Women in the Kitchen : Twelve Essential Cookbook Writers Who Defined the Way We Eat, from 1661 to Today, by chef and cookbook author Anne Willan, is a history of cookbooks written by women in both the US and UK, from the very first such book published to modern times and the advent of cooking shows. Richly detailed and packed with recipes that have been adapted for current use, I found it a great read (although definitely not one which can be consumed in a single setting).
While I collect cookbooks (especially Ms. Willan’s Look and Cook series), until now I’d never actually thought about the process of writing one, or how this might have worked back in the Georgian era. But Ms. Willan delves deep into the lives of women of that time, showing the different markets to which they appealed—ladies wanting elegant meals for entertaining, or middle-class housewives in need of nourishing meals, or women who valued economy and frugality above all. Each author, from Hannah Woolley, who published the first such “household manual” in English, to Julia Child to Marcella Hazan, who popularized Italian cuisine in 1973, brings her own experience to shape her book and to put her unique stamp on it.
I also enjoyed the details about these authors’ lives; how Mrs. Rutledge, for instance, was never married, but availed herself of that prefix nonetheless, and how Lydia Child published a cookbook to raise money after her husband, a staunch abolitionist but an irresponsible man, ended up in jail. Plagiarism was common back in the day, and another author ended up with two different publishers, leading to several court injunctions being issued until the Lord Chancellor himself had to intervene.
Many older cookbooks didn’t confine themselves to recipes but gave hints on medicines, beauty tips and suggestions for how to run a household. I especially like the one about buying meat from a butcher and then weighing it again at home. If you’ve ever wondered which cookbooks first featured blank pages for the readers’ own notes, or which one had – as an instruction to novices – “stand facing the stove”, it’s all here.
Another noteworthy aspect of the book is its geographical scope. Old recipes from the US, for instance, featured ingredients you wouldn’t find in the ones from England, and some incorporated Native American dishes as well. One author featured here is Edna Lewis, the granddaughter of slaves, who wrote in lyrical detail about picking wild strawberries as a child, and why fried chicken was considered a special dish in Virginia. She was the first black woman to achieve fame in the States for publishing a cookbook.
Very few ethnic cuisine cookbooks were published before the 1960s. Joyce Chen, one of the first acclaimed Asian-American chefs and cookbook writers, didn’t publish her first book, The Joyce Chen Cook Book, until 1962.
Most of all, this book is a mouthwatering smorgasbord, a tribute to the kitchen and to the wonders women worked inside (and out of) it. Educational as well as entertaining, it’s highly recommended for readers who are fascinated by food and by women’s history—and for anyone interested in cookbooks, it’s a keeper. Eat something first, then check this out. You won’t be disappointed.
Buy it at: Amazon, Audible, or your local independent retailer
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