A History of Food in 100 Recipes


By William Sitwell

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A riveting narrative history of food as seen through 100 recipes, from ancient Egyptian bread to modernist cuisine.

We all love to eat, and most people have a favorite ingredient or dish. But how many of us know where our much-loved recipes come from, who invented them, and how they were originally cooked? In A History of Food in 100 Recipes, culinary expert and BBC television personality William Sitwell explores the fascinating history of cuisine from the first cookbook to the first cupcake, from the invention of the sandwich to the rise of food television.

A book you can read straight through and also use in the kitchen, A History of Food in 100 Recipes is a perfect gift for any food lover who has ever wondered about the origins of the methods and recipes we now take for granted.


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After an auction at Sotheby's, London, in the summer of July 2010, I came away with an armful of nineteenth-century cookery books and a smattering of food-related paintings and cartoons. They had been a tiny part of a vast culinary collection owned by one Stanley J. Steeger, a collector from New York. Now, as I took them to my home in the English countryside, they would be a large part of a rather small collection of one William R. S. Sitwell.

There on a shelf in my study, a room filled with giant photographs of food—ripened figs in a bowl, peas in a pod and a Damien Hirst–style "shark in jelly"—the books added intellectual and historical weight to what I already had. There were cookery books sent to me by publishers and PRs over the years hoping for coverage in the food magazine I edit, autobiographies penned by famous chefs I know and the odd food tome that I had actually paid for.

I started leafing through the old books I had bought, slightly wondering if, while they certainly gave character to the shelf, they would be as dry to read as they looked from their tired bindings and browned paper. But I was quickly struck by the characterful writing that leapt from so many of the pages. Where I had expected placid cooking instruction I found verbose opinion. Entries in the nineteenth-century Cassell's Dictionary of Cookery, for instance, were filled with radical opinion and comment. "It is a shocking thought that many die annually of absolute starvation, whose lives might have been saved twenty times over," wrote the editor, A. G. Payne, in a long and ranting introduction.

That view sounded rather familiar, I thought. "Scraps of meat, fag ends of pieces of bacon, too often wasted, with a little judicious management, make a nice dish of rissoles," it continued, making the idea that using leftovers was "fashionable"—as promulgated in magazines such as mine—seem laughably prosaic.

I came across the writings of Dr. William Kitchiner in his hilarious 1817 Cook's Oracle, in which, aside from describing in every gory detail some of the cruelest cooking practices he had ever heard of (don't worry—I've also conveyed it with no stone left unturned, see here), he lambasted those who had written cookbooks before him. Most, he wrote, were of no more use "than reading 'Robinson Crusoe' would enable a sailor to steer safely from England to India." He despaired of those who suggested of "a bit of this—a handful of that—a pinch of t'other—a dust of flour—a shake of pepper—a squeeze of lemon." Such recipes left him bewildered. By contrast, Kitchiner promised that he would give the reader "precision [that] has never before been attempted in cookery books." In a similar vein was Jules Gouffé—chef de cuisine of the Paris Jockey Club—in whose Royal Cookery Book of 1868 he attacked "the perfect uselessness of such cookery books as have hitherto been published."

This all sounded very familiar. Didn't every PR sending me a new cookbook from the latest culinary sensation claim that there hadn't been one quite like this one, that no previous book had been written with such clarity, that the recipes in this book really worked, that it was a new style of cooking guaranteed to capture the public's imagination?

Deciding to delve a little deeper, I soon came across Hannah Glasse, who had published The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy in 1747. It could have been 2011. Her book, she declared, "far exceeds anything of the kind ever yet published. I believe I have attempted a brand of cookery which nobody has yet thought worth their while to write upon."

Then back in 1500 there was This Boke of Cokery in which the anonymous author stated: "Here begynneth a noble boke of festes ryalle and cookery a boke for a princes household or any other estates and the makynge therof according as ye shall find more playnely with this boke." The inference is clear: this boke was plainer, simpler and clearer than any other boke.

As well as such bold claims of authenticity and brilliance, it struck me that across the centuries the characters making these claims were as strong as the sentiments they expressed. In other words, there is nothing new about chefs today being mad, bad, passionate, obsessive foodie fanatics. Furious rages echo out of kitchens throughout history, as does a passion for the best ingredients. Just as in the late 1980s Marco Pierre White was throwing the contents of a badly arranged cheese board at the wall of his restaurant, back in 350 BC the Sicilian Archestratus was losing his rag. If you wanted good honey, he said, it was only worth getting the stuff from Attica, otherwise you might as well "be buried measureless fathoms underground." And if you didn't cook simply and poured sauce over everything, you might as well be "preparing a tasty dish of dogfish."

Just as the passions of chefs, producers and consumers of food have brought the subject of food alive for me over the years, so this book is an investigation into, and a tribute to, the passionate people who have driven its story forward over the centuries. Were it not for a few rampant gourmands like the sauce-loving Apicius who in AD 10 wrote the only surviving cookbook from ancient Rome, or cheese-obsessed Pantaleone da Confienza sniffing his way around the dairies of Europe in the mid-fifteenth century, the dim and distant past would be a great deal dimmer and considerably less tasty.

Those figures throughout history who write about food tended to be as opinionated authors as they were rampant gourmands. I came across Eliza Leslie, for example, who was baking cakes in Philadelphia in the 1850s when she wasn't instructing young girls on how to behave, via Miss Leslie's Behaviour Book. Never, went one piece of advice, "play a piano in public unless invited." She also had a word or two to say about her cousins on the other side of the pond.

"There is no doubt that by the masses, better English is spoken in America than in England," she intoned. But her place is assured in food history thanks to her 1828 book, Seventy-five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes and Sweetmeats, containing the first-ever printed recipe for a cupcake.

And what of cookery teacher Fannie Farmer? America's answer to Britain's Mrs. Beeton? She was the woman behind the celebrated Boston Cooking-School Cook Book of 1896, containing not only the wonderfully alliterative recipe for "Fannie Farmer's Fudge" but firm advice on the dangers of drinking too much tea. "When taken to excess," she declared, it can "make a complete wreck of its victim."

Latterly there was Julia Child, who with her seminal Mastering the Art of French Cooking of 1961 taught a generation of American women to cook simple French food and once said of those who thought her obsessive about her subject: "I find that if people aren't interested in food, I'm not very much interested in them."

If I hadn't immersed myself in this subject, I'd never have come across some of the forgotten heroes of food history. There was Frenchman Denis Papin, for example, who invented the pressure cooker in the 1680s, but, ignored by everyone, died in poverty. It was others who, after Papin's death, discovered his "steam digester" or "Engine for Softening Bones," patented the plans and made a fortune.

Then there was Englishman Thomas Coryat, lampooned for championing the fork in 1611, and Clarence Saunders who created the format for the modern supermarket in Memphis in 1916 with his store Piggly Wiggly.

The history of food is colored by such individuals who enveloped themselves in their subject. The foodie exploits of some, the recipes of others help to tell this wonderful story. And this book is my partisan selection of what I reckon are the 100 best "chapters" in that story: the biggest characters, the occasional culinary villain and some of the most delicious food ever cooked, with recipes ranging from the dead simple ancient Egyptian bread (see here) to the downright complicated "meat fruit" (see here).

It's the story of constant stealing of recipes—from Platina's pilfering of the works of Martino de Rossi in 1475 to the theft of content from Epicurious.com in 2011. It charts the rise of British and American food and restaurant culture, and in following the rise of consumerism it considers the delights of supermarket convenience versus the well-being of the planet. And it's the account of the influences of kings, queens, conquistadors, cooks, restaurateurs and greedy pigs like me who live, breathe and talk food and are constantly on the lookout for as good a meal as we can lay our hands on.

William Sitwell

Plumpton, Northamptonshire

A note on the recipes

Unusually for a volume entitled A History of Food in 100 Recipes not every one of the ensuing chapters has an actual recipe and neither are they all eminently or indeed easily cookable. My ambition for the book is to take you on a journey where each stop gives you a colorful insight into the food scene of a particular period. Unfortunately in the early stages of this history not all the key players were as diligent in writing down their recipes as a cook might be today. As you'll discover, for example, there are no Viking recipes, so I've relied on evidence from an Icelandic saga, which details the various marauding shenanigans of Grettir the Strong and his rival Atli the Red, who might not have been foodies but surely ate a lot of dried fish. Neither, indeed, is there a recipe for bread in the early stages of English history—we have to wait until the fifteenth century for that. But of course people were eating bread centuries before then, which is why you'll have to forgive me for instead describing details of the Bayeux Tapestry to provide a glimpse into alfresco prebattle catering from the eleventh century.

In other words, rather than give a modern interpretation of what someone might have cooked at a particular moment in history, my aim has been to provide an exact contemporary reference. And where I have dug up some ancient method of roasting beef or poaching mussels I haven't updated it—except to "translate" some of the trickier terms and old spellings—or provided a modern version of the recipe in question. I want you to simply read and enjoy the recipes as they were written down. So, perhaps uniquely, this is not a book where every recipe has been triple-tested, where the ingredients have been tweaked, changed and replaced so you can knock them out after a quick trip to your local supermarket. Denis Papin's steam-digester-prepared mackerel from the seventeenth century (see here) will, I freely admit, be hard to reproduce at home, but then again so will Heston Blumenthal and Ashley Palmer-Watts's bang up-to-date "meat fruit" (see here). This may not be a recipe book that promises practical cookery, but I hope you nevertheless find it a delicious read…


Ancient Egyptian bread

1958–1913 BC

AUTHOR: Unknown, FROM: The wall of Senet's tomb, Luxor, Egypt

Crush the grain with sticks in a wooden container. Pass the crushed grain through a sieve to remove the husks. Using a grindstone, crush the grain still finer until you have a heap of white flour. Mix the flour with enough water to form a soft dough. Knead the dough in large jars, either by hand or by treading on it gently. Tear off pieces of the kneaded dough and shape into rounds. Either cook directly on a bed of hot ashes or place in moulds and set on a copper griddle over the hearth. Be attentive while cooking: once the bottom of the bread starts to brown, turn over and cook the other side.

On the hot, dusty sides of the hill of Sheikh Abd el-Qurna, overlooking the Nile valley near the ancient city of Thebes—now Luxor—you'll find the discreet and humble entrance to the tomb of Senet. Carved into the limestone mountain, it is one of hundreds of burial chambers in the area. The tombs were the funerary resting places of the nobles, officials who wielded power under the pharoahs in ancient Egypt.

Painted onto the walls of their tombs are scenes from daily existence that they wished to be replicated in the afterlife. So everything that was pleasant—happy memories, experiences and rituals—is recorded in detail, giving us a clear picture of everyday life 4,000 years ago. There are scenes of hunting, fishing, the harvesting of crops and grapes, feasting and general rural life.

Almost all of the tombs were for men, but Theban tomb number TT60 is the resting place of Senet. Hers is both the only known tomb for a woman dating from the Egyptian Middle Kingdom period, between 2055 and 1650, and the oldest burial chamber whose decorated walls have survived in good order. In addition to images of hunting, plowing and sowing, there are depictions of bread-making. These are so detailed and colorful that those who have seen the wall paintings attest to their overwhelming power. "We are," wrote Egyptologist Thierry Benderitter on viewing them in the 1970s, "in the presence of the exceptional representations of actual cooking in the Middle Kingdom."

But who was Senet herself? It appears that she was either the wife or mother of Antefoqer, a vizier—the most senior of men who stood between the pharaoh and his subjects—who served both King Amenemhat I and then his son Sesostris I at the start of the Twelfth Dynasty, between 1958 and 1913 bc. That she was accorded her own hypogeum, or private underground tomb, attests to Antefoqer's importance. Yet the entrance today has no majesty. Less grand than others on the same hill, it now has a brick entrance with a simple wooden door added in 1914 by the English Egyptologist Norman Davies.

Only very few tombs are open to the public. This one is rarely visited—entry being highly restricted—and photography is banned to prevent light damage to the wall paintings. Those permitted access must first maneuver past the endless rubble that surrounds the entrance before removing a pile of stones that frequently blocks the actual door in a crude but effective form of security. Once opened, the door reveals a long, narrow and bleak passageway extending into the tomb, its roof descending in height and adding to a sense of compression. The passage leads to a dusty square chamber where there's a statue of Senet herself, seated; a reconstruction, the sculpture having been found completely fragmented.

Beyond the chamber is another long passageway, but this one is bright with paintings, in colors of ocher, yellow, red and blue. The eye is drawn first to an image of Antefoqer hunting, posing majestically in a simple loincloth, his bow fully extended. Around his neck is an elaborate necklace of blue, green and white, while his wrists are adorned with matching bracelets.

There are images of greyhounds, hippos and beautifully drawn birds: geese, ducks and flamingos in a bright, sky-blue background. Gazelles and hares are chased by dogs. Birds are netted and fish—so detailed you can tell their variety—are hauled in from a pond. And then halfway down the 20-meter passage, on the right, are scenes of cooking.

There is meat preparation, for instance. Under the cooling protection of an awning, men butcher an ox. They hang pieces of meat on ropes, while others out in the sun tenderize it, tapping it with stones. To their right a man adds a bone to a cauldron of soup with one hand while stirring it with a stick in the other. Another roasts poultry on a skewer over a raised grill, while encouraging the embers with a mezzaluna-shaped fan. It is a hive of activity.

As is a precisely drawn recipe for bread-making, summarized at the top of this chapter. The images were not of course intended to instruct the household cook, but to help the departed soul have some decent, freshly baked bread in the afterlife. Yet it is a foundation that has informed bread-making for thousands of years.

The images not only show how flour is prepared from grain, they also record some chatting (deciphered from hieroglyphs) between the characters, painted near some of their heads like speech bubbles. First, two men crush the grain in a wooden container. "Down!" one orders as another replies, "I do as you wish." Next a woman passes the grain through a sieve to remove the husks, while her female companion grinds the grain even finer using a grindstone. In another image a girl kneads small rolls of dough in her hands, while another adds thin lines of it to some tall conical molds. Behind the girl a man can be seen placing the conical containers into an oven. He pokes the embers with one hand while protecting his face from the heat with another. But he's not happy with the state of the logs. "This firewood is green," he moans.

Egyptian bread-making depicted in a painting on the wall of Senet's tomb in Luxor.

Meanwhile, another woman can be seen kneading a much larger piece of dough. She leans over a table, pressing and stretching it out. The finished dough is presumably destined for the bakery in an adjacent picture. Here a foreman stands holding a threateningly pointy-ended staff while he encourages his workers. Below him a man on his knees kneads dough and meekly says: "I do as you wish, I am hard at work." His coworker carries some dough in a reddish-brown mold toward a hearth where another pokes at the flames. While others are kneading dough by both treading or mixing it by hand, a final character can be seen turning a partially cooked piece of bread, which has turned brown in the hot ashes.

Bread made in this way was a staple food of ancient Egypt. The world's earliest loaves show how people had progressed in agriculture and in the techniques of milling, leavening and baking, although we can't be sure when they learned to use yeast to help the dough rise and produce a lighter loaf.

It's likely that the products of this early baking were a little like modern-day pita bread. A set of beer-making scenes that exist in the same passageway suggests ancient Egyptians were using yeast. It's needed to turn the sugar to alcohol and even if it was incorporated in its natural state, from yeast spores in the air, it was used at some point in ancient Egypt. Other hieroglyphs in tombs near Luxor show bread being left to rise near ovens, although the detailed scenes of grain being turned to dough in Senet's tomb do not include this part of the process. Perhaps some dough that had been left for a day rose a little due to the presence of airborne yeast and the baker enjoyed the resulting, fluffier loaf. (Although it is safe to assume that at that time he would not have understood the science behind the process—fermentation expanding the gluten proteins in the flour and causing the dough to expand.)

As bread- and beer-making often occurred in tandem, it could be, whether by accident or experiment, that some fermented brewing liquor was added to the dough. However, it did occur and using starter doughs (a soft lump from the previous day added to the next morning's batch) became common practice. The regular use of yeast to make leavened bread is evident, at least, from the Bible—Exodus 12:34 and 39, to be precise. As the Israelites fled from captivity in Egypt, "the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading troughs being bound up in their clothes upon their shoulders." The bread they made subsequently, as Exodus goes on to recount, was not a nice, airy country-style loaf: "And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough which they brought forth out of Egypt, for it was not leavened; because they were thrust out of Egypt, and could not tarry, neither had they prepared for themselves any victual."

Records show that in addition to bread, the ancient Egyptians enjoyed a diet rich in fruit, vegetables and poultry. They used herbs, from cumin to fenugreek, and that scenes of domestic cooking were considered important for the afterlife confirms that it was as vital a part of everyday life then as it is now.


Kanasu broth

(Meat and vegetable stew)

circa 1700 BC

AUTHOR: Unknown, FROM: The Babylonian Collection

Recipe 23, tablet A, 21 kinds of meat broth and four kinds of vegetable broth. Kanasu Broth. Leg of mutton is used. Prepare water add fat. Samidu; coriander; cumin; and kanasu. Assemble all the ingredients in the cooking vessel, and sprinkle with crushed garlic. Then blend into the pot suhutinnu and mint.

Does the average Iraqi wandering the banks of the Tigris, munching on a minced meat kubbah, realize that he or she is treading a patch of land that 4,000 years ago saw the birth of haute cuisine?

Recipe for Kanasu broth carved on a clay tablet.

While the Middle Kingdom of ancient Egypt developed some of the rudiments of cooking (see here), Mesopotamia, which occupied the patch between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, became a gastronomically advanced civilization. The land was fertile, more fertile than today. Indeed, the people had an extraordinarily diverse diet that featured many kinds of vegetable, including leeks, shallots, garlic, rocket, chickpeas, lentils, lettuce, peas, figs, pomegranates and much more. They ate a huge diversity of cheese, up to 300 different kinds of bread and an amazing variety of soup. A Mesopotamian's supper of bread, soup and cheese might be more sophisticated than our own.

We know all this from detailed records. But while today you might sketch out a recipe on a notepad, publish it in a book, put it online or on an iPhone app, in those days it was a rather more laborious process. Firstly, assuming you were a member of the rarefied and literate professional classes, you made a clay tablet, then, presumably while it was still wet, with a blunt reed stylus you slowly carved out your recipe in Akkadian cuneiform, an ancient pictorial precursor of alphabetic writing.

Many such stone tablets have lasted and survived more or less intact. At the New England university of Yale, a large number of tablets are stored as part of its Babylonian Collection, among some 40,000 artifacts acquired by the university in 1933. In an effort to preserve the tablets further, the curators had them baked and then had them copied. For many years it was assumed that the inscriptions were obscure pharmaceutical formulas but then French Assyriologist Jean Bottéro took a closer look, reporting his findings in 2004.

Focusing initially on three cracked, caramel-colored tablets, he managed to decipher the code and on reading them discovered that they weren't complicated equations, just recipes. The tablets revealed a rich variety of cuisine, moreover, a sophisticated mix of skill and artistry and a wonderful breadth of ingredients. Among the tablets, on a piece of clay measuring just 12 by 16 centimeters, is the recipe for kanasu broth.

Kanasu, ancient wheat—not dissimilar to durum—was mixed into a lamb stew as a thickener. Think of it as lamb casserole cooked with pearl barley. The recipe itself is brief, partly due to the time it would have taken to scratch it onto the clay and partly, as Bottéro believes, the recording of the dish constituted a kind of ritual. This wasn't a recipe for the beginner, either: with no quantities or cooking times, it assumes a fair degree of culinary know-how.

The lamb stew is just one of twenty-one meat- and vegetable-based dishes, but it sounds a little tastier than some of the other recipes, such as one for braised turnips that begins: "Meat is not needed. Boil water. Throw fat in." Because many of the ingredients need some deciphering—samidu, for instance, was either semolina or fine white flour used for thickening, while suhutinnu was probably a root vegetable like a carrot or a parsnip—they can be hard to replicate in the modern kitchen. Indeed, having spent years deciphering the recipes, Bottéro—himself an accomplished cook—declared: "I would not wish such meals on any save my worst enemies." He may have been thinking of grasshoppers in a fermented sauce, which turns up in one of the tablets. By constrast, an editorial in the New Haven Register gave the thumbs-up to Bottéro's decoded recipe for kanasu broth, stating: "You can almost smell the 4,000-year-old leg of lamb bubbling in a sauce thick with mysterious Mesopotamian herbs."

While the dishes may not all be to the modern taste, the ingredients listed in the tablets are impressively varied, as are the various cooking techniques, suggesting that—given the number of tools required—these were dishes cooked in temples or palaces, rather than in the average home, in a mud hut, or cave, where equipment would have been rudimentary, to say the least. Recipes variously call for slicing, squeezing, pounding, steeping, shredding, marinating and straining. So even way back in the days when countries had eleven letters to their name, when people were inventing the wheel, reading the livers of chickens and believing that when you died you went underground and ate dirt, cooks were doing pretty much what most still do today.


Tiger nut sweets

circa 1400 BC

AUTHOR: Unknown, FROM: The Bible, Genesis 43:11

And their father Israel said unto them, If it must be so now, do this; take of the best fruits in the land in your vessels, and carry down the man a present, a little balm, and a little honey, spices and myrrh, nuts and almonds.

Don't think that food in prehistorical times was entirely savory—all roasted lamb, flatbreads and chickpeas. After all they were human, just like you and me. And while I might crave a HobNob come four o'clock, so the ancients would have needed to sate their cravings for sweet things.

If we are to believe the story of Joseph's rise to prominence in Egypt—and a large entertainment industry depends on it, or his colorful coat, to be precise—then archaeological evidence suggests he may have lived around 1700 BC.

According to the biblical account, after Joseph's jealous brothers had forced him into exile—selling him as a slave to people traveling into Egypt—he rose in prominence partly due to his gift for interpreting dreams in which he advised the Pharoah to store up food during the good years, in anticipation of lean years to come. Sure enough those lean years came and people flocked from neighboring countries to buy grain, including Joseph's estranged brothers, looking for food to take back to famine-ravaged Canaan.


On Sale
Jun 18, 2013
Page Count
360 pages

William Sitwell

About the Author

William Sitwell is the editor of Waitrose Kitchen magazine, can regularly be seen on TV programs such as BBC2’s Food & Drink and MasterChef: The Professionals, and writes about food for a variety of newspapers and magazines.

Following an early career in newspapers, he came to prominence in the food world after 1999 when he joined the then titled Waitrose Food Illustrated, of which he became editor in 2002. He subsequently won a string of awards, including “Editor of the Year” in 2005, for the magazine’s writing, stories, design and photography. He spends his spare time growing vegetables, cooking, and making cider at his home in Northamptonshire, England, where he lives with his wife, Laura, and their children, Alice and Albert. A History of Food in 100 Recipes is his first book.

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