A History of Cookbooks: From kitchen to page over seven centuries

Henry Notaker (University of California Press, 2022), 400pp, £23.00 (pbk)
ISBN 978 0 520 39149 9

Reviewed by Sara Donaldson

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This book has taken me a lot longer to review than I would have hoped. In fact, I’m embarrassed by the amount of time it’s taken. But it’s probably not what you think. Time ran away with me. Instead of galloping through it (like Graham Kerr, perhaps), I treated this book like a fine dining experience. If this book were a restaurant, I guarantee it would achieve three Michelin star status.

This is an extremely well researched, fascinating, history of the cookbook. But that’s not all – it goes into depth on cooks, writers and authors. It delves into the question of who exactly the author of a cookbook is … is it the cook who creates the recipes, the scribe who writes the text, the editor who brings it all together or the publisher? Especially in the early days of the cookbook this was not an easy conundrum to solve. Notaker delves into the history from Renaissance Italy to the modern cookery book as we know it, sweeping across Europe and America. The book is set in three parts, which works extremely well in breaking up the narrative: the context of the cook and writer, the nitty gritty of the text and its form (from the origins to the organising of a cookery book and the approaches that have been taken over the years, to the text that accompanies the recipes themselves), and where the books fit in the wider context of the world and their audience.

The cookbook’s place in the literary landscape is discussed, with the context of genre proving fascinating. Anyone who buys their favourite chef’s latest book and reads it cover to cover will understand the complexities of labelling a collection of recipes and observations a mere ‘cookbook’.

Now, this had the potential to be as dry as a piece of toast and as heavy as one of my fruitcakes. There are almost 50 pages of notes and 20 pages of references – this alone could ring alarm bells for those readers who prefer their reading on the lighter side. But I was pleasantly surprised. I’m happy to say that Notaker has written this in an accessible style, which is easily digested in a few sittings or taken as a longer, more relaxed delight. (OK, I’ll stop with the foodie references now.)

There’s no denying that the amount of research that has gone into this book is impressive, and spans centuries. The reference list and notes are a godsend for anyone who fancies deep-diving into their favourite topic, but they never detract from the narrative. It also has a very good index. The way the book is set out also moves away from a heavy academic style and allows the reader to dip in and dip out as their mood takes them. Fancy reading about the Pythagorean diet? No problem, just head to the section on vegetarian cookbooks.

Overall, this is a history book with heart. It’s easy to read, informative and entertaining, yet it is a serious piece of historical research that encompasses all the diverse aspects of cookery writing, its audience, and its place in the book world. It not only spans seven centuries, but it moves through countries and cultural expectations. If you edit cookery books this tome will be enlightening, especially the chapter on recipe form (and will probably make you proud in your small corner of culinary history). However, if you are even slightly interested in cookery or cookery books I think you will enjoy it. I absolutely love it.

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