Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Amazing Anne Willan

On Saturday morning I was lucky enough to attend Anne Willan's lecture to the Culinary Historians of Southern California at the Los Angeles Public Library and it was amazing.  Anne Willan is a star of the culinary world, so expected her to be smart and knowledgeable, but she was also very funny, which was a nice surprise.   She lectured about her methods for choosing recipes for her upcoming book about early cookbooks and since I'm a huge fan of old recipes, I had a blast.  She's also a renowned collector of cookbooks and brought along a 1747 edition of Hannah Glasse's classic text "The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by A Lady", which was fun to see, even from a distance.  When she held it up to the crowd she announced, "I had to bring a REAL cookbook to show you!"  Gotta love her.

Ms. Willan gave a great summary of some of the earliest cookbooks and offered up some juicy bits of historical trivia, like the fact that there was a time when there was no distinction between "food" recipes and "medical" recipes.  She made the case that Nostradamus wrote the first cookbook, if you define "cookbook" as a text that lists ingredients, usually with at least some amounts, as well as instructions for preparing the dish.  Apparently, Nostradamus produced a cookbook in 1555 that included a good recipe for quince jelly.  I'm intrigued...

I was also interested in the idea that many early cookbooks included amounts for some ingredients, but not others because it was assumed that whoever was reading the book had a certain level of expertise at producing the food being discussed.  A bread recipe, for instance, might include amounts of flour and butter, but not water, because the author would assume the reader would know what it meant if the instructions said "add enough water to form a dough".  According to Ms. Willan, the audience for cookbooks changed in the 17th century and more measurements and how-to instructions were included for novice cooks.  At this point, a distinction developed between books produced for experts (professionals) and those produced for the cook of a household, whether that be the lady of the house or a domestic servant.  (I need to think about the implications of that one some more.)

Ms. Willan had strict criteria for choosing recipes for her book and her list made me want to line up now to buy it.

1.  The recipe had to have "direct appeal to us today".

2.  It had to sum up the time period in which it was written.  (Earlier in her lecture she said it had to "give a sense of the time and place in which it was produced".  Such a nice idea.)

3.  It had to be something we still do.  For instance, she included a 16th century recipe for a baked orange because we still like to "wrap things up in packages".

4.  The recipe couldn't be too hard to produce.

5.  It had to say "Come on and eat me!"

She took great pains to say that she wanted to reproduce recipes that were as authentic as possible using modern ingredients, not to make modern adaptations of old recipes.  She ended this discussion with a call to action, "Go back to the past for ideas!"  And I will.