What is more universally interesting than food? Whatever time or place we might be studying, someone was eating. And so, one of the most fascinating and underused resources for exporing history is period cookbooks. Early cookbooks weren’t just about food. They often contained recipes for medicines, advice for gathering wild plants safely, and instructions for all manner of household tasks. For budding historical researchers who want to use primary sources to learn about life in another century, you can’t do much better.
Just a few years ago, finding antique cookbooks would have been a daunting task, requiring hours in used bookstores with no guarantee of success. But now, with a click of the mouse, you can view cookbooks from the 13th century forward.
Among the most user-friendly cookbook sites is Michigan State’s Feeding America site, including American cookbooks from the 18th-20th centuries. It features a 15-minute video on the historical importance of cookbooks, as well as searchable collections of both cookbooks, a helpful glossery of terms, and images of cooking implements. Want to see what a piggin, a hearth toaster or a jelly press looked like? This is the place! In case you are wondering, the object at the right is a piggin.
For explorations that go further back and around the world, explore the Historical Cookbooks Online site. There you’ll find cookbooks from the 13th century onward, most in English, and even one early account of food in ancient Rome. The cookbooks come from many sources, and sometimes offer you options to view online or download documents for use offline. Some of the older books also give you—and your students—opportunities to explore the English language as it existed hundreds of years ago. How about this recipe for cabbage, from a 15th century “cookery book.”
Caboges.—Take fayre caboges, an cutte hem, an pike hem clene and clene washe hem, an parboyle hem in fayre water, an þanne presse hem on a fayre bord; an þan choppe hem, and caste hem in a faire pot with goode freysshe broth, an wyth mery-bonys, and let it boyle: þanne grate fayre brede and caste þer-to, an caste þer-to Safron an salt; or ellys take gode grwel y-mad of freys flesshe, y-draw þorw a straynour, and caste þer-to. An whan þou seruyst yt inne, knocke owt þe marw of þe bonys, an ley þe marwe .ij. gobettys or .iij. in a dysshe, as þe semyth best, & serue forth.
Of course, if you’d rather go straight to historic recipes, rather than explore the cookbooks, there are multiple websites to help you. You could start with the Historic Recipe Bank from the Henry Ford Museum.
Finally, don’t miss the British Historic Cookbook–Cook It! site. It describes food facts and provides demonstration videos, beginning with prehistoric cooking techniques to the modern era. If you want to see how prehistoric cooks baked salmon, or a simulated prehistoric feast, you’ll find those podcasts here. Imagine creating a similar video reflecting your own local history. It would make a wonderful project to culminate cookbook research!
Recipes and cookbooks are a great place to help young people both raise and answer historical research questions—and maybe try some interesting food as well!