The Atlantic

A 600-Year History of Cookbooks as Status Symbols

Tracing the path from 15th-century royal kitchens to 1992’s The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous Cookbook and beyond
Source: Barney Burstein / Corbis / VCG via Getty

Early cookbooks were fit for kings. In the 15th and 16th centuries in Western Europe, the oldest published recipe collections emanated from the palaces of monarchs, princes, and grandes señores. At this time, no one was trying to build a business out of selling cookbooks. Instead, they were often created within a court culture, partly intended as aidés-memoire for chief stewards and partly for royalty to demonstrate the luxury of their banquets.

Gradually, technology broadened cookbooks’ intended audiences. The introduction and spread of modern printing in the 15th century eventually made it viable to think beyond the wealthiest customer bases. During the following centuries, publishers began putting out cookbooks (and books of all sorts) with less well-off readers in mind. Sometimes, this targeting was made explicit, as was the case with Plain Cookery for the Working Classes, published in England in 1847. In time, as new ideas formed about equality, democracy, and social stratification, presenting certain books as best suited for rich or for poor was no longer considered effective marketing, but culinary literature nonetheless has borne class markers for as long as it has existed.

Publishers know this well, as I explain in my recent book,. When printing technology granted them the ability to reach a broader audience, they began putting out cookbooks with gentlemen and their housewives in mind, not just kings and princes. The “housewives” found in the titles of English cookbooks and household books in the 17th century—for example —were not thrifty suburban mothers of three with a husband in an office in town. They were ladies or gentlewomen of the landed gentry who had great responsibilities at their estate, where they directed not only cooking, brewing, and baking, but the production of butter and cheese, the preservation of wines, the dyeing of textiles, and the management of medicines for the whole household, servants included.

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