I was lying in bed, thinking about the family tree hanging in my closet, when I hit on the concept of The Cookbook Tree of Life. Just four cookbooks are the ancestors of all the cookbooks that are on our shelves today. Would it work? Were there clear links between each generation of cookbooks just like people? I honestly wasn’t sure whether I could connect the dots and slept on the idea feeling dubious.
The following morning I found that it did indeed fly. I stuck more than 120 cookbook titles all together on a great big sheet of paper and took it from there.
By Anne Willan and Mark Cherniavsky
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In my own way, I have tracked the development of cookbooks across four centuries and six languages. It is fascinating to see how all genres lead back down to just four original cookbooks, one in Latin, one in French, one in German and one in English.
- “De honesta voluptate et valetudine,” by Platina, written in Italian around 1474.
- “Le viandier,” by Taillevent (Guillaume Tirel), written in French in 1486.
- “Kűchenmeisterei” written in German in 1485 by an unknown author.
- “Boke of Cokery” written in English in 1500 by an unknown author.
These were cookbooks, meaning they have clear recipes with ingredients and instructions. A cookbook is a collection of recipes, or blueprints that allow a cook to recreate a dish. Cookbook bibliographer Henry Notaker has said that to be defined as a cookbook, a book should be about two-thirds cookery instruction and that roughly half of the volume should be written in recipe form.
The earliest cookbooks
Surprisingly early, right from the start of the age of printing, a number of published books fit this description. The recipes in them may be embryonic, expressed in just a few lines, but their purpose of instruction is clear.
Early books with recipes covered wide topics as well. Some sought to preserve the wisdom of the ancients, others offered advice on how to live a healthy life, and still others were preoccupied with glorifying the banquets and feasts of a wealthy patron.
In later centuries, the voices of the authors come through more clearly, and indeed, a few such books seem designed to showcase personality rather than to instruct their readers.
Before 1501 there were only about 700 books in existence, of those 700 the above four titles could be considered cookbooks.
When deciding which books belonged to which branch I gravitated to the first books that seemed to clearly break through or create a genre. Some books focused on stewardship and the early books on gardening were clearly about an original idea. Books of secrets would be household secrets and it is clear to see how those evolved into books by women and books for women, a genre that we see in full force today. The same can be said about regional cooking books, books about ingredients and even books about molecular gastronomy and celebrity chefs.
Finding a printer
It was two years before I found the right printer for “The Cookbook Library” and even then a long six months from agreement to actually printing on the press. I knew that I wanted the tree to be more than lines on a sheet of paper. I wanted it to be beautiful and handcrafted much like the books it describes.
When the artist asked me what kind of tree I would like, I said it has to be an English oak. Many of the books mentioned are English, and after all I am English, too. And now, after so much planning, you can finally see the results.
The tree is a beautiful artisan print featuring seven colors on heavy 100% cotton paper. It boasts original watercolor art and the craft of centuries in its letterpress type. I have so enjoyed making this tree come to life, a project that has been more absorbing than I could possibly have thought.
Top photo: Printer Norman Clayton of Classic Letterpress in Ojai, Calif. Credit: Maria Hildago