For as long as libraries have been repositories of wisdom and knowledge, there has been a place on the shelf for cookbooks. In fact, many early cookbooks were more than just recipe collections—instructions for concocting medicine often jostled with dinner ideas for page space. Atlas Obscura has previously displayed ancient recipe collections, such as the Yale Peabody Museum’s Babylonian tablets, which contain the oldest known recorded recipes, and the New York Academy of Medicine’s 9th-century De re culinaria, the oldest surviving cookbook in the West.
Cookbooks were once intended mainly for upper-class households. Only relatively recently did printing and educational advances make them more democratic. Today’s versions tend to hold well-lit photographs and elegant prose. But humanity has long turned to cookbooks for inspiration and entertainment, and whether sauce-stained or Gothic-lettered, cookbooks offer glimpses of humanity’s food history. Here is a collection of some of the oldest cookbooks from libraries around the world.
The Library of Congress
Libro de arte coquinaria
This 15th-century Italian manuscript was authored by one Maestro Martino of Como, chef to a famous cardinal. Martino was known for cooking lavish banquets for his employer. Along the way, he achieved fame as “the prince of cooks.” Martino likely deserves the title, according to Brett Zongker from the Library of Congress, since his Libro “is the first known book to specify ingredients, cooking times, techniques, utensils, and amounts.” As a late medieval chef cooking on the cusp of the Renaissance, Martino includes a recipe for everything from almond-rice pudding to “How to Dress a Peacock With All Its Feathers, So That When Cooked, It Appears to Be Alive and Spews Fire From Its Beak.” He also recommends that chefs boil eggs for the amount of time needed to recite the Lord’s Prayer: around two minutes. Martino’s work is momentous for another reason too: In the 15th century, his recipes made up a major part of the world’s first printed cookbook, Platina’s De honesta voluptate et valetudine. A scribe practiced calligraphy on one of the last pages of this particular volume.
The Beinecke Library
Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library contains this handwritten manuscript from the 1750s. According to the library, the recipes include everything from medicinal “plague water” to chocolate puffs. The manuscript has 14 sections and 502 recipes for various meats, sweets, and preserves. Its endpapers were recycled from a 16th-century bible. Little is known about the provenance of the manuscript, which the library purchased in 2007. According to archivist Diane Ducharme, a bookplate in the front of the book bears the symbol of the Martin family, who lived at the appropriately-named Ham Court in the 18th century. “It would have been originally used in a family of similar or superior status,” she writes, “as the sample bills of fare are for the ambitious multi-course meals served at dinner parties and entertainments.”
Biblioteca Nacional de España
Libro de cozina cōpuesto por maestre Ruberto de Nola
The National Library of Spain’s oldest cookbook is a copy of De re coquinaria from the 15th century. But we’ve included here the 16th-century Libro de cozina cōpuesto por maestre Ruberto de Nola, which is the first cookbook ever published in Castilian Spanish. According to the library, the “recipes are based on Llibre de Sent Soví, a medieval cookbook, although it adds some recipes of Occitan, French, Italian, and Arab origin.” The book was a translation of the work of Catalan chef Ruberto de Nola, chef to King Ferrante of Naples. Both the De re coquinaria and the Libro de cozina were featured in a recent project where chefs cooked 12 recipes from the library’s oldest and most important cookbooks, including a recipe for Moorish-style eggplant from Ruberto de Nola’s cookbook.
The Wellcome Library
Anglo-Saxon medicinal formulas
The oldest item with a reference to cooking in the Wellcome Library collection isn’t a cookbook. Instead, it is a single page of Anglo-Saxon medicinal formulas written down in the 11th century, a fragment from a dismantled volume. Around the year 1000, the five recipes on the page, which treat maladies such as liver disease and heartache, were scribbled down by three different people. Clues about the foods of the period pop up on the document. A remedy for lung disease consists of an herbal ale washed down with an eggshell full of butter. An ointment for tumors has “honey, such as is used to lighten porridge,” boiled with herbs, garlic, and pepper. According to the library, it may have been part of an informal recipe book kept by monks. Its survival is something of a miracle, since it was extracted from the original manuscript and turned into the cover of a Latin schoolbook in 1558. The schoolbook survived a fire in 1881 by being thrown out a window.
The Oslo Public Library
Complete Kitchen and Cellar Dictionary
The Oslo Public Library, known as the Deichman Library, has a 1716 copy of the Complete Kitchen and Cellar Dictionary, written by the prolific German writer Paul Jacob Marperger. Lavishly printed and more than a thousand pages long, the title page promises a book “in which all sorts of food and drinks, known and unknown, are described.” It belonged to a Norwegian lawyer named Johan Fredrik Bartholin, who donated it to the city of Christiania (the former name for Oslo) in 1784. The book has been in the Deichman collection since it opened in 1785.
The Free Library of Philadelphia
The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy
Hannah Glasse’s compendium of culinary and household recipes, including one “to make a Currey the India Way,” made it a favorite in British kitchens and in colonies abroad. Many American founding fathers had a copy, and the Free Library of Philadelphia owns a sixth edition, published in 1758. The volume proved so successful that authorship was ascribed for centuries to a man, since, according to the famed English writer Dr. Samuel Johnson, “Women can spin very well; but they cannot make a good book of cookery.” But though Glasse borrowed many of her 972 recipes from other authors, as was the custom of the time, she undoubtedly was the compiler of the 18th century’s most popular cookbook, which Google honored with a Doodle on the anniversary of her 310th birthday.
The secrets of the reverend Maister Alexis of Piedmont
When thinking about a book full of “secrets,” a diary might come to mind. But in the Special Collections and Archives at Cardiff University, one book contains “secrets” that include an excellent marmalade recipe. The secrets of the reverend Maister Alexis of Piedmont, translated into English, was published in London in 1595. Librarian Lisa Tallis tells says that, like many early cookbooks, it contains “various medicinal, domestic, and culinary recipes.” Alexis of Piedmont was thought to be the pen name of Girolamo Ruscelli, an Italian mapmaker and alchemist. His popular book started a centuries-long trend of publications filled with “secretive,” often-alchemical recipes.
National Library of Australia
The English and Australian Cookery Book
While the National Library of Australia has a number of older English cookbooks in its collection, they also own a copy of what is considered Australia’s first cookbook, The English and Australian Cookery Book (1864). The book is attributed to Edward Abbott, a Tasmanian “aristologist” who wrote the book anonymously. (An aristologist is an expert on the subject of eating and cooking.) A publisher and parliamentarian, Abbott was nevertheless an eccentric; he once attacked the Tasmanian premier with an umbrella. The English and Australian Cookery Book was Abbot’s attempt to diversify the colonial Australian diet with local flora and fauna. Recipes include kangaroo brains fried in emu fat and a powerful cocktail called a “Blow My Skull,” which is made of lime, sugar, rum, porter, and brandy.
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