Blog: The Cookbook Family Tree with Anne Willan
Delicious dishes and Sunday family dinner staples have been passed down throughout recorded history. For that reason, it is not the celebrity chef who deserves praise but instead a book- the ever changing cookbook, is deserving of being lauded. Anne Willan, founder of the iconic French cooking school, École de Cuisine La Varenne, came to New York City’s Astor Center last night to provide a hungry audience an oral history of the ‘Cookbook.’ Willan is the author of, “The Cookbook Family Tree: A History of Early Cookbooks,” and the evening would be a discussion and a celebration of the art of the recipe.
Before Willan would reveal the historical family tree of the cookbook, a tasting was held featuring different recipes from cookbooks over the years- a fantastic way to make the lecture as interactive as possible. The first dish we tried was a salad which was far from ordinary. “A Sallet of All Kinde of Herbes (Herb Salad)” comes to us from the 1596 edition of ‘The Good Huswifes Jewell’ by Thomas Dawson. This centuries old salad featured an array of garden herbs and edible flowers which were prevalent during that time period, yet somewhat exotic in ours. The brilliant mix of bitter and sweet tastes excited us to finally eat some of these flowers. Another stand out recipe sample was the ‘Gallina Morisca.’ This spiced chicken with red wine, vinegar, and bacon dish dates back as far as 1750. Upon tasting it became obvious that this arrangement of ingredients has morphed into other meals throughout the years. All of these delectable dishes, and this fantastic event were made possible by the hard work and dedication of the Culinary Historians of New York.
After the crowd had sampled all of these historic recipes, we took our seats to hear Willan’s oral history of the cookbook. And trust me we were in good hands. Willan has more than fifty years experience as a teacher, cookbook author, and food columnist. Her accolades include the IACP Lifetime Achievement Award, James Beard Award, and Bon Appétit Teacher of the Year Award. After some kind introductions by her peers Willan began explaining the lineage of the book we have seen on our Grandmothers’ shelves for years, but maybe never gave much thought to.
The way in which Willan presented this rich history was extremely accessible for the crowd. A family tree was placed on a screen showing the development of cookbooks, branching out from key early manuscripts and the first four printed cookbooks of the 15th century. Willan infused humor with in-depth details about these early works that have molded its contemporaries’ works throughout time. It was exciting to see examples of these works from classic world food locals such as; Italy, France, Germany, and the English speaking world. Each region has had a tremendous impact on how we cook and eat in modern times.
As the lecture rolled on, Willan revealed a wealth of cookbook history onto the attentive and food loving audience. It also didn’t hurt that she brought in a prime example of a classic homemade spirit we could all taste. It was ‘Ypocras’ (Spiced Red Wine), an olde timey fruity, clove infusion which was delicious and a great way to enjoy the informative speech, while at the same time providing me with a new recipe for parties. I love history, don’t you?
- Jay Rubin