The Magic of Old Cookbooks

Old cookbooks are time-traveling machines. Pick up a copy of The Joy of Cooking, or A La Rector, or Betty Crocker and you’ll find culinary artifacts that will entice and perhaps nauseate you.

Obviously, I’m a big fan of old cookbooks though I only have the one.

Die Agri Cultura

The first published collection of recipes is arguably Di Agri Cultura, by Cato the Elder, in 160 B.C. This was not a cookbook, however, but a manual for running a farm. Obviously, one farms so one can eat. A few recipes were appropriate.

Elder was a general, senator, and historian famous for writing his works in his native Latin (a rarity) instead of Greek. He was a conservative politician, and quite avidly opposed to Hellenization. His use of Latin may be why Italy speak Italian now instead of Greek.

I’d like to include this rather long recipe as an example of how recipes were recorded for many years:

Make placenta in this way. Two pounds of wheat flour, from which you make the base, four pounds of flour and two pounds of best spelt for the tracta [note — these appear to be drawn-out strips of pastry]. Soak the spelt in water.

When it is well-softened, place in a clean mortar and drain well. Then knead with your hands. When it will have been well kneaded, add four pounds of flour gradually. Make both into tracta. Arrange them in a wicker basket, where they may dry.

When they will dry, arrange them equally. With each side, touch the tracta with a cloth anointed with oil, when they will have been kneaded, and wipe them all over and anoint them with oil. When the tracta will have been made, warm well the hearth where you will cook, and the earthen pot. Afterwards, moisten the two pounds of wheat flour and knead together.

From this make a thin base. Soak fourteen pounds of sheep’s cheese, not sour and very fresh, in water. Then soften it, and change the water three times. From this, take it out and dry it very gradually with the hands; place it, well dried, in a mortar. When all the cheese will have been well-dried, knead it together with your hands in a clean mortar, and break it down as much as possible. Then take a clean flour sieve and make the cheese pass through the sieve into the mortar.

Afterwards, put in four and a half pounds of good honey. Mix this together well with the cheese. Afterwards place the balteus [literally a girdle – Cato’s directions are a little unclear here, but this seems to refer to the base made previously from wheat flour, which is then wrapped around the whole cake before it bakes] on a clean board, which extends for one foot, add oiled laurel leaves, and form the placenta.

First place single tracta over the whole base, then smear the tracta with the mixture from the mortar, add the tracta one by one; in the same way smear continuously for as long as until all the cheese with the honey will have been used up. On the top place single tracta, afterwards wrap over the base and prepare, sweep out and control the hearth, then put in the placenta, cover with a hot crock, cover over at the top and sides with hot coal.

See that it cooks through well and at leisure. Uncover while you inspect it two or three times. When it will have been cooked, take it out and spread it with honey. This will be a half-modius cake.’

Ok, Unless you count the Yale tablets

The Yale tablets are probably the actual oldest cookbooks in which recipes were written down. They were created about 1750 B.C. (a little more than 3700 years ago) and the complexity of the Akkadian script and the rarity of the ingredients make scholars think these recipes represented the kind of food literally fit for a king. As far as I can tell, one of the 7 recipes is for bird pizza:

Remove the head and feet. Open the body and clean the birds, reserving the gizzards and the pluck. Split the gizzards and clean them. Next rinse the birds and flatten them. Prepare a pot and put birds, gizzards and pluck into it before placing it on the fire.

Put the pot back on the fire. Rinse out a pot with fresh water. Place beaten milk into it and place it on the fire. Take the pot (containing the birds) and drain it. Cut off the inedible parts, then salt the rest, and add them to the vessel with the milk, to which you must add some fat. Also add some rue, which has already been stripped and cleaned. When it has come to a boil, add minced leek, garlic, samidu [a kind of onion] and onion (but not too much onion).

Rinse crushed grain, then soften it in milk and add to it, as you kneed it, salt, samidu, leeks and garlic along with enough milk and oil so that a soft dough will result which you will expose to the heat of the fire for a moment. Then cut it into two pieces. Take a platter large enough to hold the birds. Place the prepared dough on the bottom of the plate. Be careful that it hangs over the rim of the platter only a little. Place it on top of the oven to cook it. On the dough which has already been seasoned, place the pieces of the birds as well as the gizzards and pluck. Cover it with the bread lid and send it to the table.

Then there’s this example of old cookbooks

The Kitab al-Ṭabīḫ was written in 10th century Baghdad by Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq and offered 300 or more recipes from the Islamic cuisine of that time. Including a dish for braised flamingo which is goddam. I would love to pick this rcipe out of the book and write witty snarkish things about it but this guy already did and did it really well. Plus he cooked and consumed the dish (using duck, you perv).



is an award-winning author and columnist from Chicago. His newest book is The Full English, a humorous travel memoir. His previous book, Death By Children, was IndieFab’s 2013 Humor Book of the Year. Bull is the founder and senior writer for Creative Writer PRO, and the impresario, host, and owner with his wife, Colleen, of Chicago’s premier private supper club, Eating Vincent Price.

Bull Garlington

is an award-winning author and columnist from Chicago. His newest book is The Full English, a humorous travel memoir. His previous book, Death By Children, was IndieFab's 2013 Humor Book of the Year. Bull is the founder and senior writer for Creative Writer PRO, and the impresario, host, and owner with his wife, Colleen, of Chicago's premier private supper club, Eating Vincent Price.

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