Cookery, Ancient and Modern

By Henry Power

This post is about two sort-of-recipe-books published in the first decade of the eighteenth century. When I say sort-of-recipe-books, I mean that although both of them are full of culinary precepts, neither is likely to have been used in the kitchen. But taken together, the two books give an insight into the cultural tensions of the early eighteenth century.

Image: Frontispiece to Martin Lister’s edition of Apicius (2nd edn. 1709). The interior seems to be an amalgam of an eighteenth-century and a Roman kitchen. The presence of a codex recipe book, propped up on the work surface, is the clearest eighteenth-century element. By permission of The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.
Image: Frontispiece to Martin Lister’s edition of Apicius (2nd edn. 1709). The interior seems to be an amalgam of an eighteenth-century and a Roman kitchen. The presence of a codex recipe book, propped up on the work surface, is the clearest eighteenth-century element. By permission of The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

In 1705, Martin Lister published an edition of the recipes of the Roman cook Apicius. Subscribers to the volume included Isaac Newton, Hans Sloane, Christopher Wren, and the Archbishop of Canterbury; this was a work destined for the shelves of the great and the good. Lister was, as the title page makes clear, a medical man – chief physician to Queen Anne. Apicius on the other hand was, on the other hand, largely associated with gluttony and intemperance. In his lengthy Latin introduction, Lister tries to rescue Apicius from the charge of gluttony—and indeed to stress the health-giving properties of his recipes. Generations of moralizing historians had argued that the fall of Rome was at least partly down to excessive gourmandising. Lister takes the opposite view: the barbarian sack of Rome halted the Romans’ development of healthy, nourishing seasonings and sauces.

Lister was, in the parlance of the time, a ‘Modern’. That is to say, he believed in the continuing progress of human learning since antiquity. He also believed in the application of modern scholarly techniques to ancient texts, and in studying a broader range of texts and topics than the fairly narrow classical canon than had traditionally been taught in schools and universities. His edition of Apicius is thoroughly informed by these principles: it presents one of the most neglected and marginal classical texts with all the apparatus of modern scholarship, and it also builds on the knowledge of that text – bringing Lister’s scientific knowledge to bear on Apicius’ recipes.

One contemporary reader found such an expenditure of scholarly labour ridiculous: the application of considerable intellectual resources to a book about anchovy sauce and stuffed dormice. William King, a fellow at Christ Church, Oxford, was firmly an ‘Ancient’. He frequently bemoaned the fact that the Moderns were disregarding and denigrating the staples of the canon: above all, the epic poems of Homer and Virgil. Lister’s Apicius was evidence of the skewed priorities of the Moderns, and King hit upon the perfect way of satirizing it.

In 1708, King published a book-length poem called The Art of Cookery. Though the short title indicates a conventional recipe book, the long subtitle points to a more literary origin. The book is, we are told, written ‘in imitation of Horace’s Art of Poetry: with some letters to Dr. Lister, and others: occasion’d principally by the title of a book publish’d by the doctor, being the works of Apicius Coelius, concerning the soups and sauces of the antients.’ One of the strangest works of eighteenth-century satire, King’s Art of Cookery is a rewriting of Horace’s Art of Poetry (the most famous work of classical literary criticism) in which gastronomic instructions take the place of poetic ones at every opportunity.

To give one example, Horace’s insistence that poetry should be charming (or ‘sweet’) as well as beautiful is applied to pastry:

Unless some Sweetness at the Bottom lye,
Who cares for all the crinkling of the Pye? (p. 71)

One of the poem’s satiric targets is the importance attached by people like Lister to material that was previously considered trivial. Horace wrote his poem so that future writers could emulate the great epics of Homer and Virgil; these hallowed precepts were now being applied to mere cookery. In one of the prefatory letters addressed to Lister, King ironically bemoans the fact that gastronomy is not properly taught in schools:

For what hopes can there be of any Progress in Learning, whilst our Gentlemen suffer their Sons at Westminster, Eaton, and Winchester, to eat nothing but Salt with their Mutton, and Vinegar with their Roast Beef upon Holidays? What      Extensiveness can there be in their Souls? … and as to Sauces, they are in profound ignorance. (pp. 3-4)

King has another target in his sights. The Art of Cookery records, in its odd way, the huge expansion of English diet at the turn of the eighteenth century. Sometimes, King confronts head-on the increasing diversity of food served in England, as in this passage (which corresponds to Horace’s advice about the use of recently-coined words in poems):

Be cautious how you change old Bills of Fare,
Such alterations should at least be Rare
Fresh Dainties are by Britain’s Traffick known,
And now by constant Use familiar grown;
What Lord of old wou’d bid his Cook prepare,
Mangoes, Potargo, Champignons, Cavare? (p. 61)

Just as a scholarly turn to marginal authors like Apicius is threatening the status of canonical authors such as Homer and Virgil, so the general enthusiasm for such-newfangled delicacies as mushrooms and mangoes is threatening plain, traditional English cookery, as exemplified by roast beef and mutton. That anxiety is frequently encountered in eighteenth-century England; what is interesting about King is that he associates this perceived alteration in diet with a Modernizing tendency to value novelty above all else.

And for King it is the ‘soups and sauces of the Antients’, as encountered in Lister’s edition of Apicius, which are the ultimate symbol of modernity.

Henry Power is Associate Professor of English Literature at the University of Exeter. He is the author of Epic into Novel: Henry Fielding, Scriblerian Satire, and the Consumption of Classical Literature (Oxford University Press, 2015). He is currently editing (with Nicholas McDowell) The Oxford Handbook of English Prose, 1640-1714, to which he is contributing two essays: one on ‘Learned Wit and Mock Scholarship’, and the other on ‘Recipe Books.’

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