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A Taste of History: Nine Cookbooks That Changed Everything

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My parents are both serious foodies, so when I was growing up we had plenty of cookbooks in the house. Most of them came and went from our shelves, depending on which regional cuisine my mom and dad were into at the time. There was one cookbook that remained firmly established in our kitchen, though: The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. When I moved out, my mom presented me with my very own copy of this comprehensive guide to all things edible; Fannie’s is the cookbook that started it all.


The Kitchen as Laboratory: Fannie Farmer
Any discussion of cookbooks in the twentieth century has to begin in the year 1896, when Fannie Farmer, a formally trained cook from Massachusetts, published The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook (in later years simply The Fannie Farmer Cookbook).


Farmer was not the first cook to produce a volume of recipes, but she was the first to provide standardized measurements so that readers could replicate her dishes almost exactly. According to Esther B. Aresty’s The Delectable Past, cookbooks prior to Farmer’s called for “a piece of butter the size of an egg” or “a teacup of milk.” Farmer, however, offered a system of measurement so that even readers with different-size teacups could have cakes that looked and tasted the same.


Farmer realized that cooking is chemistry. Along with her recipes, she included explanations for why bread rises and sauce thickens.


The Fannie Farmer Cookbook is an enormous volume, full of not just recipes, but also advice on housekeeping, nutrition, and feeding the sick. In it, Farmer stresses how food is part of a busy life and directly affects how we feel.


The Jell-O Mold: Betty Crocker
The next cookbook icon to hit American homes wasn’t actually a real person. Betty Crocker was the image devised by Marjorie Child Husted, a home economist and businesswoman who developed the brand and character of Betty Crocker for General Mills. In the 1950s, almost every housewife had a Betty Crocker cookbook, a trend that began with Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook in 1950.


Betty Crocker was the flavor of the ’50s: standardization, branding, and cheap, ready-to-eat food. McDonald’s, founded in 1948, exploded across America during this period, as did the post-war demand for canned goods. Crocker meals, simple stick-to-your-ribs dishes made using prepackaged goods, reflected these trends.  


Cooking Becomes Culinary: Julia Child
If not for Julia Child and Mastering the Art of French Cooking, we might all still be eating meat loaf or, worse, Spam. In 1961, Child (and her coauthor, Simone Beck) brought Americans into a new decade with this primer on French dishes and cooking techniques. Melon, cheese, and fish balls (’50s cooks turned everything they could into balls) disappeared, and beef bourguignonne, bouillabaisse, and cassoulet took their place at the table. So did vegetables—fresh, flavorful vegetables that came from the garden, not out of a can.


Most importantly, Child wasn’t a branded image. She was a real person—a character, but not in the way that Betty Crocker was. After all, Betty would have never said, “The best way to execute French cooking is to get good and loaded and whack the hell out of a chicken,” as Julia did.


No, Child didn’t fit the mold, because she felt nothing good ever came out of a mold, especially a factory mold. “How can a nation be called great,” she asked, “if its bread tastes like Kleenex?”


Back to the Land: Frances Moore Lappé
In the ’60s, Child got us to eat our vegetables, and in the ’70s, Frances Moore Lappé urged us to eat nothing but vegetables. Her Diet for a Small Planet, published in 1971, was the first cookbook to equate personal food choices with politics. Lappé argued that American grain-fed meat production was irresponsibly wasteful and that most social and environmental issues could be solved if we all became vegetarians. Anticipating readers’ objections of plants’ being inadequate sources of protein, Lappé introduced the theory of complementary or complete proteins, proposing that plant foods in combination created amino acid patterns that matched those of animal tissue. In so doing, she reminded Americans of the relationship between food and health–the health of the world as well as of our own bodies.


Plating and Presenting: Christopher Idone, Martha Stewart
But Americans didn’t stick to granola and tofu. Christopher Idone, who founded New York City’s Glorious Food catering company in 1969, wrote a book with the same name in 1982; Glorious Food both reflected and reinforced ’80s attitudes surrounding food. Whereas Farmer and Child were concerned with the preparation of a meal, Idone was concerned with its presentation. His book and Martha Stewart’s Entertaining, published in the same year, contained lavish illustrations of elaborate recipes for wedding receptions, afternoon teas, and holiday buffets. Idone felt it was more important that these dishes looked good than that they tasted good.


No More “Faffing Around”: Nigella Lawson, Rachael Ray, the Barefoot Contessa
No one (except maybe Martha herself) could take that much coulis and cilantro garnish for long. Cookbooks from 1990 to today have been an about-face from what Nigella Lawson calls the “faffing around” of the ’80s. Lawson, whose How to Be a Domestic Goddess: Baking and the Art of Comfort Cooking made her an international star when it was published in 2000, promotes the kitchen as a place of simplicity and ease. For her, it doesn’t matter if the cake falls apart or if the cookies are lumpy, as long as you enjoy making and eating them. It’s not about actually being a domestic goddess, but rather about feeling like one.


But Lawson wasn’t the first to write about cooking as being a relaxing and fun activity instead of a chore. The first voice in the cookbook world to rise up against Stewart-era fussiness was none other than Stewart herself. In 1999, she cowrote, with Ina Garten, The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook, which offers such advice as, “Food is not about impressing people. It’s about making them feel comfortable.” While Stewart has successfully maintained her image as the Wonder Woman of entertaining, the Barefoot Contessa’s philosophy of food preparation began its own trend of low-maintenance cooking, the best example of which is Rachael Ray’s 30-Minute Meals series.


The Cookbook’s Final Chapter?
As we move into the twenty-first century, there seems to have been a shift away from volumes like The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, with their focus on instructing the home cook, and toward television celebrity chefs who show viewers what they could be eating if they dined out. Simultaneously, there is a revival of environmentally focused cooking like that introduced in Diet for a Small Planet. What form will this century’s cookbooks take? Or will the cookbook itself, with all its rich history, become a thing of the past?

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