The Delectable History of Cookbooks

stacked cookbooks
With so many cookbooks out there, which ones have stood the test of time? Natalie's New York/Creative Commons CC BY 2.0

Cookbooks may not seem like an interesting literary genre -- unless you're a Rachael Ray or Bobby Flay in-the-making -- but they're actually way more fascinating than you may imagine, say Will Pearson and Mangesh (Mango) Hattikudur in a new episode of Part-Time Genius. Why so? Cookbooks reveal a lot about the era in which they were written, for one thing.

Perusing through "Cooking and Dining in Imperial Rome," penned by one Apicius in the fourth century, you'll learn that cooks then were revered if they could disguise a common food item so that diners had no idea what they were eating. You'll also glean insights into how the ancients dealt with the lack of refrigeration. Apicius recommended that cooks who needed to prepare birds with a "goatish smell" should bathe them in a mixture of pepper, lovage, thyme, dry mint, sage, dates, honey, vinegar, wine, broth, oil and mustard.


A 16th-century British cookbook instructed cooks to, "Heat water until it was a little hotter than milk that comes from a cow." Those weren't vague directions, Will says, but actually very specific ones for people living in an agrarian society. Recipes were written in such a folksy, imprecise manner until the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s.

Fast-forward to 20th-century American cookbooks, and the birth of Betty Crocker is likely the era's most astonishing event. The fictitious Crocker was invented in 1921 to answer baking questions penned by customers of the Washburn-Crosby Co. (today General Mills). Betty became so popular that when "Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book" debuted in 1950, it became a national best-seller. It even sold more copies that year than the Bible.

Betty Crocker wasn't popular because her recipes were so amazing. Her real value, says Mango, was that she understood the tremendous burdens on modern-day housewives. So in addition to serving up straightforward recipes, she offered practical tips, clucked sympathies and encouraged women to mend rifts with their husbands by making a lovely dinner topped off with a "kiss and make up cake."

Today, some 65 million copies of the Betty Crocker cookbook have been sold, making it the top-selling cookbook of all time. And while it doesn't include instructions on disguising the flavor of stale bird meat — thankfully — it does include a recipe for green bean casserole. To learn more, listen to "What are the Greatest Cookbooks on American Shelves?"