The Art Of The Cookbook

history of the cook book, cookbook CBS/iStockphoto

If the American passion for food is legendary, our appetite for cookbooks is not far behind, as CBS Sunday Morning correspondent Elizabeth Kaledin discovered.

Browse through any book store and the aisles are boiling over with culinary titles. Sales of cookbooks will top 500 million dollars this year.

But the art of recording recipes is not a new phenomenon:

Dating back to the year 840, "The Apicius" is a collection of recipes attributed to the Roman gourmet Marcus Apicius.

Miriam Mandelbaum showed us a copy at New York's Academy of Medicine, painstakingly handcopied on parchment by monks. "It is indeed the oldest cookbook in the West," Mandelbaum said.

It's one of only two originals in the world, and is considered priceless. But you could always pick up an English translation for 8 bucks at Bonnie Slotnick's Rare Cookbook Store in New York's Greenwich Village.

Her tiny little space is overflowing with the unusual and the out-of-print — about four thousands titles, but she hasn't counted.

"People will come in, look around, and swoon with delight," Slotnik said. "And the next thing they say is, it's terrible. It's an addiction! My wife won't let me in the house with another cookbook. And I always say we resist the disease model here. Be glad that you have a passion for something!"

Her passion was sparked by a frail, time-worn cookbook belonging to her mother who died when Bonnie was just 13.

"My mother had a little booklet advertising butternut bread, which I think still exists," Slotnik said. "And it was a little book of wartime household tips."

Slotnick believes that cookbooks are so popular because they have the power to make both mouths and eyes water. They are a savory stew of meals and memories:

"I just love to see people find a book from their past," she said. "First their tears well up in their eyes, and they just go back to a place where they felt happy and secure."

Kaledin experienced her own food flashback with the discovery of a Peanuts cookbook from her past. "I had this! I used to make Lucy's Lemon Squares! I'm having a moment! Music up!"

To find her stock, Slotnick visits as many used bookstores as possible. Armed with a wish list from devoted customers she hunts for the hard-to-find.

One day Slotnick hopes to leave her books to the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at the Radcliffe Institute, part of Harvard University. There are 16,000 books on food in the collection. Marylene Altieri is the curator.

Among their collection is the first American cookbook, published by an American orphan whose real name was Amelia Simmons.

When cookbooks became a major part of the overall collection in the 1960s, like so many other things associated with the kitchen, feminists of the era rebelled.

"There were many women who felt that they had left cooking behind, and that therefore the library that represented women's history should not be dominated by a collection focusing on cookery," Altieri said. "But it wasn't long before people began to realize that this was absolutely essential to understanding the history of women."

And today it is viewed as an invaluable resource — a glimpse into the day-to-day lives of everyone, from freed slaves ("What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking," one of the first books published by an African-American woman) to our greatest chefs (such as Julia Child's personal copy of "The Joy of Cooking").

Since 1931, "The Joy of Cooking"'s straightforward recipes have helped millions of Americans find their way around the kitchen. To date more than 18 million copies have been sold.

Irma Rombauer was an unassuming widow from St. Louis who self-published her recipes 75 years ago and managed to turn them into gourmet gold. "The Joy of Cooking" is the bestselling cookbook of all time.

Ethan Becker, the grandson of Rombauer, co-authored the latest edition published by Simon and Schuster (A CBS company). He taught me the fine art of preparing brussel sprouts that even the finicky will devour. He also taught me the secret of the book's success: it makes cooking sound so easy, like anyone can do it.

"Well, that's the whole point," Becker said. "Anybody can do it!"

And that's perhaps the best recipe for happiness.

  • Caitlin Johnson

Comments

Follow Us

On Twitter