Cookbooks have been on my mind quite a bit lately. As I’ve mentioned before, on my “About Me” page, I have something of a fondness for cookbooks, cooking magazines and books about food and lately the storage issues for all of them have been getting critical. The book count is now in the vicinity of 200, not counting the small selection of antique and collectible cookbooks or the food magazines! I recently had a cabinet-maker install some extra bookshelves in the kitchen, which I promptly filled, still leaving me with piles of books and magazines dotted around the house. Not wishing to draw too much more attention to my expensive habit, I then spent several frustrating, but ultimately successful, hours with a screw-driver and some inexpensive flat-packed bookcases – freeing me of cookbook storage concerns for a little while, at least!
Cookbooks have a very long history, with the earliest known cookbook dating back to the 4th or 5th century, and recipes have been recorded in some fashion by almost every literate society over the subsequent centuries. Before the invention of the printing press, cookbooks were written by hand for the use of professional cooks and were written almost exclusively by men. In the mid 18th century women began writing cookbooks with one of the first, “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy” published by Hannah Glasse in 1747, becoming one of the most significant culinary reference books of it’s time. These books were not intended for the, usually illiterate, household cooks, but were used by the mistress of the house to instruct and train her staff.
The early cookbooks used no specific weights or measurements with the ingredients and it wasn’t until the publication of Eliza Acton’s “Modern Cookery for Private Families” in 1845, with it’s precise instructions for amounts of ingredients, that cookbooks took on the form we are familiar with today. (Incidentally, Mrs. Acton is attributed with the first recipe for Brussel sprouts – so now we know who to blame!) The popularity of this book was very soon eclipsed by the enormous success of “Mrs. Beetons Book of Household Management”, published by the then 25 year old Isabella Beeton in 1861 and containing over 1,100 pages of domestic guidance and – mostly plagiarised – recipes. This juggernaut was frequently reprinted, found in almost all middle class homes, and is still available in slightly different form today – lasting much longer than poor old Isabella who died at 28.
Today, cookbooks have a very significant part of the market share of the Australian publishing industry. Unfortunately I was unable to find out just how significant. I telephoned five of the larger publishers, the Australian Publishing Association and the Australian Booksellers Association – none of whom were able to give me any idea of the numbers of cookbooks published in Australia annually! However, Neilsen Book Scan were able to tell me that the market share of books in the Food and Drink category is up by 35% to date this year, a fact that seems generally credited to the remarkable success of the television show, Masterchef.
Now, I’m pretty sure that I am not the only one with a cookbook compulsion so I’m giving one of my lucky readers a chance to feed their addiction! The very generous people at Wakefield Press are providing me with a copy of Mary Taylor Simeti’s “Sicilian Food” to give away. I reviewed this book a few weeks back here and loved it to bits. If you would like the chance to get your hands on a free copy of this wonderful look at the food and history of Sicily just post a comment anywhere on this blog! I will post it to anywhere in the world that you may live so it is open to everyone. I will announce the winner on Monday the 10th of October here on the blog, so if you want to make sure you don’t miss out on the announcement you may like to subscribe also!