The archive of eatingOctober 30, 2015 by Darcie
Cookbooks have been around for centuries, and no matter how many of them are published, we clamor for more. The idea of cataloging these cookbook recipes has also been around for a long time. As The New York Times reports, food historian Barbara Ketcham Wheaton has been working on such a database for over five decades.
The article takes a fascinating look at Wheaton, author of Savoring the Past: The French Kitchen and Table From 1300 to 1789, a superb history of gastronomy in France “spritzed with darts of wit, like lemon juice on a fillet of turbot.” For nearly 50 years, she has also pursued a database project known as ”The Cook’s Oracle,” where “she intends to log every recipe, ingredient and technique in the vast majority of all the cookbooks published in America and Europe.”
This database is an ambitious undertaking. The first books are “medieval manuscripts like ”The Forme of Cury,” a collection penned on vellum in the 14th century. (Typical recipe: pottage of gourds, a kind of braised pumpkin with saffron.) [The database] provisionally ends in the early 20th century, with instructions for such dishes as ”Improved Sausage,” by Mrs. Clara Ware (the improvement is to add a ”heaping teaspoonful” of ground cloves to the sausage meat).” While the database could contain modern books as well, that will be a challenge since over 24,000 cookbooks are published annually worldwide (we contribute as much as we can to that endeavor here at EYB).
Wheaton’s database produces fascinating finds. In it, you can trace the rise and fall of ingredients like mutton and globe artichokes, and you can see how recipes themselves change over time. For instance, “An American cookbook from 1881 includes many recipes for marble cake, but almost no verbs, because the authors assumed that the method for marbling batter was common knowledge.” Read more about the database and Wheaton’s devotion to it at The NY Times.
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