A Taste for the Rare and the Well-Done: Recipe Texts and the Book Trade

By Anke Timmermann

Part II: The thrill of the hunt

Rare book dealers working on recipe collections are in the enviable position to be able to do original work on unique and little-researched materials, and to learn from the collections they handle, as well as from collectors, whether private or institutional. Collectors’ ambitions to acquire interesting and rare material in as comprehensive a manner as possible (including later editions, which were, for a long time, considered inferior to the first edition) have made it possible to piece together at least part of the history of the cook book. It is important to understand that, as a genre, cook books really are rather complex: they were popular publications, and somewhat ephemeral in that they were constantly replaced with more fashionable versions, revised editions or new titles. The example of one female cook book writer of the eighteenth century, Elizabeth Raffald, née Whitaker (bap. 1733, d. 1781), illustrates this point well.

Image 2: Elizabeth Raffald’s woodcut facsimile signature, intended to prevent the publication of pirated editions. Elizabeth Raffald, The Experienced English Housekeeper, for the Use and Ease of Ladies, Housekeepers, Cooks, &c. Written Purely from Practice, and Dedicated to the Hon. Lady Elizabeth Warburton, whom the Author Lately Served as Housekeeper: Consisting of Near Nine Hundred Original Receipts, Most of which Never Appeared in Print… The Tenth Edition. With… Two Plans of a Grand Table of Two Covers; and A Curious New Invented Fire Stove, wherein any Common Fuel may be Burnt instead of Charcoal. London: R. Baldwin, 1786, p. 1. From archive.org: https://archive.org/details/experiencedengl00raffgoog.

Raffald was a food writer whose books, among her other enterprises, afforded her much success. Raffald had her own shop for ‘cold Entertainments, Hot French Dishes, Confectionaries, &c.’ (ODNB), expanded it into a cookery school, ran two inns, and, with the publication The Experienced English Housekeeper, became ‘after Hannah Glasse, the most celebrated English cookery writer of the 18th century’ (Virginia Maclean, A Short-Title Catalogue of Household and Cookery Books Published in the English Tongue 1701-1800 (1981), p. 123 n1). The Experienced English Housekeeper is remarkable in many ways and, among other things, a landmark in the development of the English wedding cake, recording the use of marzipan and royal icing for the first time. It was issued in fifteen authorised editions between 1769 and 1810, but also inspired some twenty-five unauthorised editions. In order to prevent such piracies, Raffald issued her authorised versions with a woodcut facsimile of her signature on the first text page. Enthusiasm for Raffald’s work outlived the author herself, and a ‘new edition’ appeared posthumously in 1807, promising more additional recipes on the title than the text actually provides. Only a comparison between different exemplars, and detailed bibliographical information on other editions, can fully chart the authors’ attempts to protect their work and thwart others’ efforts to benefit from their popularity; the cunning imitations that yet bypassed these measures; and, amidst these struggles, the constant evolution of recipes, their ingredients and methods. And since many of these editions only survive in a handful of copies (due to their replacement, historical neglect or destruction by use in the kitchen), the collections that do preserve little known or rare editions are the best, and often only, means for the diligent bibliographer or bookseller to make such comparisons.

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Manuscript recipe collections, by contrast, are unique by definition, and have long been very highly sought after, although not for all historical periods alike. In the late twentieth century, manuscripts produced before 1800 were the main focus for collectors, but more recently manuscripts from the early nineteenth century have also attracted much interest. No matter when acquired or how old, manuscript recipe books are often the defining features of the collections of which they form part. The Folger Library in Washington DC is, famously, home to the largest collection of early modern western European recipe books in the United States (see https://recipes.hypotheses.org/tag/folger-shakespeare-library for an example from the collections), and other collections prize their manuscripts on a smaller and perhaps more modern but, overall, no less significant level – see, for example, the New York Historical Society’s holdings of recipe compendia, extending to the 1950s to 1970s, all instructive in their own right.

So how much is a recipe book worth? And is it worthwhile starting a collection today, now that collecting cook books, recipe collections and manuscripts is no longer a niche interest? For recipes as for any other collecting activity, it is the individual that makes the mark on a collection, beyond any perceived restrictions of a canon of literature or any financial constraints. One recent example for how collecting interests can flourish and develop is a young collector who won an honourable mention in booksellers Honey & Wax’s Book Collecting Prize: Ashley Rose Young, a doctoral candidate in history at Duke University, ‘began by collecting historic Creole cookbooks, then expanded her focus to the food markets of the port of New Orleans, a local economy historically dominated by African-Americans and immigrants’ . Further, it could be argued that some of Christopher Hogwood’s cook books were not collectibles when they first caught his eye, but have now, through their distinguished provenance, earned a place in other collections. Recipe books are, then, certainly a subject in which each collector can develop their own taste, and which will be valuable to their owners on many different levels. It also seems certain that they will continue to be valued in the book market, and that our knowledge of them will continue to grow over time, thanks to the endeavours of all those who handle them – be they private collectors, institutions, book dealers, or scholars.

Dr Anke Timmermann FLS is a historian of science-turned-antiquarian bookseller, and the author of Verse and Transmutation: A Corpus of Middle English Alchemical Poetry (Brill, 2013). Anke joined Bernard Quaritch Ltd, one of the oldest antiquarian booksellers in London, after finishing her Munby Fellowship in Bibliography at Cambridge University Library in 2014. She recently set up as an independent bookseller (A T Scriptorium), and specialises, among other things, in the history of science, and recipe books including culinary, medical and alchemical recipes. She tweets as @ElixirLibri.


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