Archive for the ‘historical food’ Category

Rabelais contributes to Eater National’s ’72 Ways Food Can Change the World

Monday, September 22nd, 2014

history_cookbooksI spend most of my day surrounded by rare cookbooks, examining recipes, food writing, and publishing information from the sixteenth century to the twenty-first. My primary task is researching and cataloguing printed and manuscript books, all in the hope of selling them to a small list of collectors and research libraries that purchase such things. One advantage of close contact with historical cookbooks is that it gives me perspective on what’s happening with contemporary food. It’s tempting to say that an understanding of historical food and cooking lets you see that “it’s all been done before.” So many of the touchstones of modern diet—vegan, raw, Paleo, hyperlocal, and global grazing—have precedents in the distant and not so distant past.

If your food history comes from Twitter, you might think kitchen garden cooking started with Alice Waters, but you might take a look at Nicolas de Bonnefons’ Les Délices de la Campagne, Suite du Jardinier François, published in Paris in 1654. Not only does the book provide instructions for the cultivating, preserving, and cooking of fresh garden foods, it encourages that the food be prepared simply and that the ingredients be allowed to speak for themselves. This type of gardening and cooking was a common practice, but here was a book expounding farm-to-table as a truly desirable approach.

“What persists is that food changes, and that the forces shaping the food of any time are large and manifold ”When I’m annoyed by a restaurant diner snapping iPhone pictures of a nicely plated dish, I recall the tiny engraving in a volume of Grimod de la Reynière’s Almanach des Gourmands, some of the earliest restaurant criticism. In the engraving, a group of men dine at a restaurant table, while adjacent, a secretary at a small table records their thoughts and criticisms. There’s a food career long gone.

But the “nothing new” approach is an oversimplification. What persists is that food changes, and that the forces shaping the food of any time are large and manifold: the economy, social mobility, migration, crop failure, markets and prices, scientific advances, ideas about health and nutrition, and of course war and the dislocation it brings. While food is always subject to grand forces, it is itself a grand force. Among the earliest writing, Babylonian tablets now 4,500 years old contain lists of foodstuffs and simple recipes for beer. They are the original food writing. Ancient writing like this is the province of kings and rulers of empires, and reminds us that food itself—the ingredients, the recipes, and the way we share meals—while subject to so many outside influences, is itself power.

One can hope that one day in the distant future, in a much-changed world or on a distant planet, people will notice again that food is a subject worth thinking about, worth debating and sometimes arguing over. And if they do so, let’s hope they don’t think they’re the first to do so, but turn to the twenty-first century—or the eighteenth or the third—for some perspective.

See all of the ’72 ways Food Changes the World’ comments on


Found in a cookbook…

Tuesday, September 16th, 2014



[found pasted into Charles Copeland’s The Cuisine (Boston 1872)].

Post-Civil War advertising art goes gonzo

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

#002A   An exhibition at the Harvard Business School.

Working on a big booze business archive

Monday, December 30th, 2013

For a few weeks now, we’ve been working away on the business archive of a 19th and early 20th century wine and spirits importer and distributor. Many boxes of financial ledgers, checkbooks, correspondence and other miscellaneous paper might look like a big mess waiting for the recycler to some, but it’s our job to make some sense of it and find it a new a home. Our friend Sharon Kitchens, of the Portland Press Herald’s Root Blog, came to check out the archive and see what it might all mean. Here’re her impressions and a brief interview with me:

And here’s a picture of just a few of the massive ledger volumes.

dough nut day, 1836

Friday, June 1st, 2012


National Doughnut Day was created by Congress after successful lobbying on the part of Adolph Levitt, Chairman of the Doughnut Corporation of America. But doughnuts have been with us a long while. Here’s a recipe from  Mary Randolph’s Virginia Housewife (an 1836 printing). It’s an important book, the first regional American cookbook, and to some, the “most influential American cookbook” [Karen Hess]. Mary Randolph did include recipes from beyond Virginia and the South, like this one, for Dough Nuts, or Yankee Cakes.


may breakfast

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

40 cents for breakfast. And a good breakfast at that, with corn fakes and fruit, fried potato, bacon and eggs, pan cakes, maple syrup, rolls, doughnuts and coffee. It seems the Ladies of the Universalist Society were inclined to include as many possibilities  as they could in their menu. A universalist approach to breakfast indeed.

The verso includes pencil notes on the divvying up of chores for the breakfast, with a special crew assigned to the pancakes. This broadside is from Hillsdale, New Hampshire, circa 1930.


Ambrose Heath

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

Ambrose Heath (1891-1969) was a food writer and broadcaster who wrote over seventy books on food and cooking.  We have amassed upwards of thirty of his titles.  It is lovely to have what we have out and on display instead of cooped up in a box somewhere.  There is obviously more collecting to do if we are to be complete on this author.  I am looking forward to cooking from his books when the kitchen in fully functional.  In the meantime they are lovely to look at, all lined up on the shelf….


Paint & Oil

Thursday, March 15th, 2012

The cover from a menu for a dinner of the Paint and Oil Club of Portland, Maine, held at the Falmouth Hotel, January 19, 1889.

Some highlights from the menu include:

Blue Points on the half shell

Boiled Chicken Halibut with egg sauce

Roman Punch

Mallard Duck with Currant jelly

Tutti Frutti (I kid you not, printed verbatim on the menu)

Coffee and cigars…

Sounds like a delightful evening.

The Gentlewoman

Monday, March 12th, 2012

“Nature has laid us under the necessity of eating and drinking, but at the same time has endowed us with faculties to choose and prepare the diet that is most salutary and agreeable to our tastes.”

“Refinement belongs only to those whose tastes accord with perfection, and it is beyond all question that the characteristics of those that feed upon half-dressed or spoiled food are barbarous in mind and barbarous in complexion, which is the cause of so many jaundiced complaints that quacks undertake to cure, but which end in weakness, exhaustion, and early death.”

“The great social evil is not that which is talked of by gentlemen in black at midnight meetings; but it is the great evil that besets the English, from the highest to the lowest, every man, woman and child suffers from it, and thousands die or only experience a lingering existence from its neglect.  The great social evil is the want of persons of education and practical knowledge, worthy to be entrusted in the preparation of food with that care and nicety that is practiced in every nation in Europe except England.”

The Gentlewoman

a pseudonymous book

Chapman & Hall, London 1864

a season of menus

Wednesday, November 9th, 2011

Chanterelle Menu

This fall, there’s been some extra attention given to a much overlooked printed item of the restaurant world –  the menu. With the publication of Heller, Heimann and Mariani’s magnificent Menu Design in America, 1850-1965, we can all browse through the culinary, social and artistic kaleidoscope of the menu. Also, in observance of the 40th Anniversary of Chez Panisse, Princeton Architectural Press has published an illustrated survey of the menus lovingly designed and hand-printed by Patricia Curtan. It’s titled Menus for Chez Panisse.

Here at Rabelais, we’re joining in the menu celebration by exhibiting a small selection from our collection of American, English and Continental menus. For the next month, the walls of the store will be covered with menus, from the historical to the oddball. The lovely abstract menu above is designed by American minimalist Terry Winters for the vanguard Tribeca restaurant, Chanterelle.  Below is a menu from the Union Block Eating House in Taunton, MA, which proudly proclaims, “Hot Buck Wheat Cakes constantly on hand!” Sounds good to me. This weekend, at the Boston Antiquarian Book Fair, amongst the rare cookbooks and cocktail manuals, we’ll be exhibiting a collection of late 19th Century Viennese menus, as well as individual menus from the 19th & 20th Centuries.


Union Block Eating House Menu