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A Collector’s Collection

The first thing to say about Anne Willan’s “The Cookbook Library” is that for years or decades to come, this beautiful volume is going to be an indispensable resource for readers and researchers in love with the history of cookbooks. Certainly it will become one of my own hunting grounds for the answers to many mysteries.

The next thing to say is that it must have been an unimaginably difficult work to compile and publish, one of those productions marked with awkward traces of their own birth pangs. Something like three or four different books seem to be going on here at the same time — all worthy, all fascinating, but not all harmoniously meshed or equally well-realized.

The overall framework is a kind of gallery tour through the huge and important private library amassed by Willan and her husband, Mark Cherniavsky, over a period of many decades. The book is studded with many dozens of title pages, frontispieces, engravings, etchings and other images from the Willan-Cherniavsky collection. (All illustrations are black and white, a drawback only with reproductions of medieval illuminations and later paintings.)

The couple’s “cookbook library” is also the springboard for a historical survey of cooking, cookbooks, cookbook writers and recipes from the late Middle Ages to about 1830. The material is organized into four substantial chapters covering developments throughout the four centuries from 1400 to 1800, two shorter chapters addressing the late 14th and early 19th centuries and a few dozen boxed essays on special topics such as the medicinal angle of early cookbooks and the evolution of table furnishings. As if this complex design weren’t enough, each chapter also concludes with a handful of recipes (38 in all) taken from books in the collection, with the original text followed by Willan’s lengthy adaptations for modern home kitchens.

A spirited historical overview

The best-realized part of all this, aside from sheer visual plenty, is the general historical overview. Willan manages to place dozens of obscure (to most lay readers, anyhow) figures in lucid, lively context while sketching trajectories of influences from one seminal work to its progeny. Her spirited sketches of people like Taillevent, Platina, Elizabeth Raffald, Sir Kenelm Digby and Marie-Antoine Carême will make “The Cookbook Library” an invaluable adjunct to food history courses everywhere, not to mention a nifty tool for self-taught dippers and browsers.

The subsidiary boxes do a fine job of bringing crucial but often unsung issues — for instance, the literacy or illiteracy of cooks through the ages — to attention. And Willan can trenchantly remind us that “historical” cooking techniques aren’t terribly distant from living memory; one of the best things in the book is her childhood recollection of being taught by an old family cook to beat the batter for Christmas cakes with her bare hand in a rural Yorkshire kitchen. (“First the butter: I would squish with my fingers, then curving my hand like a spoon would beat it to a cream, the warmth of my little, eager hand helping the mix.”)

All the more pity that as a historian, culinary historian or elucidator of texts, the author is frequently out of her depth. Owning a notable library of historic cookbooks unfortunately has nothing to do with scholarly chops. Willan seems to believe that Piers Plowman (not William Langland) wrote the Middle English poem “Piers Plowman.” Her unfamiliarity with the conventions of scribal abbreviations produces garblings like “Pep” for “Peper” (pepper) in a transcribed 14th-century recipe for “cormarye” (roast pork in a spiced wine sauce). Elsewhere, she marvels over the “spartan” character of a 1791 dinner at the court of George III without noticing that it’s for “Their Majesties Pages,” not “Their Majesties” and mangles the title of the oldest book in the Willan-Cherniavsky collection, a 1491 edition of St. John Cassian’s “On the Establishment of Monastic Communities and the Remedies of the Eight Principal Vices,” by thrice writing “viliorum” for “vitiorum” (vices).

The left hand sometimes doesn’t appear to know what the right hand is doing. Having pointed out that Lucy Emerson’s “New-England Cookery” (1808) was almost wholly plagiarized from Amelia Simmons’ “American Cookery” (1796), Willan then manages on the same page to draw inferences about Emerson from her book’s title page without observing that it’s repeated almost verbatim from Simmons. About 40 pages later, she reproduces one of the cribbed Emerson recipes (a squash pudding) without mentioning its provenance.

The difficulties of old recipes

The reconstructed recipes, which occupy acres of page space and obviously have had much work bestowed on them, are the weakest part of the effort. You never know whether you’re going to find penetrating insights into the nuts and bolts of old recipes or stumble on maddening failures to think through the meaning of some original word or direction.

A very few examples: Modern commercial brown sugar is no proper equivalent of the “Madeira sugar” in a 16th-century quince jelly. (Madeira sugar was white enough to have been dubbed the island’s “white gold.”) Gallina morisca in a 17th-century Spanish recipe almost certainly refers not to a Moorish style of cooking chickens but to a particular variety of poultry — in fact, today it sometimes means “guinea hen.” The chocolate in Vincent La Chapelle’s “Chocolate Cream” (1733) would have been a coarse-ground, grainy substance more akin to today’s Mexican chocolate than the smoothly conched modern dark chocolate in Willan’s reconstruction. The “rape-vinegar” in Maria Eliza Rundell’s pickled lemon recipe (1811) would have been made not from “wild turnips” but from wine-press leavings.

It has to be said that reconstructing historical recipes is difficult stuff even for skilled culinary historians; probably Willan would have been prudent to make these a less prominent part of the general plan. “The Cookbook Library” is still a triumphant contribution to both the study of culinary history and the ranks of treasurable books on cooking. Would that the execution of its grand design were less erratic, but it belongs in any real cookbook lover’s library.

Buy Mark Cherniavsky and Anne Willan’s “The Cookbook Library” Now!

Anne Mendelson is a freelance writer, editor, and reviewer specializing in food-related subjects. She has worked as consultant on several cookbooks, was  a contributing editor to the late lamented Gourmet, and has been an occasional contributor to the New York Times Dining Section and the Los Angeles Times Food Section. Her biography of Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker, Stand Facing the Stove (Henry Holt 1996), won widespread critical praise for its insights into the history of modern American cooking. In 2000 – 2001 she held a fellowship at the Dorothy and Lewis Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, working on a study of food history in New York City. (Part of this research, a survey of pre-European foodways among the Lenape Indians, won the 2007 Sophie Coe Prize in Food History at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery.) Her most recent book is Milk, a cultural-historical survey of milk and fresh dairy products (Knopf 2008).She is now working, with a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation, on a study of how the global Chinese diaspora is influencing Chinese food in America.Top photo composite:

Book jacket courtesy of University of California Press

Mark Cherniavsky and Anne Willan. Credit: Patty Williams


Zester Daily contributor Anne Mendelson is a freelance writer and culinary historian who has written for various newspapers and magazines. She is the author of "Stand Facing the Stove" (a biography of the authors of "The Joy of Cooking"; Holt, 1996) and "Milk" (Knopf, 2008). The past recipient of honors including a fellowship at the Cullman Center of the New York Public Library and the Oxford Symposium's Sophie Coe Prize in Food History, she is currently working on a book about Chinese food in America.