The cookbook that helped save a language

Cookbooks are amazing things: they tell stories, share culinary touchstones for cultures, and provide us with instructions on how to make the most fabulous foods. One cookbook goes above and beyond, however. Gastro Obscura shares the story of Valentin Vodnik’s 1799 volume, simply called The Cookbook, which helped to save an entire language.

Vodnik was a priest on a mission to popularize the Slovenian language, which he felt was in danger of dying out due to the influences of other regional languages such as German, Italian, Hungarian, and Serbian. “If things continue as they are, we will soon see people from different parts of our land unable to understand each other; one will become Germanized, the other will be half Italian,” he warned readers in the foreword to his cookbook. He relied on informants who he tasked with finding words in the Slovene language that were only used regionally, combining everything into a coherent whole that all Slovenians could understand.

The cookbook was among a slew of other books, including technical manuals, poetry, and dictionaries, published by Vodnik and others in the intellectual group known as the Zois Circle. The cookbook was a strange choice because it is likely that Vodnik himself did not know how to cook. Nevertheless, he translated popular German recipes into the Slovene language. There were almost no common Slovene foods to be found in The Cookbook, and historians have differing opinions on why they were excluded. One theory is that Vodnik chose these recipes to offer common citizens “a better sort of cuisine, while also proving that the Slovene language is capable of expressing everything that other languages can.”

The Cookbook proved to be a vital touchstone for Magdalena Pleiweis, who wrote The Slovene Cookbook, which can be found in almost ever Slovene kitchen. That book has been continually updated since it was first published in 1868, and to this day it contains recipes that were lifted from (or at least inspired by) Vodnik’s 1799 book, like one for chocolate soup. That recipe from The Slovene Cookbook is included in the article, and it sounds similar to the Chocolate soup with nut crumble pictured above.

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