The following Receipts [Ed. note: recipes] are not a mere marrowless collection of shreds, and patches, and cuttings, and pastings, from obsolete works, but a bona fide register of practical facts, accumulated by a perseverance not to be subdued, or evaporated, by the igniferous terrors of a roasting fire in the dog-days. The Receipts have been written down by the fireside “with a spit in one hand, and a pen in the other,” … the author submitting to a labour no preceding Cookery-Book-maker, perhaps, ever attempted to encounter; having eaten each Receipt, before he set it down in his book.
So rants William Kitchiner, in the preface of his 1817 The Cook’s Oracle 1, a collection of cooking instructions and over 500 recipes for all types of foods.
Later in the preface, he continues his tirade:
Most of these books2 vary but little from each other, except in the prefatory matter: cutting and pasting seem to have been much oftener employed than the pen and ink: any one who has occasion to refer to two or three of them, will find the receipts almost always “verbatim et literatim;” equally unintelligible to those who are ignorant of, and useless to those who are acquainted with, the business of the kitchen.
Yes, Dr. Kitchiner3 is passionate about his work and doesn’t think much of his contemporaries and predecessors. He backs up his claims with hundreds of pages of (supposedly) original content, clear writing, and fully tested recipes.
Random Old Cookbook Find
I came across The Cook’s Oracle during one of my many random literature searches in Google Books or the Hathi Trust. I was looking for one thing — perhaps trying to solve the mystery of rye bread ice cream, or looking for molasses cookies, or some other offbeat goal — and I ran across an interesting recipe in this book (which I’ll write about in the future).
As I looked into The Cook’s Oracle, I learned that there are good reasons that several editions of this old cookbook have been collected by prominent libraries and digitized: it was a big seller — across several editions between 1817 and 1829, it sold 70,000 copies in England 4). It also was published at an important time in cookbook history, when the quality of cookbooks was improving and form of recipes was evolving.
On Plagiarism in Early Cookery Books
Kitchiner’s comments about “cutting and pasting” (plagiarism) were warranted. In an article about the evolution of British cookery books, Alan Davidson writes, “It was not uncommon for the more heinous offense of pirating a complete book to be committed; and this was done on a transatlantic basis in the latter half of the century when whole books on cookery, published in England, were republished in North America without so much as a by-your-leave.” (p. 102).
In Britain, one of the most famous cookery books from the 18th century, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse (1747) was significantly copied from other works. Over 200 years later several scholars identified 263 recipes (out of 972) that were copied nearly word for word from a 1737 book called The Whole Duty of a Woman) and 90 copied from other sources. 5
As I read Kitchiner’s complaints, I noticed parallels to our current internet era: plagiarism, content stealing, and posting untested recipes are all too common. It’s so easy to copy and paste that some websites rely on unauthorized use of others’ work; and the need for new content (‘feeding the beast’) can sometimes lead to poorly tested recipes. If you want to protect your content from thieves or track them down, a post from Elise Bauer at Food Blog Alliance gives tips about how to deal with copyright theft (and also some basics about copyright law).
I don’t know about consensual content sharing in the 19th century, but nowadays we have Creative Commons licenses, which allow content creators to mark their work for sharing and specify how they want it shared. (This blog, for example, is currently covered by a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Generic License.)
Coming soon: As I mentioned above, Kitchener’s book was published during a period of cookbook evolution, and I’ll cover part of that evolution in my next post.
- Kitchiner, William, Apicius Redivivus; Or, The Cook’s Oracle, Second Edition, 1817, printed for John Hatchard, London. Multiple editions of Kitchiner’s book are on-line in full: Kitchiner’s Cook’s Oracle at Hathi Trust and Kitchiner’s books at Google Books.
- Dalrymple, Theodore, “His gastronomical practices,” BMJ: British Medical Journal, Vol. 345, No. 7869 (11 August 2012), p. 35.
- Davidson, Alan, “The Natural History of British Cookery Books,” The American Scholar, Vol. 52, No. 1 (Winter 1983), pp. 98-106.
- Notaker, Henry, A History of Cookbooks: From Kitchen to Page over Seven Centuries, University of California Press (Oakland, CA), 2017.
Baker’s Kitchen (engraving by Benard) from Wellcome Collection Images, CC By 4.0. Title page of Apicius Redivivus; Or, The Cook’s Oracle from Hathi Trust (original from the New York Public Library).
- Apicius Redivivus was the original title of the book, but after a few editions, he made it the subtitle, so to make the book more accessible. “Apicius” refers to De Re Cocinaria, the famous ancient Roman recipe collection. “Redivius” is Latin for renewed/regenerated/renovated
- “[T]hese books” were over 100 cooking books that he reviewed and listed in his book
- Born in 1775, died in 1827. Dalrymple (see reference list) writes that Kitchiner claimed to be a doctor but his supposed medical school has no record of his graduation
- This figure is in the preface to the 1830 U.S. edition of The Cook’s Oracle
- For details and the sources of the scholarship that revealed Glasse’s copying, see the Hannah Glasse entry in The Oxford Companion to Food.