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Food for thought

A brief history of the cookbook

Created date

March 30th, 2017
A surviving copy of De re culinary by Roman gourmet Marcus Gavius Apicius.

A surviving copy of De re culinaria by Roman gourmet Marcus Gavius Apicius.

The best-selling cookbook of 2016 was Ina Garten’s Cooking for Jeffery. Sharing space on that list was Anthony Bourdain’s Appetites, Chrissy Teigan’s Cravings, and Ali Maffucci’s Inspiralized

Though they may not know it, today’s cookbook authors follow in a long tradition that started in 1700 B.C.—when ancient Mesopotamians first began to record their recipes on stone tablets. 

First cookbook

The first known author of a cookbook was Marcus Gavius Apicius, a famous Roman gourmet who wrote De re Coquinaria, a compendium of Greek and Roman dishes. Written in Latin sometime between the first and the fifth centuries, the book was copied and revised over hundreds of years. It made such an impact that, for years to come, “Apicius” was the term used to describe any book of recipes. As for its staying power, an English translation is still available on 

In succeeding centuries, cookbooks documented the culinary preferences of various cultures around the world. La Ménagier de Paris, published in the 1390s, was an early French cookbook and included recipes for frogs and snails. The Important Things to Know About Eating and Drinking, from thirteenth-century China, contained many soup recipes.  

The first celebrity chef

The invention of the printing press made books more accessible to average people. At about the same time, people began to appreciate good food and sought out new and different ways to prepare meals. 

During this time, the world’s first celebrity chef emerged. Bartolomeo Scappi had worked his way up through the ranks of the Vatican kitchen. He started serving the cardinals and later both Pope Pius V and Pope Pius VI. 

In 1485, Scappi published Opera dell’arte del cucinare, one of the first cookbooks printed on a press. It was a runaway success. His book contained over 1,000 recipes, the first known drawing of a fork, and the chef’s emphatic declaration that “parmesan is the best cheese on earth.”      

Nineteenth-century cooking

During the Victorian era, proper domestic life was held in high regard and cooking was an integral part of that sensibility. Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families, published in 1845, embodied the Victorian outlook. It was unique for the time because it was written expressly for the home cook rather than the professional. It was also the first cookbook to introduce the modern convention of listing the ingredients and cooking time at the top of each recipe.

Fannie Farmer (1857–1915), another Victorian-era cookbook author, grew up in a family that valued education. Like her three sisters, she was expected to go to college. However, tragedy struck when Farmer suffered a stroke at the young age of 16. Unable to walk, the young woman could not carry out her parent’s educational expectations.  

During her convalescence, Farmer turned her attention to cooking, and once she was able to move about (albeit with a severe limp), she enrolled in the Boston Cooking School, a rigorous program that included studies in nutrition, food science, and home sanitation. 

In 1896, Farmer published The Boston Cooking School Cookbook. One of the most influential cookbooks of all time, Farmer’s book was stuffed with over 1,800 recipes. It is notable because it was the first cookbook to use standardized measuring cups and spoons to assure more reliable results. Prior to Farmer’s book, recipes would call for “a piece of butter the size of an egg.”  

The Joy of Cooking

In 1930, Irma S. Rombauer suffered a horrible loss when her husband committed suicide. To help deal with her grief, the 52-year-old widow decided to compile recipes and cooking advice into a book. When she was done, she asked her daughter to illustrate some of the entries and design the book’s cover. 

Rombauer then paid $3,000 to have 3,000 copies of her book The Joy of Cooking published. 

When the copies sold out, Rombauer went in search of a publisher. She was met with numerous rejections, but finally, the Bobbs-Merrill Company agreed to publish the second edition of Joy of Cooking

Since May 1, 1936, the day the second edition was released, The Joy of Cooking has been continuously in print. It has gone through eight revisions, the last in honor of its 75th anniversary in 2006. Selling over 18 million copies, the book has influenced generations of chefs, including Julia Child who loved “Mrs. Joy’s book,” saying it taught her the fundamentals of cooking.  


Oddly enough, another highly influential cookbook of the twentieth century was also self-published. In 1974, Mollie Katzen, founder of the Moosewood Café in Ithaca, N.Y., initially published a spiral-bound cookbook for the vegetarian restaurant’s cooking staff. 

The Moosewood menu included exotic (for the time) foods like hummus and moussaka. Intrigued home cooks were constantly asking for recipes, so Katzen complied.  

Ten Speed Press, a fledgling publisher in Berkeley, Calf., found Katzen’s book, and recognizing a hit, published The Moosewood Cookbook in 1977.

The Moosewood Cookbook was a success due in large part to its delicious and inventive recipes. However, both the author and the publisher would readily admit that landing on store shelves just as interest in vegetarianism was sprouting helped propel book sales into the stratosphere. 

If you had to choose just one cookbook to use, which one would it be? Tell us in comments below.