Cookbooks have been an important genre for centuries. In fact the oldest recipe known dates back to 4000 BC from ancient Mesopotamia. The recipe is for beer. The oldest cookbooks known are two clay tablets from Babylon around 1750 BC. Since the literacy levels of cooks were quite low, the Akkadian recipes were important for culinary documentation rather than for use in the kitchen. The tablets covered how to brew meat and vegetable stews as well as how to roast small birds. Just like today, the recipes include a list of ingredients in the order they should be added. However, cooking times and measurements were not present.
Cookbooks continued to be written for the extremely literate until sometime during the 18th century. Mistresses slowly became fed up with having to read the steps out loud to their kitchen servants, so cookbooks began to be written more simply. As common people could now utilize them, the cookbook market blossomed.
Though they have been around for ages, cookbooks usually do not come to mind when thinking about writing genres. However, cookbooks are actually a strong writing genre as they develop to our preferred demands, similar to the newer genre of social media.
How are cookbooks tailored toward us?
The average cookbook setup has not swayed that far from those ancient Mesopotamian tablets. They have always been molded towards our demands for practicality.
Take Irma S. Rombauer’s famous Joy of Cooking for example. Instead of wasting time reading page by page like a typical book, just go to the index. Unsure about exactly what to cook, but know you want to bake some sort of rich side dish to accompany a pot roast? Go to the side dish section. Unsure what Yorkshire Pudding is, or if your creation should really look like that? Look at the picture or read the descriptive instructions. Instead of wasting time trying to begin to make the pudding, then finding out you do not have enough eggs (Why to be good friends with your neighbors), ingredients are clearly listed from the get go. Instead of unclear metaphors present in genres like poems and novels, Rombauer straight up mentions the batter is good when “large bubbles rise to the surface.” No time wasted with experimentation or unnecessary reading. Only the bare necessities are mentioned to make your experience in the kitchen as simple and efficient as possible.
How are cookbooks similar to social media?
There seems to be a lot of hatred towards social media. Text and Twitter usage especially is picked on for high use of abbreviations and jumping straight to claims. Rich Blank in “Is Social Media Making Us Dumb?” explains just how short and immediate social media interactions are. “Social media [is] trending towards the 60 minute webinars and 10 minute videos and tweets of less htan 130 characters.” Due to this trend towards brief interactions, some agree with Angela Maiers, author of “The Importance of Writing Well for Social Media Content”, that “social media is killing the way we write, killing language as we know it.” But it is just another practical way to save time. Social media was developed specifically for these immediate and easy interactions. If we did not desire swift and simple methods of communication, social media would not be as popular as it is.
Why write a letter, give it to the mailman to deliver it and then wait days for a response? Instead we can whip out your phone, type a quick message, send, and wait a couple of seconds for a response: immediate gratification.
Although, cookbooks do not face the hatred, they too are designed for the same purposes. Why read a novel about waffles to search for ingredients and possible measurements and decipher how to make the batter and what the heck the waffle should look like…? There is a reason why cookbook authors do not mess around with proper writing rules and the type of common writing styles learned in school. It is impractical, just like writing a letter versus using social media.
There are so many things to do and so little time. Everyone is looking for the fastest way to get things done to save more time. Both genres fill our mold for practicality.
Why do social media face all the hatred while cookbooks fly completely under the radar?
Abbreviations commonly seen in texts and tweets are especially faced with hate even though abbreviations do a great job of saving time for us. In fact cookbooks have their very own set of abbreviations that no one ever complains about.
Rachel Ray probably knows all of them. She is particularly fond of always abbreviating extra virgin olive oil to “EVOO”. With her high usage of the ingredient, her 30 Minute Meals would be 50 Minute Meals if Rachel Ray had to say ‘extra virgin olive oil’ each time.
More common cooking abbreviations include using the terms ‘dash’ instead of ¼ teaspoon, the term ‘pinch’ instead of 1/8 teaspoon, ‘Tb’ for tablespoon, and ‘tsp.’ for teaspoon.
Texting and cooking abbreviations both include shortening common words or phrases. So why does abbreviating ‘talk to you later’ to TTYL get bashed as sloppy writing when it is fine to abbreviate tablespoon to Tb or using tsp. for teaspoon?
Maybe social media is picked on because it is new and therefore attracts more attention. While on the other hand, cookbooks have been pushed to the back burner, simmering for thousands of years. Or maybe it is because cookbooks have hunger on their side. When people become hungry, they become grumpy. Grumpy people are not about to complain about improper writing in a recipe when it is shortening the time between hunger and the gratification of delicious food.
What about the future of cookbooks?
Yes the market of physical books is decreasing as, but the market of electronic cookbooks skyrocketing. In result there may be fewer cookbooks on our shelves, but more on our nooks and kindles. However, I doubt physical cookbooks will ever become extinct, until those electronic systems become cooking proof from grease splatters, getting caked in floor, and sticky fingers.
The future of cookbooks has always remained strong, because cookbooks are always changing to further form to our demands for practicality. Consider this delicious Kippered Herring recipe from the 19th century. Though ingredients are clearly listed, measurements were not as specific such as, “strong salt and water” or “after you think they are salted enough”. Recipes are much more precise now.
Modern recipes for molecular gastronomy are wonderful examples for extreme precision. Consider the recipe below for Grilled Watermelon Spheres. “Blend until evenly mixed” and liquid thickens. “Carefully turn over the spoon to release the sphere.” Also directions are in step by step format instead of paragraph form like the Kippered Herring recipe. The paragraphs still read similar to step by step instructions, but the simpler format prevents losing your place in the recipe while cooking. Molecular gastronomy use to seem way over my head. But, with such a specific recipe (and fancy plating), I could definitely end up a mirror image of the photo. Too bad my antic dorm room microwave is not sufficient for this recipe. You will have to wait for my posts on molecular gastronomy until summer break.
Social media and cookbooks are great genres as they fill our efficient and time saving demands. Though social media is bashed for doing such, we accept cookbooks. Unless they do not have a kitchen, most people own some sort of cookbook (online, hardback, magazine…etc.). Since you are reading my cooking blog, you probably own a whole variety. Heck, if my cookbooks were cats, I would be the craziest cat lady out there. Cookbooks are so widely accepted that there are historical collections of them. The third largest collection, Margaret Husted culinary Collection, is at my college. I cannot wait until reinvasions are complete so I can read Royal Fruit Gelatin Suggestions. I am sure even this ridiculous cookbook is targeted towards practicality and saving time to fulfill our wants. Hopefully, we can learn from our acceptance of cookbooks that a genre fulfilling our wants, like social media, is not a bad thing.