“History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. What is history? History is women following behind with the bucket.” says Mrs Dorothy Lintott in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys. For a female history teacher in 1980s Sheffield, it must have seemed that way. But it was a time that the study of history itself was starting to change. Slowly.
The traditional history which Lintott rallies against is of the Flashman genre. Sure, MacDonald Fraser’s tongue is firmly in his cheek as he describes Flashman’s Crimean campaign, his swagger at Rorke’s Drift and various dabblings in sepoy rebellions and the African slave trade. Women are there solely to be bedded by the insatiable and lecherous general. The odd Afghan dancing girl puts up a fight, but Flashman wrestles them to the bedroom anyway. Women’s presence in the storyline is ornamental, little else.
The satire is close to the bone – indeed so close to the bone I’m sure lots of people don’t really think of Flashman as satire – because the narrative is so similar to history books of the time. History was about the victorious white male. A chronicle of events where the plot line sticks firmly to successive campaigns: The English Civil War, The Jacobite Rebellion, The Peninsula War, The Napoleonic War, The Crimean war, The Zulu War…
Of course, all these campaigns are of enormous historical importance. It’s just that while they were going on, lots of other stuff was happening too which didn’t make it into the history books. ‘Stuff’ which was considered less-important, less-relevant. In isolation it was. But the gentle pushing at boundaries, the small unnoticed ‘firsts’, the coffee house clamour and day-to-day happenings of normal people all influences the direction history moves in. It’s the important detail which adds colour to the the big themes.
Traditionally, the only sort of women who made it into the annals of history were “Warrior Queen” Boudicca and Queen Elizabeth I (“I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a King“). Women who slipped under the radar by projecting themselves as men. But round the time that The History Boys was set, in the 1980s, there was a movement – driven by historians like Sheila Rowbotham and Juliet Gardiner. The boundaries started to be broadened, and women’s history gradually become acknowledged as a field of study.
So, as historians invested more time piecing together the largely-unrecorded role of women, they looked to literature and poetry, art and artefacts. With the exception of the Boudiccas and Elizabeths, the Margaret Thatchers and Edith Cavells though, women’s role has been most influenced by the domestic sphere, and one medium which is becoming ever-more accepted as invaluable historical evidence is The Cookbook.
I recently got my hands on a copy of Phaidon’s cookbook historiography, the Cookbook Book. It’s a beautiful whopper of a book with colour scans of 125 classic and contemporary cookbooks from round the world. The recipes, writing and design shed light on the day-to-day life of an enormously wide-range of people, and demonstrate a cookbook’s ability to capture a specific time and place and mood.
Take Isabella Beeton’s Mrs Beeton’s Household Management (1888), for example. It’s not just about the recipes, but the book provides a peak into Victorian Britain: how to deal with a wet nurse, care for an ill aunt or get cake on the table in time for tea. It was first published in 1861 and sold nearly two million copies by 1868 – an almost unheard-of figure, and a remarkable document, recording all those beautiful little details which didn’t make mainstream history.
Mrs Beeton’s Household Management demonstrates a Victorian ideal, but just as revealing is Peg Bracken’s I Hate to Cook Book, published in the 1960s – round the time that a backlash was brewing against the 1950s ideal of the American housewife. The book is a liberating read. You can almost hear a sigh of relief from subjugated women, as Bracken gives them permission not to relish every minute in the kitchen. Instead, Bracken helps the 1960s American housewife forge out a more modern, laissez faire role. I love the directions which accompany the recipe for Skid Road Stronganoff:
“Now, you noticed that chopped parsley in the Stroganoff we just passed? This is very important. You will notice a certain dependence, in this book on parsley […] and Parmesan […] and paprika […] the reason for these little garnishes is that even though you hate to cook, you don’t always want this fact to show, as it so often does with a plateful of nude food. So you put light things on dark things (like Parmesan on spinach) and dark things on light things (like parsley on sole) and sprinkle paprika on practically everything within reach. Sometimes you end up with a dinner in which everything seems to be sprinkled with something, which gives a certain earnest look to the whole performance, but it still shows you’re trying.”
There’s the subversive nature of Bridget’s Diet Cookbook (1972) which shows a naked, joyous and Rubenesquely-figured ‘Bridget’ (Dawn McDowell) alongside tongue-in-cheek recipes for Curried Birdseed. And there’s White Trash Cooking (1986), which revels in its distinctive ‘hick’ humour. I love the recipe for Aunt Donnah’s Roast Possum, which starts with strict instructions: “After you kill the possum be careful not to let him get away.”
See, the beauty of a cookbook is that the details it chronicles are almost accidental, making it a very honest and unselfconscious document. In 1952, for example, a teacher at Shishmaref Day School in Alaska asked her class to bring in a recipe or story of how their mothers cooked at home, and so emerged the hand-made Eskimo Cookbook, which features some absolute gems like Stewart Tocktoo’s recipe for Eskimo Ice Cream: “Grate reindeer tallow into small pieces. Add seal oil slowly while beating with hand. After some seal oil has been used, then add a little water while whipping. Continue adding seal oil and water until white and fluffy, Any berries can be added to it.” It captures so much more than just a recipe.
There are, of course, more self-conscious recipe books which have a specific agenda. But a carefully-constructed document has just as much historical use. Propaganda is just as telling. For example, there’s the Book of Tasty and Healthy Food commissioned by the USSR Ministry of Food. My favourite though is the Futurist Cookbook, published by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, author of the Futurist Manifesto (1909). It’s mainly my favourite because I think it’s a fine idea to accompany all social movements with a cook book. But I also love the writing and recipes.
As a little background, the gist of the Futurist Manifesto was a rejection of the past, and a celebration of progressive things like industry and speed and youth. Fantastically, Marinetti’s Futurist Cookbook includes a vitriolic attack on pasta, which he deems provincial and backwards. Instead he comes up with some far more modern alternatives. The best is the ‘Holy Supper’ for the ‘Futurist clerics’. It must have seemed totally bonkers at the time, but now in the era of elBulli and Blumenthal, it seems like Marinetti was onto something:
“Lined up on a big table are twenty glasses all the same size but containing in different proportions: mineral water coloured red – white wine from the Castelli Romani coloured blue with methylene – cold milk coloured orange. In front of the glasses, laid out on twenty aluminium plates are: slices of assorted meats masked by a pineapple poltiglia – raw onions covered in jam – fish fillets buried in whipped cream and zabaglione – buttered rolls spread with caviar inside a large pumpkin. The clerics must choose without hesitation, by listening with compunction to any divine inspiration which comes their way.”
Of course, Marinetti’s cookbook, as well as Salvador Dali’s cookbook (Les Diners de Gala) and Andy Warhol’s cookbook (Wild Raspberries) show that cookbooks are not in any way restricted the domestic sphere. What each and every book does show is how much we can learn from the history of preparing and sharing food. Sure, The Magna Carta and The Yalta Convention changed the direction of history. But the recipe for Haschich Fudge in the Alice B Toklas Cook Book (which “might provide an entertaining refreshment for a Ladies’ Bridge Club”) perfectly captures a mood and a moment which, all contributes to a deliciously rich, historical tapestry.
The Cookbook Book displays a still from 125 cookbooks. It has a 31-page reference section at the back with a couple of paragraphs on each book, and then another section with translations of foreign recipes. The cookbooks are split into the following chapters: ‘Enduring Classics’, ‘Enduring Nonconformists’, ‘Design Mavericks’, ‘World Flavours’, and ‘Modern Essentials’. It would certainly be possible to cook recipes from lots of the 2-page shots (and I intend to), but this is primarily a beautiful, coffee table historiography, rather than a practical cookbook.
The Cookbook Book, £35, Phaidon