Tasting the Past. Cookbooks and Recipe Collections in an Entangled World

Eating is one of the most basic human needs. At the same time, it shapes our individual life and identity. It influences and is affected by our relationship to the society we live in and the environment we inhabit. It connects people and sets them apart: When we travel to foreign countries or visit new places, food is one way of experiencing difference. Getting to know new dishes and foreign cuisine can even change our own ways of living. And sharing food also is one of the most basic and most important means for building social relations. Studying the history of food, we can trace travelling foodstuffs and cuisines and the changes their journeys entailed, learn something about local dishes and their entanglements with the larger world, and explore very personal stories of belonging, mobility, and displacement.


Still Life with Fruit, Plates and Dishes on a Turkey Carpet. Picture: Simon Luttichuys (attributed to), Francesco Fieravino (genaamd Il Maltese) (rejected attribution), 1650–1680.*
Still Life with Fruit, Plates and Dishes on a Turkey Carpet. Picture: Simon Luttichuys (attributed to), Francesco Fieravino (genaamd Il Maltese) (rejected attribution), 1650–1680.*

The following blog posts originate from a seminar with students from Tübingen, Athens and Rome. They will probe into food history and its connections to processes of entanglement and cultural change in the past. The seminar itself was part of the new CIVIS (“A European Civic University”) initiative, connecting eight major European universities with the aim of facilitating student exchanges and intercultural learning.


The transnational classroom has allowed the students to directly experience the entangled history of food: By discussing different recipes from their own family archives, the role of food in (re)creating memories and belonging became visible. Interestingly, many recipes that were meaningful to students were connected to stories of mobility and migration. At the same time, the ways we access and store culinary knowledge and recipes is obviously conditioned by different media settings and communicative practices. While printed cookbooks and makeshift recipe collections still retain their place on our shelves, everyday kitchen life is increasingly influenced by web-based collections such as “Chefkoch.de” and cooking videos on YouTube, leading us to wonder what the culinary family archive of the future will look like.


Imprint of a historical cookbook from 1785. Picture: Engelmann, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.**
Imprint of a historical cookbook from 1785. Picture: Engelmann, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.**

Building on these reflections, the seminar took a broad temporal approach. Addressing questions of media change and inter-mediality, we for instance studied the first printed cookbook (dating to the 1470s) but also the much longer tradition of handwritten recipe collections and the concomitant elements of orality in printed cookbooks today. The different linguistic backgrounds and skills of the transnational group helped us to trace and compare different translations of a late medieval cookbook and also to discuss hindrances “travelling recipes” might have encountered.


Maria Konstantinidou analyses what is widely known as the “earliest English cookbook” and makes visible the influences of Arabic cuisine therein. Comparing two versions of the same dish in the different manuscripts of the so-called “Forme of Cury” (ca. 1390), she traces different stages in the adaptation and transfer of recipes.


Lena Storm equally takes a cornerstone of English identity as a starting-point to trace entanglements and transfers in food culture: She discusses how hopped beer was introduced in England and shows that what is now a “national signature drink” was once associated with dangerous foreigners – namely, the Dutch and German migrants who brought the respective brewing techniques to London in the late fourteenth century.


Mirjam Wien analyzes a cookbook that at first glance seems to open a window into distinct Jewish foodways around 1800. Yet, on closer scrutiny she can reveal that the book was far from an expression of “authentic” Jewish cuisine but rather part of the project of integrating Jews into German society.


While Mirjam Wien shows that there was indeed politics in cookbooks, Jamila Converso encourages us to think further about the multiple functions and purposes of such texts: Indeed, cookbooks may not always have been intended as guidance for cooking at all. Discussing a recipe collection created by imprisoned Italian soldiers during the First World War, she shows how recipes can also be used to re-create images of home and feelings of belonging in a foreign country. The vernacular collection she introduces also highlights the diversity of regional cuisines throughout the Italian Peninsula seldomly documented in printed cookbooks.


Carl Gremmel takes yet another approach. He analyses cookbooks as mirrors of changing social values over the second half of the twentieth century. Studying the famous Dr. Oetker cookbook, he argues that food preparation from the 1970s onwards was no longer connected to a social responsibility, but instead to personal fulfillment.


Written by Christina Brauner and Daniel Menning 

For more information about the Institute of Modern History follow the link below:

University of Tübingen > external link


For more information about the authors click on their names:

Christina Brauner

Daniel Menning

A project sponsored by:

Recommended readings (selection):

AlbalaKen / Chapman, Joyce  / Freedman, Paul  (eds.): Food in Time and Place, Oakland 2014.

Appadurai, Arjun: How to Make a National Cuisine: Cookbooks in Contemporary India, in: Comparative Studies in Society and History 30 (1988), pp. 3-24.

Bruegel, Martin / Laurioux, Bruno (eds.): Histoire et identités alimentaires en Europe, Paris 2002.

Bender, Daniel / Pilcher, Jeffrey: Editors’ Introduction. Radicalizing the History of Food, in: Radical History Review 110 (2011), DOI 10.1215/01636545-2010-023.

DiMeo, Michelle / Pennell, Sara (eds.): Reading and Writing Recipe Books, 15501800, Manchester 2013.

Flandrin, Jean-Louis / Montanari Massimo (eds.): Food. A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present, transl. Albert Sonnenfeld, New York 1999.

Pilcher, Jeffrey (ed.): The Oxford Handbook of Food History, Oxford 2012.

Scholliers, Peter / Claflin, Kyle (eds.): Writing food history: a global perspective, London 2012.


Pictures (incl. external links):

* (C) by Rijks Museum. Distributed under a public CC-license, URL: https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/collection/SK-A-2551.

** (C) Engelmann, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons:

Page: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wienerisches_bew%C3%A4hrtes_Kochbuch_1785_Titelkupfer.jpg

File: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4f/Wienerisches_bew%C3%A4hrtes_Kochbuch_1785_Titelkupfer.jpg


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