July 28, 2010
Blockbuster cookbooks and celebrity chefs date back to the 18th century
We might think that today’s celebrity chef and cookbook mania is unique. In 2006 alone, Americans spent over half a billion dollars on cookbooks, Sherman writes in her fascinating history, and almost 2,000 cookbooks were published that year. This when more than 38,000 were already in print! It’s hard from our perspective to imagine a time more cook and cookbook crazy.
In fact, however, the modern blockbuster cookbook (The Joy of Cooking or Mastering the Art of French Cooking, for example) has roots in women-authored cookbooks of the 18th century. Lydia Fisher’s The Prudent Housewife (1750) was printed 25 times, Sherman tells us, and hers was only one of several cookbooks that went through multiple printings.
Robert May was the first great English celebrity chef, a “master of self-promotion,” according to Sherman, with an ego to match his cooking skills. In his 1665 Accomplisht Cook, as was the custom of the day, he included poems by hacks for hire. They were the celebrity blurbs of the 17th century, often penned by uncredentialed unknowns who were sometimes comically clueless about their subjects. Their job was to write “puffery.” In other words, not too different from today’s celebrity puff piece.
Accomplisht Cook featured a frontispiece portrait of the chef, a glowing bio detailing all the famous people May cooked for, and his extensive experience in continental kitchens. These story-telling techniques were the same ones I employed in the many chef profiles I reported as a correspondent for People, in which a crucial element was which celebrities ate at said chef’s “posh” or “tony” restaurant. Sherman amusingly compares Grant Achatz’s 2008 book Alinea (also the name of his Chicago restaurant), in its self-promotional zest, to May’s Accomplisht Cook, what with its numerous introductions, serious essays by noted food journalists, musings on the nature of the cooking genius, and homage not to his biological father, as May paid, but to his spiritual father, Thomas Keller.
The arrival of women celebrity chefs in the second quarter of the18th century injected a note of modesty, practicality and relatability into the celebrity cookbook, softening its image much as Julia Child brought a breath of fresh air and undercut the Olympian poses of male French predecessors such as Antonin Carême or Auguste Escoffier.
Best-selling British cookbook author Hannah Glasse addressed the reader directly and refreshingly in her book The Art of Cookery, a bit like a chef-blogger today might chat directly with her legions of followers. Sherman describes this approach as “an in-your-face refutation of pompous French chefs.”
In her book, The Experienced English House-keeper, best-selling British author Elizabeth Raffald affected a warm competence that won over readers, drawing them in further by confiding how the labors of putting the book together had compromised her health. A precursor, perhaps, to the over-sharing that is a hallmark of not just today’s cookbooks, but all print and social media.
There’s so much more good stuff in this book that sheds light on today’s culinary landscape that you’ll just have to buy it yourself and read it!