Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Origins of Cookery Books

The first attempt to illustrate this branch of the art must have been made by Alexander Neckam in the twelfth century; at least I am not aware of any older treatise in which the furniture and apparatus of a kitchen are set forth.
But it is needless to say that Neckam merely dealt with a theme, which had been familiar many centuries before his time, and compiled his treatise, "De Utensilibus," as Bishop Alfric had his earlier "Colloquy," with an educational, not a culinary, object, and with a view to facilitate the knowledge of Latin among his scholars. It is rather interesting to know that he was a native of St. Albans, where he was born in 1157. He died in 1217, so that the composition of this work of his (one of many) may be referred to the close of the twelfth century. Its value is, in a certain sense, impaired by the almost complete absence of English terms; Latin and (so called) Norman-French being the languages almost exclusively employed in it. But we have good reason indeed to be grateful for such a legacy in any shape, and when we consider the tendency of ways of life to pass unchanged from one generation to another, and when we think how many archaic and (to our apprehension) almost barbarous fashions and forms in domestic management lingered within living recollection, it will not be hazarding much after all to presume that the particulars so casually supplied to us by Neckam have an application alike before and after.

Old Cook. Image from the book Old Cookery Books and Ancient Cuisine

The history and antiquities of the Culinary Art among the Greeks are handled with his usual care and skill by M.J.A. St. John in his "Manners and Customs of Ancient Greece," 1842; and in the _Biblia_ or Hebrew Scriptures we get an indirect insight into the method of cooking from the forms of sacrifice.

The earliest legend which remains to us of Hellenic gastronomy is associated with cannibalism. It is the story of Pelops--an episode almost pre-Homeric, where a certain rudimentary knowledge of dressing flesh, and even of disguising its real nature, is implied in the tale, as it descends to us; and the next in order of times is perhaps the familiar passage in the _Odyssey_, recounting the adventures of Odysseus and his companions in the cave of Polyphemus. Here, again, we are introduced to a rude society of cave-dwellers, who eat human flesh, if not as an habitual diet, yet not only without reluctance, but with relish and enjoyment.

The _Phagetica_ of Ennius, of which fragments remain, seems to be the most ancient treatise of the kind in Roman literature. It is supposed to relate an account of edible fishes; but in a complete state the work may very well have amounted to a general Manual on the subject. In relation even to Homer, the _Phagetica_ is comparatively modern, following the _Odyssey_ at a distance of some six centuries; and in the interval it is extremely likely that anthropophagy had become rarer among the Greeks, and that if they still continued to be cooking animals, they were relinquishing the practice of cooking one another.

Mr. Ferguson, again, has built on Athenaeus and other authorities a highly valuable paper on "The Formation of the Palate," and the late Mr. Coote, in the forty-first volume of "Archaeologia," has a second on the "Cuisine Bourgeoise" of ancient Rome. These two essays, with the "Fairfax Inventories" communicated to the forty-eighth volume of the "Archaeologia" by Mr. Peacock, cover much of the ground which had been scarcely traversed before by any scientific English inquirer. The importance of an insight into the culinary economy of the Romans lies in the obligations under which the more western nations of Europe are to it for nearly all that they at first knew upon the subject. The Romans, on their part, were borrowers in this, as in other, sciences from Greece, where the arts of cookery and medicine were associated, and were studied by physicians of the greatest eminence; and to Greece these mysteries found their way from Oriental sources. But the school of cookery which the Romans introduced into Britain was gradually superseded in large measure by one more agreeable to the climate and physical demands of the people; and the free use of animal food, which was probably never a leading feature in the diet of the Italians as a community, and may be treated as an incidence of imperial luxury, proved not merely innocuous, but actually beneficial to a more northerly race.
Under the name of a Roman epicure, Coelius Apicius, has come down to us what may be accepted as the most ancient European "Book of Cookery." I think that the idea widely entertained as to this work having proceeded from the pen of a man, after whom it was christened, has no more substantial basis than a theory would have that the "Arabian Nights" were composed by Haroun al Raschid. Warner, in the introduction to his "Antiquitates Culinariae," 1791, adduces as a specimen of the rest two receipts from this collection, showing how the Roman cook of the Apician epoch was wont to dress a hog's paunch, and to manufacture sauce for a boiled chicken. Of the three persons who bore the name, it seems to be thought most likely that the one who lived under Trajan was the true godfather of the Culinary Manual.
One of Massinger's characters (Holdfast) in the "City Madam," 1658, is made to charge the gourmets of his time with all the sins of extravagance perpetrated in their most luxurious and fantastic epoch. The object was to amuse the audience; but in England no "court gluttony," much less country Christmas, ever saw buttered eggs which had cost L30, or pies of carps' tongues, or pheasants drenched with ambergris, or sauce for a peacock made of the gravy of three fat wethers, or sucking pigs at twenty marks each.

Excerpts from the book Old Cookery Books and Ancient Cuisine. By William Carew Hazlitt. London. 1902


  1. Hola Myriam:
    Por aquí tengo que perder unas cuantas horas, bueno perder es un decir, porque lo que se gaste en lectura y conocimientos es un placer para el espíritu.

  2. Estimado Apicius, su comentario es un honor para mí, compartiremos estos libros antiguos que tanto placer nos dan.
    Un abrazo,


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