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Dinner-Time-Travel: Five historical cookbooks to throw you back in time

Simon Owens By Simon Owens Published on August 26, 2016

How often do you get home from work, check the contents of your fridge, microwave your Soylent Green, and eat it wishing you had more creative ideas about what to make for dinner? This wasn’t how our ancestors lived. Your forefathers very likely lived their whole lives not knowing what a Pop Tart was, and while their existences were doubtless bereft of joy for that fact, they had to get creative with the ingredients they had.

Back when the ingredients and equipment to hand were simpler, people were forced to put more ingenuity (and often more work) into the preparation of their food, and in doing so they may even have made things palatable.

This is an article for those of us who have swilled down our breakfast of simple proteins and amino-acids and wondered, “Is there a better way?”

There is a better way. Enjoy temporal-gastro-tourism through the following list five of our favorite historical cookbooks.

Anne Chotzinoff Grossman & Lisa Grossman Thomas: Lobscouse and Spotted Dog

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We have avoided using the book’s full title above, largely because “Lobscouse and Spotted Dog: Which It’s a Gastronomic Companion to the Aubrey/Maturin Novels” is so long as to look entirely ridiculous as a heading, but also because it gives the impression that the book is entirely without merit if you haven’t yet read Patrick O’Brian’s series of seafaring novels, beginning with Master & Commander.

For those unfamiliar with the series, Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series is a 20-and-a-half book series focussing on the adventures of captain Jack Aubrey as he ascends the ranks of the navy alongside his friend and ship’s surgeon Stephen Maturin. Over the course of 20 books aboard ship, O’Brian found a lot of time to talk about the things the crew were forced to eat, so much so that those meals (and fair approximations of them where necessary) were collated into Lobscouse and Spotted Dog.

The recipes are delivered according to when they would be prepared and for whom. They are illuminated with notes that can only be the result of long hours of research and careful kitchen refinement. If you’ve ever wanted to try 19th century naval cooking, this is probably your best hope.

While Maturin periodically makes reference to his taste for laudanum, there were sadly no recipes for the bedtime drink to be found in the book.

Fair warning: Many of the recipes in Lobscouse and Spotted Dog sound rightly horrifying. We cannot recommend eating them unless you are of stern, naval constitution.

Buy here.

Larry Edwards: The Totally Absolutely Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook

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Aside from the obvious joy we take in the fact that a man with the surname “Edwards” has written a book on Edwardian cooking, the connection with drama sensation Downton Abbey will likely mean that those of you reading this will already have at least a vague impression of what Edwardian cooking entails.

For those of us born into a station in which it is unfeasible to employ a full staff to attend the every beck and call of your household, Larry Edwards’ recipe book is specifically geared towards adapting the recipes of the day into something that you can make at home yourself. It lacks a little in the photography department, though one can only speculate as to whether this is because of the expense of photography in the period or because Edwardian food is relatively unspectacular.

Unfortunately, the usual difficulties of Edwardian cuisine (as so very well illustrated by Downton Abbey) will persist throughout your cooking and serving of the dishes. You may notice that your household staff begin to address you with undue familiarity, your sons may be called to war, and one of the scullery maids will scandalize herself most dreadfully.

There are a number of fairly stark historical inaccuracies littered throughout the book, but if you feel you can muddle through, there are plenty of dishes to be enjoyed.

Buy here.

Chelsea Monroe-Cassel & Sariann Lehrer: A Feast of Ice and Fire

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We understand that the world of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire (that’s Game of Thrones to those of you still experiencing it through TV land) isn’t really a “historical” setting, but there’s more than enough attention to detail in the presentation of food throughout Martin’s fantasy epic to warrant a cookbook. We have afforded ourselves this one source of fictional food.

The serving and preparation of food takes up so much of the Song of Ice and Fire that it is a fairly frequent source of complaint among long-time fans of the books. Why, they ask, would you write a thousand-page novel if several hundred pages are dedicated to the contents of the various pies and trenchers on the straining tables at King’s Landing? For those of us who enjoy those almost-historical representations of food, those feasts are a source of endless questions about how, precisely, one prepares a pigeon pie, a capon, or a brace of quail…

Where Lobscouse and Spotted Dog divides its recipes according to which watch they should be eaten under, A Feast of Ice and Fire approaches things geographically, presenting its recipes according to the region in which they’re most commonly found. This pleasantly facilitates those of us who want to take a culinary tour of the fictional world of the books. The instructions themselves are surprisingly straightforward, but include notes on historical sources and inspirations for recipes, ensuring a feeling of authenticity (even if there’s no “real” history to be authentic to).

If A Feast of Ice and Fire serves only to whet your appetite, you’d do well to check out the similarly well-regarded The Unofficial Game of Thrones Cookbook, which contains a further 150 recipes to break your teeth on.

Buy here.

Maggie Black: The Medieval Cookbook

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Medieval cooking might not sound all that interesting at first glance, but its worth considering that there's a pronounced disconnect between cooking in Europe today and cooking in medieval Europe. 

The Medieval Cookbook is an exploration of the type of cooking popular in a time before exotic foods like the potato and the tomato had been imported from the Americas. 

The recipes are often of-their-time enough to be offputting to those of us who have grown up with a modern palette. Realistically, you'll probably find that some of the recipes are a little tricky to prepare, not least because they rely on access to ingredients that are a little less fashionable now than in the Middle Ages.

Where many books on medieval cooking fall down is in their tendency to get bogged down in long-winded and scholarly description. Here, recipes are delivered in a no nonsense style, though with sprinkles of Middle English so that you can also argue that you're getting a solid linguistic education into the bargain. 

Perhaps best of all, the book is beautifully presented, with strong artwork accompanying the recipes. Too many medieval cookbooks neglect illustrations because of the prohibitive cost of having a team of scribes illuminate the manuscript.

Buy here.

Victoria Bellanger: Hello Jell-o

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As in any historical study, it’s important not to limit ourselves to that which we find pleasant or interesting. While the heady excesses of 19th century naval cuisine might seem appealing to us, humanity has endured culinary dark ages too. As hard as we’ve tried to forget them, there is something worth preserving from those grim times.

While the records from the period are sketchy at best, many archaeologists now believe that there was a period near the middle of the 20th century in which jelly-based cuisine was the height of popularity. Repulsive as it sounds to modern ears, it was a very fashionable pursuit (it can be no coincidence that the word “mouthfeel” first appears in the vernacular at almost exactly the same time as the collapse of the Jell-o empire).

Fortunately, Hello Jell-o has been written specifically so that you can avoid having to experience the horrors of that black period in kitchen history; this is a series of 50 recipes that seem to have been specifically chosen for the modern human palate. They include deserts and gelatinous drinks to help keep a party moving.

It is important not to forget a time when our hunter-gatherer forebears would retreated to their caves to hammer otherwise ordinary foods into molds and wait for them to take on the correct shape before eating.

These are recipes that deserve to be maintained… preserved in aspic, so to speak.

Buy here.

I am a man who enjoys hiking and woodland walks. I love the smell of freshly cut grass and of wild onions in early spring.


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