Cake History Month 3: Understanding Recipes

We all know that a recipe is a list of instructions for how to prepare something, usually food. But what “we all know” has changed over time, and the modern-day recipe is actually the result of an effort by Victorian women who wanted to codify and illuminate cookery for the average housewife.

For most of the time that humans have been cooking, knowing how to cook was a skill that at least one person in most households had, but the level of that skill varied widely. At the lowest level, people who could make just enough edible food to survive, they probably weren’t working from a formal recipe, but from home training. Someone else showed them how to start a fire, how to crack open a nut or cut up an animal, and from there, they could keep themselves alive a little while.

But there were also cooks with a high enough level of competency that we’d call them “chefs”, particularly in larger cities, in more advanced cultures. Written records from Babylonia, Mesopotamia, and ancient Egypt (about 3700 years ago) show that people were employed to cook for rich and royal families, for temples, and for large institutions. These chefs were trained in  vocational programs with one generation of chefs passing their knowledge along to the next. Head chefs had assistants, helpers, servants, and runners to bring ingredients in from the market or take food out of the kitchen to the servers.

A depiction of the royal bakery from an engraving in the tomb of Ramesses III in the Valley of the Kings. There are many types of loaves, including ones that are shaped like animals. (20th dynasty.)

It’s around this time that we start to see written recipes. There are hieroglyphs in Egypt depicting the way food is produced, prepared, and presented, and we’ve found an Akkadian tablet from 1700 BCE [1] showing that chefs wanted to get into writing a recent innovation in cooking: boiling and sauteing in water, instead of roasting and baking. Cooking wasn’t new but those staple foods–meat (including fish and fowl), vegetables, and grains–were being prepared in a new way, and that warranted writing the recipes down, so new chefs and kitchen assistants would have a reference.

This a perfect example of what recipes were used for. They’re not meant for people who already know what they’re doing so well it’s second-hand. Because recipes are supplemental knowledge, they’re often incomplete, which is the most important thing you need to know about recipes from before the mid-1800s. Recipes often only included the extra bits.

Think of any cake recipe you might find in a modern cookbook. There’s usually a little section at the bottom for “variations”. After you’ve already read about how to make a basic vanilla cake, you might be advised that you can add chocolate chips to the batter if you want, or how to adjust your recipe if you’re baking at a high altitude. Those variations used to be all a recipe was. If you knew how to roast a whole chicken, for example, a recipe might tell you, “Coat a whole chicken in honey and spices before roasting it in a medium oven.” The honey and spices part (and sometimes, the spices weren’t specified) is the part that’s different from your average everyday roasting a chicken part. Note how it doesn’t tell you how to prepare the chicken for roasting, how long to cook it it, or what a “medium oven” is. You’re supposed that already.

So it’s not a surprise that our earliest recorded recipes read as incomplete. You have to know what those chefs would already have known before starting the recipe. As we examine recipes going forward, keep in mind that sometimes we’re going to have to recreate it in steps: first, learning what the pastry chef of the day already knew, and then learning how that recipe built on that prior knowledge.

Until at least the 1700s, cookbooks–which grew out of recipes shared between upper-class chefs–weren’t regulated or organized in any particular way, and rarely contained basic cookery knowledge. There was just enough in there to explain what you were doing to someone else who had an idea of what they were doing. (Note to writers: do this with your magic texts, too. Novices should not be able to read them and instantly know everything.) It’s in the 1800s that a combination of literacy among women of all classess, and a strong desire to meet the “standards” of your neighbors, brought us cookbooks aimed at giving banquet-level culinary knowledge to home cooks. By the end of the 1800s, several competing food writers–Eliza Acton, Isabella Beeton, and our Lady of the American Kitchen, Fannie Farmer–had popular books out.

A typical Victorian kitchen

Farmer’s famous The Boston Cooking School Cookbook didn’t just contain almost 1900 recipes; the book also included instructions for how to make dough, warm an oven, find ingredients, and much of anything else a home cook with no school training would need to consistently recreate those foods.[2] It’s considered the first truly detailed culinary guide.

Later, our Lady of the TV Kitchen, Julia Child, brought French cuisine to American cooks with the help of Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, ushering in another sort of French Revolution. By the 1970s, when Julia became queen of public broadcasting, “everyone” knew what a recipe was. Everyone knew how to read a recipe, and what you’d expect to find in it.

I was born the last year of The French Chef, Julia’s first television show, so I was born into this world where “everyone knows about recipes”. But the age of codified cooking is really not very old at all, and for most of the cakes we’re going to explore, it isn’t a limited access to money or ingredients which kept the average home cooking from baking them.

Cake baking was a secret kind of knowledge, too.

[1] Jean Bottéro and Teresa Lavender Fagan, The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia (2004).

[2] Fannie Merritt Farmer, The Boston cooking-school cook book (1911). Read it online here.

Also: Check out Fannie’s Last Supper, a documentary (now on Netflix) which shows Christopher Kimball and his team recreating dishes from Farmer’s cookbook, and the massive effort that required.