A History of Cookbooks: Does the Cookbook Have A Future?

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 coverThe future of the cookbook is part of a broader question: What is the future of the book? When the cook Martino and the writer Platina met in the fifteenth century, the Gutenberg era had just begun. What will happen to the physical book as more and more information and texts of all kinds can be accessed via other media? According to the scholar David Greetham, we don’t know yet if this shift “from the printed book to hypertext is of a different order from previous shifts in medium (for example from manuscript to print, from roll to codex, from oral transmission to the written word).” It is possible that the primacy of print will be totally undermined by new technologies in the long run, but this does not necessarily signify the death of the book. Historians David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery point out that, “in fact, some have argued that new media has the potential to extend the life of the book through individual engagement with written texts.”

Printed cookbooks are still flooding the market, but more and more people are turning to the Internet to look for recipes. Is it only a matter of time before cookbooks follow the same path as reference works, with exclusively electronic editions? Or do cookbooks have other functions and needs than most reference works? The history of the cookbook dates back to the manuscript age, when single recipes were recorded; over time, these were compiled into recipe collections. After the introduction of modern printing, individuals continued to put together their own cookbooks made up of material from friends as well as recipes found in printed books. Some printed cookbooks even included blank pages so readers could write down their personal recipes. In the nineteenth century, recipes were printed in magazines, which meant that instead of copying recipes by hand, housewives (and perhaps some men) could cut them out and paste them into their private cookbooks, still a common activity today. Some publishers even invented new alternative forms for collecting recipes, such as systems with each recipe printed on a separate card or a separate sheet that could be put into a box or a ring binder.

In other words, cookbooks have a long tradition of being considered dynamic literature. In this context, using the Internet to search for and view recipes is just another step in the same direction. It is now possible to compile a personal electronic recipe collection and make the most of the new features this medium offers, such as hypertext and searchability. The Internet makes it possible to watch video clips of recipes being prepared, and recipes can also be introduced through the new medium of television cooking shows.

Illustrations have been printed in cookbooks since the incunabula era, but they were rarely pedagogically effective. Television brought a new type of approach, one that in many ways mimics the scenario in which a mother teaches her daughter or a master cook instructs his apprentice: words are followed by acts, or better, acts are explained by words. Normally, this is a one-way communication, from the television cook to the audience, but it is sometimes a dialogue between two people in a television studio. How is the host’s language created in this new setting? Are the sentences planned and drilled—in other words, are they written texts learned by heart? Is this a false orality compared to the original teacher-pupil scenario? Or is all teaching based on a certain degree of performance and therefore dependent on training? At any rate, modern television cooks most certainly have reminiscences of all the cookbooks they have read and all the cooking teachers they have listened to. The scholar Walter Ong has called this new orality a secondary orality: “This new orality has striking resemblances to the old in participatory mystique, its fostering of a communal sense, its concentration on the present moment, and even its use of formulas. But it is essentially a more deliberate and self-conscious orality, based permanently on the use of writing and print.”

Most people watch television cooking shows as a form of entertainment. The writer Neil Postman observed in 1984 that television transformed part of Western culture into an arena of show business; education became an “amusing activity.” But practical professions are learned not only by listening and watching but also by doing. This means that television kitchen shows are only superficially similar to the original mother-daughter and master-apprentice scenarios because the daughter and apprentice actually had to repeat the acts demonstrated by their teachers. This may change through the use of new electronic media, such as personal blogs, which allow for interactivity.

Despite their popularity, television shows and blogs have not made books superfluous. Some of the hosts of these programs have become celebrity chefs, and the recipes from their shows have been collected and published as books, many of which have become bestsellers. Today, the same is happening with food blogs, many of which have also been turned into popular cookbooks. The Internet has become a steppingstone to producing a printed work. This has brought about changes to the editorial process. Traditionally, at least since the early twentieth century, publishers had ideas for cookbooks, contacted qualified individuals, made marketing analyses, and so on. Now, much of this work is done on social media. At the same time, technological advances have opened the gates for self-publishing. The Mexican intellectual Gabriel Zaid warned that the number of books increases geometrically, while the number of readers increases arithmetically; so, if the passion for writing continues like this, we are heading toward a world with more authors than readers.

To answer the question of whether a cookbook is really necessary in this environment, we must begin with a discussion of function. Many television shows are available on the Internet, which means that the recipes can be watched repeatedly on a computer screen, but is this practical in the kitchen? There are still fumes and smoke in many kitchens, which can make electronic devices difficult or unsuitable to use. But even if these problems were to be solved, cookbooks would still be popular. The reason is that they don’t need to be read for practical purposes. When the great French poet Baudelaire complained about the lack of good restaurants in Belgium, he found comfort in reading a cookbook. That kind of pleasure is even more obvious today with the introduction of modern food design in the illustrations of beautiful editions of cookbooks in coffee-table format. The recipes in these books are meant to be leafed through and read sitting in a sofa or an easy chair rather than followed step by step over the kitchen stove. In this context, it is possible to see cookbooks as show business. When Postman refers to what he calls “television-oriented print media,” he mentions magazines such as People and US, but there is a similar interchange between television cooking shows and food blogs and coffee-table cookbooks.

As Angus Phillips has pointed out, books are also important for the authors themselves: “For an author, appearing in print remains better than being published on the Web. There is an affirmation of one’s worth as a writer, and receiving a beautifully printed hardback of one’s work is an undeniable pleasure.”9 This is particularly important if an author wants to be considered for prizes and awards, such as the annual Gourmand World Cookbook Award. Celebrity chefs can use their cookbooks to promote themselves, and cookbooks can be used to promote special products, foods, and kitchen appliances.

Finally, many cookbooks are conceived and written within the framework of a lifestyle ideology, representing new (and old) moral attitudes and practices. They are part of a self-help and self-development literature, to be studied mainly outside of the kitchen.


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.