A History of Cookbooks: Recipes in Verse

excerpted from A History of Cookbooks: From Kitchen to Page over Seven Centuries by Henry Notaker

This October we are celebrating National Cookbook Month by exploring the history of the cookbook genre. Check back each Wednesday for a new excerpt from Henry Notaker’s work.

A History of Cookbooks coverDidactic works in verse go back to Hesiod’s Works and Days, written around 700 BCE, and are found in the Middle Ages and the early modern period. Several versions of Regimen sanitatis were circulated in verse starting in the thirteenth century, many of them written in a Latin close to the vernacular Italian. In England, there were John Russel’s treatise on household duties, The Boke of Nurture (ca. 1460), and Thomas Tusser’s A Hundred Good Points of Husbandry (1557). According to the German scholar Bernhard Dietrich Haage, the bound form is used in practical literature as a mnemonic aid, but it might also have been used to give material an aesthetic value.

Several early cookbooks open with a verse, either written by the author to serve as a preface or written by someone else as a recommendation for the book, but there are also examples of rhymed recipes from the fifteenth century in German and English manuscripts. According to the historian Hans Wiswe, however, one of the German recipes is “a humorous Intermezzo in a book that is otherwise so matter-of-fact.” This can be explained by what Haage said about versification of practical literature for the upper levels of society: “It is mainly for fun” (Aus reinen Spieltrieb).

There is a long tradition in European literature of verses about food, often with a comic or playful element, and the humor is quite obvious in the collections of rhymed recipes (“poetic cookbooks”) from the eighteenth century onward. The first of these books was the French Festin joyeux, printed in 1738. One of the recipes is for perdreaux aux écrévisses (partridges with crawfish) and it starts like this:

First you cook everything well,

And mix with a light ragoût,

Add sweetbreads and truffles too,

And let cockscombs and champignons swell.

Typical for the recipes in this book is that they can be sung, as they were written to well-known tunes from light and popular music genres. Referring to himself as a cook, the alleged author made excuses for the bad rhymes in his verses, which he said were certainly not as Scarron would have written them. By referring to the seventeenth-century burlesque poet Paul Scarron, the suspicion is strengthened that the verses belong to the century before the book was printed, and it has been suggested that the real author was the aristocrat Louis de Béchameil, although this has not been confirmed.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, French, German, Spanish, American, Danish, and Norwegian books of recipes in verse were published. A Norwegian book from 1833 versified the recipes of the first printed cookbook in Norway, published only two years earlier, and the verses were written to melodies used for national anthems, drinking songs, and hymns. By using tunes for hymns in these merry songs, the author, a church warden and rebellious publicist, did the opposite of men such as Martin Luther and William Booth, who wrote religious hymns to popular, secular melodies.

Were these recipes intended to be used to help in the kitchen? Some of them did in fact emphasize that that was the basic idea. The Danish Kogebog for musikalske husmødre (Cookbook for musical housewives) professed in verse in the preface:

The housewife now can cook her meat

While singing from a music sheet.

But in spite of the declared intentions, these books were probably made more to amuse readers than to instruct them. Most of the verses were rather amateurish, with clumsy rhymes and hobbling rhythms, and could not hope for a glorious afterlife in the history of literature. There are, however, recipe poems that were written by authors with acknowledged literary qualities. They followed the same chronological progression as the ordinary recipes, giving step-by-step instructions, but they added aspects and elements that were generally absent in cookbooks. Here follow five examples in five languages and from different literary contexts.

The first was by a representative of Polish romanticism, Adam Mickiewicz, who in his epic poem Pan Tadeusz actually used a 1682 cookbook to describe an old Polish dinner. But he also gave, as part of his description of old national traditions, the “recipe” for bigos, a dish still popular in Poland. He admitted that words and rhymes—he used thirteen syllable lines with caesura and rhymed couplets—were not sufficient to transmit a real appreciation of “the most wonderful flavor, the smell and the color.” He listed the ingredients of the dish—good vegetables, chopped sauerkraut, morsels of meat—and explained that they should all be simmered in a pot. But he did not follow the traditional recipe form; his recipe is a narrative told in the third person and without the particular verbal forms indicating a request.

Other writers, however, chose the imperative. The French dramatist Edmond Rostand included in his most famous play, Cyrano de Bergerac, a scene where the protagonist’s friend, the rôtisseur and pâtissier Ragueneau, proudly declares that he has versified a recipe: “J’ai mis une recette en vers.” The recipe is for tartelettes amandines and is written in a light, elegant poetic form that plays with the rhymes and rhythm, making it very difficult to translate.

While Rostand kept the imperatives in the second-person plural, which was typical of most French culinary recipes at that time, the Argentine-born Spaniard Ventura de la Vega—who wrote many occasional poems—chose the first-person singular when he described his method of making garlic soup, sopa de ajo. The Voltaire-admirer-turned-Catholic paid tribute to the soup as a dish for Lent, but he also declared it the basis of the Castilian diet. The personal tone in the poem creates an atmosphere similar to the one in Pablo Neruda’s Odas elementales (which is about tomatoes, potatoes, and other foodstuffs), combining the solemn and the ordinary: In a casserole, boil salt, pepper, and small bits of bread in olive oil, and in this swelling mixture, “I will hide two well-peeled cloves of Spanish garlic.” Instead of Neruda’s free verse, Vega chose the bound form, and the Spanish composer José María Cásares later composed music for it. The text and the notes were printed in Angel Muro’s original cookbook, El practicón (1894).

Another original and much praised cookbook, Modern Cookery, by Eliza Acton, included a recipe in rhymed verse in the 1855 edition. In a note, Acton wrote that this was the first time the poem was printed, after it had been circulated among the friends of the author, the poetic reverend Sidney Smith. But in contrast to the serious, almost religious tone in Vega’s verse, Smith’s poem is filled with the light-hearted humor he was famous for. The ingredients for his salad dressing are enumerated with the common imperatives, but they are not always used in the traditional manner: “Let onion atoms lurk within the bowl,” he instructed readers in one line, and in another, he told them to add “a magic soupçon of anchovy sauce.” He even resorted to alliteration: “Of mordant mustard add a simple spoon.” And then he expressed his enthusiasm for the result: “Oh, green and glorious! Oh, herbacious treat!”

A final example, which also raises theoretical questions, is a poem the German romantic poet Eduard Mörike wrote about Frankfurter Brenten, a type of small cookies. The first surprise is perhaps his use of the imperative second-person singular, a dated and very uncommon form in the mid-nineteenth century:

Start with almonds, I suggest,

Take three pounds, or four at best.

This poem, which is included in Mörike’s collected works, was originally published in a German journal for ladies, Frauen-Zeitung für Hauswesen, weibliche Arbeiten und Moden, in 1852, and Horst Steinmetz used it as an example of how context may decide the reception of a text. The readers of Mörike’s complete works may have considered the recipe as a poem on a par with the other poems in the book, which describe feelings and phenomena of the human universe. The ladies who read “Frankfurter Brenten” in the journal may have looked at the text as a practical instruction—a recipe—even if they observed and appreciated the form as an amusing variation and perhaps made no practical use of the recipe in the kitchen. Yet a closer reading of Mörike’s text reveals that it has elements not expected in recipes. Consider, for example, these lines:

Now put all this while it is hot

Onto a plate (but poets need

A rhyme here now, and therefore feed

The finished stuff into a pot).

With this ironic remark, which breaks up the sequence of instructive steps, the poet seems to make fun of his own role; it is a kind of Verfremdung, or alienation, that creates a distance between Mörike as a poet and as a cooking teacher.

These rhymed recipes seem to have been written with very different intentions: to inform, to instruct, to entertain, or to create art. This is of course also true for recipe poems in unbound form by Günter Grass and others. But there is a noticeable difference in intention when recipes appear in prose works other than culinary works.


Notaker cookbook author photoHenry Notaker is a literary historian who taught courses in food culture and history for over a decade. He was a foreign correspondent for the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation and a TV host of arts and letters shows and documentaries. He is the author of numerous books and articles on European and Latin American contemporary history, food history, and culinary literature.