In an era when we spend less time cooking than humans ever have, we are insatiable for recipes. Every year, globally, some 24,000 new cookbooks are published, while recipes posted online have become as uncountable as grains of rice. Our refrigerators display wishful clippings; our kitchen shelves heave with food ââbibles.ââ And still we desire more: the make-ahead recipes, the genius recipes, the 10 avocado recipes we canât live without. What secrets do we hope they will impart? Some promise to make us better cooks; others, to save us time or improve our health. But the comfort is mostly in possessing them, like hoarded potions. ââPeople are trying to get control of their lives,ââ the food historian Barbara Ketcham Wheaton said to me recently, explaining the emotional pull of recipes. ââOne of the ways is through food.ââ
Wheaton, who is 84, has inquiring eyes, a soft, wry voice and gray hair held back with bobby pins. She is the author of the 1983 book ââSavoring the Past: The French Kitchen and Table From 1300 to 1789,ââ a superb history of gastronomy in France spritzed with darts of wit, like lemon juice on a fillet of turbot. For 25 years, she worked as a curator of the culinary collection at the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies in Cambridge, Mass., and Iâve known her for about half that time through our shared interest in food history. Over lunch, she exudes a humorous intelligence, greeting each dish with appetite and her companions with warmth. She does not seem remotely obsessive. But for half a century, she has quietly pursued a project of single-minded devotion â a database called ââThe Cookâs Oracle,ââ in which she intends to log every recipe, ingredient and technique in the vast majority of all the cookbooks published in America and Europe.
The DB â Wheatonâs fond nickname for her outlandishly ambitious undertaking â starts with medieval manuscripts like ââThe Forme of Cury,ââ a collection penned on vellum in the 14th century. (Typical recipe: pottage of gourds, a kind of braised pumpkin with saffron.) It provisionally ends in the early 20th century, with instructions for such dishes as ââImproved Sausage,ââ by Mrs. Clara Ware (the improvement is to add a ââheaping teaspoonfulââ of ground cloves to the sausage meat). In theory, more modern and non-Western books could be added as well; once complete, Wheatonâs database would enable scholars and cooks alike to search for every apple pie recipe ever written, every slice of toast, every technique for mashing potatoes, every subtle variation in knife work, every cinnamon stick. The point of collating so many old recipes is not to salvage actual dishes but rather to understand the aspirations that lay behind them: to see the different flavor combinations cooks craved or the things they worried about in the kitchen. The database could let us glimpse, as Wheaton puts it, the whole ââcomplex kaleidoscopeââ of what food has meant to people.
Here is a small fragment from just one of Wheatonâs lists of search terms, which so far cover more than 130,000 results, encompassing ingredients, techniques, food for the sick and much more:
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A Paper Database
A Paper Database
CreditDavid Bush for The New York Times
From ladyfingers to latkes is a prose poem suggestive of whole worlds. The list runs on and on, from aal (German for eel) to zucchini, seeming to contain the promise of a universal cookbook of European and American cuisine, pieced together from all the recipes ever written â a Borgesian feat of quixotic and fantastical taxonomy.
The germ for the database first came to Wheaton in 1962. Her husband, Bob, was studying for his Ph.D. at Harvard, and her two children (the third had not yet been born) were in preschool five days a week for three hours (ââassuming no bugs, earaches or other interruptionsââ). Wheaton had done graduate studies in art history, but she discovered that what she really wanted to do was read old cookbooks.
One day, she found herself trying to get her head around an excess of confusingly similar yet distinct medieval blancmange recipes in four languages. Blancmange â which means ââwhite foodââ â referred to a family of recipes in which pale mixtures were casseroled together into a pap, often with rice and almond milk. There were blancmanges of lobster and capon; of pike, carp and haddock. Wheaton sketched out a table representing different blancmange recipes on a piece of three-ring notebook paper and found that she could make sense of them only ââas long as I kept staring at the paper.ââ She moved on to French cookbooks of the 17th and 18th centuries and tried to organize the data they contained by taking notes on each recipe one by one. But when she returned to these notes, she was frustrated. She couldnât grasp the character of the books.
In the 1970s Wheaton discovered McBee cards. They were a primitive data system, in which different pieces of information could be encoded by punching holes to designate broad categories (date, gender, country). ââAfter the cards are properly punched, whole packs of them can be searched by running a knitting needle through the desired hole in the pack and lifting it up,ââ Wheaton explained in a talk last summer at a food symposium held at Oxford. ââWhen, if one is lucky, gems of information will drop out.ââ McBee cards had obvious limitations, however. ââMy categories kept expanding, and the cards did not.ââ Wheaton tried to improve the cards by adding color-coded edges, but then she ran out of colors.
In 1982, Wheaton set aside her knitting needles and switched to computers, buying the first IBM PC, which could produce accented letters. (ââApple scorned such frippery,ââ Wheaton said. ââI believe they thought accented letters were like ice cream cones with sprinkles.ââ) After using and abandoning two database programs, she settled on Microsoft Access and has been using it ever since. ââIt is possible to search for fungi or for morels, and to search for courgettes and also get zucchini,ââ she said. Itâs Wheatonâs hope that someday a friendly library or other research institution will take on the database and make it open for everyone to search.
Credit Illustration by Louise Pomeroy
I asked her if she ever lost herself in all the data. ââOh, yes, oh, yes!ââ she exclaimed, her voice almost purring. She likes to describe her database as ââa cross between a Swiss Army knife and a piano.ââ It can do all sorts of handy little jobs, but it can also produce music. The music is the patterns it reveals about the vast human enterprise of cooking.
When Wheaton mailed me the database on a flash drive, I couldnât wait to start playing with it. And sure enough, I found a storeroom brimming with secrets. You can identify long-forgotten passions, like a brief 18th-century vogue for coffee-flavored waffles, and discover the moments that many of our basic cooking methods started. You might find the first time any cookbook in the collection mentions chocolate as an ingredient rather than a drink (for the record, itâs Massialotâs ââCuisinier roÃ¯al et bourgeois,ââ 1691) or the earliest recipe for a basic roux sauce (La Varenne, 1651). But, like a long-handled skimmer reaching deep into the historic cooking pot, ââThe Cookâs Oracleââ can fish out foodways so obsolete no one today even knows to mourn them.
It can haul up such forgotten delicacies as artificial assesâ milk (fake donkey milk, a health food made from rose jam, candy and sea holly) or tansy, a bitter herb that was once used in desserts, like our vanilla extract. Or pulpatoon, a ragout made of an excess of ingredients including pigeons, mushrooms and pistachio nuts. Or what about asparagus chopped small, to disguise it as green peas? No one would attempt this trick now that peas come cheap from the freezer.
Some of the delightful morsels prompt the thought: Why did we stop regularly cooking that? The globe artichoke, for instance. Across Europe, cooks of the 16th to the 18th centuries recognized this ornate vegetable for a great treat. The DB lists multiple iterations of artichoke pie, lavishly layered with truffles. Artichokes were boiled, braised or fried; served in a cream sauce; or simply cooked and dressed and eaten leaf by delicious leaf. Outside Italy, artichokes no longer inspire such intense worship, and our eating is the poorer for it. They belong to a more civilized, less puritanical way of life, demanding to be savored slowly, possibly with large quantities of butter.
You will look in vain here for cilantro or feta. Instead, youâll find mutton: page after page of mutton recipes, from chops to hash to jelly to mutton broth for the sick. Croissants are present, but only in the recipes from France. There is a single American avocado recipe, from 1887 (for a salad with mayonnaise and onions), but the fruit is called ââalligator pear.ââ The recipeâs author, Maria Parloa, assumes it is so rare we need to be told where to buy one (at a store on Fulton Street in New York, she suggests, where they cost 15 to 20 cents apiece, or around $ 4 to $ 5 in todayâs money). You start to see that so much of what we think of as personal taste is really a question of whatâs available in any given market. To be an avocado eater in 1887 was as eccentric a proclivity as being a mutton lover today.
Credit Illustration by Louise Pomeroy
Scenes of kitchens very unlike ours materialize, full of strange utensils like salamanders (long-handled tools for broiling), croquette molds and fluted knives for cutting root vegetables into fancy shapes. There are unusual cooking methods, like in an 18th-century recipe for beefsteak panbroiled over a fire made from two newspapers. Without kitchen timers or thermometers, the DBâs cooks were often forced to be ingenious in measuring when a dish was done: ââuntil the bones are ready to fall out,ââ ââuntil you can run a straw into the skin,ââ until ââthe milk tastes of spice,ââ ââtill it be soft and limber.ââ They used their senses more acutely than we do.
The more fragments Wheaton collects, the more cookbooks reveal their variety, and also their mystery. There is no universal cookbook, only a tower of Babel where no cook fully speaks the language of any other. However imperfectly, the database helps decode these fragmentary snatches of dialogue: not just the ingredients of the soup, or the pot it was cooked in, but also the values of the person who prepared it. ââI had to learn to listen to the writerâs side of the conversation with his or her reader,ââ Wheaton says.
This is sometimes hard, because the assumptions of cooks in the past were so utterly different from our own. An American cookbook from 1881 includes many recipes for marble cake, but almost no verbs, because the authors assumed that the method for marbling batter was common knowledge. Amelia Simmons, in 1796, imagines that we will have a cow on hand that we can milk straight into a dish of cider and sugar to make a syllabub, a frothy dessert: ââmilk your cow into your liquorââ she calmly directs, as if it were something normal â and for her, it was.
When she got started on her database, Wheaton was driven by a love of good meals. She wanted to reconstruct some of the delicious things of the past, the ââoverflowing generosity.ââ She collected French recipes â most of them by male chefs â for pistachio turnovers and marzipan tarts, for salmon with herbs and oranges glazed with caramel. But as time went on, she saw that many of the authors she had gathered up in ââThe Cookâs Oracleââ were leading bleak lives of deprivation, in which cooking was not a leisure pursuit but a way to survive.
Today, the vulnerability is precisely what interests Wheaton. She herself grew up in an affluent family on the outskirts of Philadelphia â there was a fine kitchen garden and a cook â but her grandfather came from a family of poverty-stricken farmers. Even though he went on to become a successful businessman, he kept the habits of scarcity. He saved. He mended furniture. ââHe understood people who didnât have any money,ââ she told me. She began using cookbooks to reconstruct peopleâs lives, ââeven if they werenât wonderful.ââ
Credit Illustration by Louise Pomeroy
One of the more startling patterns is the difference between cookbooks written by men and women before the 20th century. Wheaton says she has come to see them as almost two separate cuisines. Male chefs â who had professional status â were mainly concerned with how to satisfy a masterâs jaded palate. It was said that ancien rÃ©gime French chefs aspired to give fish the flavor of meat, meat the flavor of fish and vegetables no flavor at all. Robert May in ââThe Accomplisht Cookââ (1660) urges his readers to use only the best: ââfine flour,ââ ââgood thick sweet cream,ââ ââhandsomeââ fishes. By contrast, the womenâs books are much humbler. They include such compromises as ââcheap rice puddingââ and ââcheaper fruitcake.ââ These are books about what to do when life gives you lemons â or when it gives you mediocre ingredients and limited time. The female authors assume that their readers, who are servants or wives, will be managing the cooking alongside other household tasks like the laundry and child care. Their recipes often display a brutal pragmatism. Mrs. Randolphâs ââThe Virginia Housewifeââ (1824) has a recipe for chicken soup â soup of ââold fowlââ â that starts with keeping the bird in a coop for two weeks before killing it and chopping it up, discarding the back because it is ââtoo gross and strong for use.ââ
One of Wheatonâs favorite books in the DB is ââThe Frugal Housewife,ââ first published in 1829 (later editions added ââAmericanââ to the title). The writer was Lydia Maria Child, who was also a campaigner against slavery and for womenâs rights. Childâs cookbook, Wheaton said, is a ââslice of life as lived by unprosperous New Englanders in the 1820s and â30s.ââ Some of her recipes remain appealing, like her simple dish of tomatoes stewed with butter and salt. But the book as a whole is pervaded with penny-pinching. The best economy with coffee, Child advises, is to ââgo without.ââ Child commends cupcakes, not because she likes them â no ââSex and the Cityââ-style indulgence here â but because they are less expensive than poundcake. She recommends asking friends in the country to buy lard for us when it is cheapest. ââEconomical people,ââ writes Child, ââwill seldom use preserves, except for sickness.ââ The entire book contains almost no seasonings.
Lydia Child was helping her readers envisage a life of financial security, in which, with a little resourcefulness, the lard would not run out. When Wheaton teaches a seminar on how to read a cookbook, she always uses ââThe Frugal Housewife,ââ and people ââalmost always dislike it.ââ We do not recognize ourselves in Childâs remedies. For many of us, stressed by work, the impossible dream is not to eat preserves but to switch off the screen long enough to make them. We clip ever more recipes: our own personal database, talismans of a more leisurely existence. As Wheaton has found, the urge to read cookbooks is not always the same as the urge to cook.
Food books touch more of human life than what happens at the stove. The first cookbooks were sometimes called books of secrets, in which remedies for toothache or the plague jostled with recipes for roast meats, puddings and tarts. When I typed ââeasyââ into the database, it offered me not just an easy crust for family pies but also an easy way to make ink and a method for trying to encourage an easy childbirth. (For the latter, E. Smith in 1727 recommended a concoction of raisins, figs, licorice and anise seeds boiled in spring water, imbibed morning and evening six weeks before the baby is due.)
Cookbook readers today would be disconcerted to be offered a cure for deafness or ââfumes in the headââ alongside instructions for puff pastry. Yet recipes are all still remedies in some form or other â everyday enchantments for making life better. Cookbooks show us at our most defenseless because they expose things we believe we lack: meringues that donât fall; soup that will fill us up without making us fat; dinners that cook in no time at all. They allow us to imagine ourselves as bountiful hosts or artisanal pastry makers. It isnât all fantasy, though. Cookbooks also speak to, and soothe, something real: the hunger that started when we were babies, when food and security were one and the same.
The nature of Wheatonâs database is that it can never be finished, at least not by one octogenarian working alone. Even if she were to go well beyond the 3,400 books by more than 6,000 authors that she has already cataloged, the project would comprise merely the edge of a vast hinterland that we can never access: the billions of unremarked bowls of stew, the bakers who toiled alone, the long-vanished food markets. Most cooks, especially female ones, have been illiterate, unable to record their kitchen experience. Wheaton has found just nine surviving Italian cookbooks by women from before 1900. It is as if all those nonnas rolling gnocchi and cutting tagliatelle never existed. The books she is collecting in her database are all that remain of the vast human conversation about food. All we can do is gather up the fragments and try to decipher what comforts they once held.
A few weeks ago, I got a new cookbook by Nigel Slater, ââA Year of Good Eating.ââ I canât pretend I needed it, though it does look lovely on the kitchen shelf in its calm blue cover. So far, Iâve cooked only one of the recipes, for hazelnut-maple cookies, though I have my eye on many more, if I can only find the time: a dish of wet polenta and winter greens, a piece of cod crusted with pumpkin seeds and dill. It makes me feel oddly reassured to have all this kitchen wisdom stored up, like jars of jelly in a pantry. Recipes can feel like charms against lifeâs disappointments or protection against the onward march of the years. You never know exactly when they will be called for.