Friday, 10 July 2009


“I refuse to believe that trading recipes is silly. Tuna fish casserole is at least as real as corporate stock.” - Barbara Grizzuti Harrison

Do you own a recipe book? I don’t mean the printed variety, rather, the good old-fashioned handwritten one, where favourite recipes have been added gradually and lovingly. A recipe book with a personal touch. One perhaps that you have inherited from your mother or grandmother? A beloved aunt, maybe? Surely everyone must have one of those kinds of recipe books. Once upon a time of course they were the only recipe books around and they included recipes not only for food, but also recipes for medicines and beauty aids, cosmetics and make-up.

Recipes and recipe books were the glue that bound social networking within families in the past. The circulation of recipes and collections of them in books lubricated the wheels of friendship and united families. They were the means whereby relationships were cemented and maintained the connections between the generations. How many old family recipes are still jealously guarded today lest an outsider get hold of them? Indeed, some of these old recipes still form the basis of many a large and profitable business, for example, Tabasco sauce…

With the advent of printing, recipe books became one of the staples of the industry, together with bibles and other religious books. People’s fascination with food and the way to prepare it assured these early printers of a steady market for their wares. Rather than the plethora of cookbooks that we see today, in the past they were few and famous. Mrs Beeton, for example, published her renowned one in 1861: “The Book of Household Management Comprising information for the Mistress, Housekeeper, Cook, Kitchen-Maid, Butler, Footman, Coachman, Valet, Upper and Under House-Maids, Lady’s-Maid, Maid-of-all-Work, Laundry-Maid, Nurse and Nurse-Maid, Monthly Wet and Sick Nurses, etc. etc.—also Sanitary, Medical, & Legal Memoranda: with a History of the Origin, Properties, and Uses of all Things Connected with Home Life and Comfort.”

As over 900 of the 1,112 pages of the Beeton book, contained recipes, the popular name for the volume is Mrs Beeton's Cookbook. Most of the recipes were illustrated with coloured engravings, and it was the first book to show recipes in the format that is still used today. Many of the recipes were plagiarised from earlier writers, but this was common practice and the Beetons never claimed that the book's contents were original. After all, we all do this with recipes and each cook will add his or her own personal touch.

Older cookbooks are delightful to read as they are very quaint and sometimes use ingredients that are quite outlandish or outright bizarre. Here is a recipe from Anne Fanshawe’s recipe book of about 1664. It is believed to be the first recipe for ice cream in English:

“To make Icy Cream

Take three pints of the best cream, boyle it with a blade of Mace, or else perfume it with orang flowerwater or Ambergreece, sweeten the cream with sugar, let it stand till it is Quite cold, then put it into Boxes, either of Silver or tinn, then take Ice chopped into small peeces and putt it into a tub and set the Boxes in the ice covering them all over, and let them stand in the Ice two hours, and the Cream Will come to be Ice in the Boxes, then turne them out into a salver with some of the same Seasoned Cream, so serve it up at the Table.”

What is the oldest recipe you have? Where did you find, who gave it to you? Is it a good one?

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