Understanding the Cookbook Tree of Life

The Cookbook Tree of Life

In an intriguing blog recently on ZesterAnne Willan wrote about her most recent culinary project:  “I was lying in bed, thinking about the family tree hanging in my closet, when I hit on the concept of The Cookbook Tree of Life. Just four cookbooks are the ancestors of all the cookbooks that are on our shelves today. Would it work? Were there clear links between each generation of cookbooks just like people? I honestly wasn’t sure whether I could connect the dots and slept on the idea feeling dubious.”

And, after analyzing the subject, she decided on yes, “It is fascinating to see how all genres lead back down to just four original cookbooks, one in Latin, one in French, one in German and one in English.

  •  “De honesta voluptate et valetudine” by Platina (c. 1474) Latin
  •  “Le viandier” by Taillevent (Guillaume Tirel) (1486) French
  •  “K┼▒chenmeisterei” author unknown (1485) German
  •  “Boke of Cokery” author unknown (1500) English

Taking the idea further, she produced two products. The first is a new book,  The Cookbook Library: Four Centuries of the Cooks, Writers, and Recipes That Made the Modern Cookbook, which she wrote with her husband, Mark Cherniavsky. Looking at cookbooks over history, she describes how each cookbook reflects its time, and may reflect culinary crosscurrents among the cuisines of England, France, Italy, Germany, and Spain. 

The second product is a poster reflecting the Cookbook Tree of Life 1474-1861, which is published as a limited edition and can be found at Willen’s website, La Varenne. Take a look – it’s fascinating to study almost 400 years of cookbook history in one image!  


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