A brief history of culinary books
For home chefs
The Mezze Cookbook, The Nordic Baking Book, Japan: The Cookbook, Brae. It’s a tiny selection of the inspiring culinary books (all published by distinguished cookbook publisher Phaidon) that decorate the shelves of our MENDO stores. We’ll get to those and the other pristine culinary books that are on display, after we go back in time.
Cookbooks, and culinary books in general, have been on the rise since a while now. But the basic principle of what a cookbook is, ‘a book of cooking directions and recipes; a book of detailed instructions’ (according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary) has been around for ages – you could say that cookbooks are as old as books itself.
Basically, a page with a recipe on it can be seen as part of a cookbook. That would mean that the first ‘cookbook’ is the Roman collection of recipes called ‘De re coquinaria’ – it dates from the 1st century. There are also various Arabic, Chinese, High German and Valencian cookbooks named in our history books – so we can easily state that cookbooks have been around for about 2000 years.
Still, the collection of ’tablets’ or ‘pages’ with recipes are not really the same thing as the culinary books that we know nowadays. That changed in the 16th and 17th Century, when the printing press was invented. In England and The Netherlands, there was a fierce competition between “the noble families as to who could prepare the most lavish banquet”. The Dutch book ‘Een notabel boecxken van cokeryen’ for instance featured recipes for a white sauce for fowl, and includes recipes for 23 pastries and 16 tarts.
Because of the ruff between noble families, cookery grew to be a form of art, and many cookbooks were published as an effect of the increasing demand. By the 20th Century, cookbooks were a common genre, and Irma Rombauer’s ‘Joy of Cooking’ and Betty Crocker’s Cookbook were both selling millions of copies. But the real rise of the cookbook came with the rise of the celebrity chef, which has not only transformed the restaurant industry, but also the way we eat.
The elevation of the ‘rock ’n’ roll top chef’ started in the 1990’s, roughly ten years after the term ‘Foodie’ was coined, when an American cable channel called ’The Food Network’ would broadcast cooking chefs for 24 hours, day in day out. These chefs became as famous as movie stars: Gordon Ramsay, Rachael Ray, Anthony Bourdain, Emeril Lagasse, Julia Child and Bobby Flay were to been seen everywhere.
Due to their huge popularity, top chefs basically became brands. Jamie Oliver didn’t only run several restaurants and appeared on television; home cooks could also recreate his creations through recipes from his cookbooks. “There are a lot of culinary books that are not for sale at MENDO,’ MENDO’s Roy says, ‘oftentimes because they do not excel on a visual and inspirational level.’
The road was paved for a varying and broad spectrum of culinary books, and the number of beautifully created books with a discernible love for paper, design and inspiration found their way to MENDO. ‘Culinary books keep getting more and more astonishing,’ says MENDO’s Roy. ‘That is one of the reasons why one can find cookbooks on both our online and offline shelves. In the three years that we have been selling culinary books, I can clearly see the development: culinary books are getting more creative and allround visually interesting – the books also offer a high level of design and paper quality.’
With so many Netflix shows like Chef’s Table, the visibility, approachability and reach of top chefs has reached a whole new level. French chef Dominique Crenn even became the first woman in the United States to earn three stars for her San Francisco restaurant Atelier Crenn, after being featured on Chef’s Table.
That popularity is also translated to the culinary books that are on display at MENDO: through the years, gourmet customers have been served with several restaurant-specific books like Noma, and rock star-chef specific publications, like Nopi, Brae, Aska, Borago, Central and the recently appeared René Redzepi: A Journal.
Along with the knowledge about (preparing) food, the broader idea behind cookbooks is developing quickly, Roy explains: ‘books are responding to the zeitgeist – books like Waste Not, Greek Vegetarian, Delicious Places and Alain Ducasse’s Simply Nature focus on a responsible way of cooking and eating. Another new phenomenon of interest are the cookbooks about specific places and their cuisines, like books about Japan, Greece, China, Spain, India and Thailand, or the The Nordic Baking Book.
Although the culinary books draw inspiration from all over the world, and have a rich history that goes back to 2,000 years ago, we can state that cookbooks are still gaining ground, and they’re getting better and more visually inspiring along the way. Whether it’s about recycling food, a specific country’s cuisine, about one peculiar ingredient or a Michelin Star restaurant slash chef: there’s a rich future for culinary books, which can be discovered at MENDO.
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