discovered in ancient caves and old egyptian and greek text. The personal nature of nourishment is also reflected through the ages in historical writings and in fiction. Ancient manuscripts and uncovered writings across the globe show that cookbooks were treasured by women and passed down lovingly to daughters. Inside the pages of these well worn diaries rested their secret hopes and expectations as well as their quiet rebellion.
In many of the handwritten cookbooks and later even the commercially published ones, recipes for food were complimented with recipes for medicinal cures and pomades. This was a natural compilations of products which shared the same source materials. Observations of the effects of certain herbs or roots on the body’s wellbeing led to the creation of special concoctions. Nourishing and healing went hand in hand and the most immediate remedies were found in the kitchen.
My most treasured cookbook belonged to my grandmother Dora. It is well worn with personal additions or comments covering every page. Written in Hungarian more than a century ago, it reflects the excesses of the Hapsburg kitchen. Most recipes are not practical for today’s fast paced life, nor would they please our palate, however the lists of required ingredients such as game, fattened geese and pigs, offer a peak into the economic status of the elite. These cookbooks were used to instruct the staff and rarely did my grandmother do more than taste and approve. Even as she liked being in the kitchen, it was to supervise and direct the chopping, peeling, boiling or frying of ingredients. In later years as times changed she would become more hands on an when scarcity during the wars became an issue, her creativity is reflected in the substitution of ingredients penciled on the side of a recipe.
For me, reading old cookbooks serves as a journey into a not so distant past when women spent their lives in the kitchen, mostly out of necessity. I cook because we have to eat and it relaxes me, but I also do it as an act of homage to all those women who came before me. Today we argue about the insensitivity and discrimination that kept women at home and yes, I am a child of the sixties, a time of liberation, but I believe that the ability to create healthy home cooked meals is a great loss to our society. A family gathered around the table sharing in the fruit of their labor as well as in their daily intrepidations, is a happy family.