I grew up around my mother’s cookbooks. And it wasn’t until a week after she died last January that I found her greatest treasure: dozens of recipes handwritten inside a math book from around 1850. There are no specific oven timings or measurements in some. It just exudes pure amazement and awe.
It’s also the same feeling I felt when I got the chance to view several rare cookbooks , dating back to 1458, inside the Library of Congress during a recent trip with the Association of Food Journalists.
It was one of the many stops during our 3-day tour of the nation’s capital.
On that rainy day we headed upstairs to an ordinary looking room, but inside – was a feast for our eyes.
Books on every possible food-related topic filled the entire rectangular room. Food Policy. Early American. Southern. Cocktails. And even the government.
Yes, government. During World Wars I and II our federal government issued pamphlets, broadsides and posters informing us about cottage cheese benefits, and how ‘overcooking’ destroys vitamins.
One WWI poster (1917) advises families to ration sugar since it was in short supply.
The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture even published ‘Dietary Studies in New York City’ in the late 19th century.
Then there’s Walter Jetton who prepared food for most of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s barbecues. The caterer, along with Arthur Whitman, later went on to write Walter Jetton’s LBJ Barbecue Cookbook (1965, Pocket Books). It’s chalk full of gems like mashed potato salad, barbecued beef tongue and barbecued spiced bananas!
Did you know that President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Queen Elizabeth I exchanged recipes? A 1960 newspaper photo of him barbecuing quail reminded her to write a letter and accompanying drop recipe she promised during a visit to Balmoral Castle. Typed instructions end with a handwritten ‘Enough for 16 people.’
At the same time, thousands of miles away, Ryori Shitsuke, painstakingly created over 500 illustrations on how to properly cook and prep fish and fowl. Ink stains bleed through dozens of similar scribbles underneath. No words – just drawings.
Anything and everything you can cook on grill – which brings me to tailgating books! Yes, the Library of Congress had some on display including one toted as “an insider’s guide to tailgating at the races.” NASCAR races that is.
But most impressive was the middle of the room. More than a dozen and very fragile books sat atop a long linen-draped rectangular table. It was only upon closer inspection, I realized what I was seeing. Some handwritten texts older than the birth of our nation, some older than William Shakespeare, some, date back to when ‘The Last Supper’ was painted.
Written in Latin, De re coquinaria, (correct lower/uppercase) recants ancient Greek and Roman cuisine but offers sparse details preparation and cooking details. It’s one of the earliest collections of recipes that’s survived Europe. A first print edition dates back to 1483 – 530 years ago.
So fragile nearby attendants flipped through pages for us.
To the immediate right – the first printed cookbook. Italian humanist Bartolomeo Platina compiled and published de Honesta Voluptate in Venice in 1475. Later appointed Vatican librarian, he translated recipes for meats, broths, stews, pastries and pies from Maestro Martino’s Libro de Arte Coquinaria manuscript.
I also fawned over the many drink-related offerings.
‘The Mixologist: For Correct Drinks’ by AJ Bailey combines delicious tidbits of info from an emerging cocktail culture and seemingly historical forward business thinking. Not very FDA-correct now, the book even offers this good laugh –
Doctors Usually Recommend:
Champagne for the stomach.
Port Wine for blood.
Brandy for faintness.
Rum for colds.
Sherry for weakness.
Gin for the kidneys.
Scotch for lungs.
Ah, only if NyQuil could do all those things!
You can read some of the works mentioned above in the Golden Bitting Collection