Category Archives: Printed Books

Recipes for Recombining DNA. A History of Molecular Cloning: A Laboratory Manual

This month, we’re excited to collaborate with History of Knowledge to celebrate the upcoming conference, Learning by the Book: Manuals and Handbooks in the History of Knowledge. The five-day event takes place at Princeton in June and features a “blogged conference” to complement traditional panel presentations. For the next four Thursdays, the Recipes Project will cross-post selections from the conference (with RP readers noting  the extended length, in keeping with HoK posts). These four features are  just a taste of more than thirty works produced for the conference, and readers are invited to read the full selection here. Enjoy!


Angela N.H. Creager

Since Warren Weaver coined the term “molecular biology” in the late 1930s, technological innovation has driven the life sciences, from the analytical ultracentrifuge to high-throughput DNA sequencing. Within this long history, the invention of recombinant DNA techniques in the early 1970s proved to be especially pivotal. The ability to manipulate DNA consolidated the high-profile focus on molecular genetics, a trend underway since Watson and Crick’s double-helical model in 1953. But the ramifications of this technology extended far beyond investigating heredity itself. Biologists doing research on a wide variety of molecules, including enzymes, hormones, muscle proteins, RNAs, as well as chromosomal DNA, could harness genetic engineering to copy the gene that encoded their molecule of interest, from whatever organism they worked on, and put that copy in a bacterial cell, from which it might be expressed, purified, and characterized. Many life scientists who wanted to use recombinant DNA techniques were not trained in molecular biology. They sought technical know-how on their own in order to bring their labs into the vanguard of gene cloners. Manuals became a key part of this dissemination of expertise.

What did it mean to clone a gene? Simply put, cloning is copying, and a gene is usually copied onto a vector that can replicate in a cell, so that the copied gene can be propagated and studied. In seeking to make copies of genes and move them around from organism to organism, biologists were inspired by bacteria, whose ability to exchange genetic material had been recognized in 1946 by Joshua Lederberg and Edward Tatum. It turned out that there were numerous genetic units that enabled gene exchange in bacteria, including lysogenic viruses and fertility factors. In 1952 Lederberg christened the entities “plasmids.”

By the 1960s, researchers were using these naturally-occurring gene shuttles in microbes to identify, map, and characterize bacterial genes.[1] Unsurprisingly, many biologists were more interested in tracking genes found in humans and other “higher organisms” (eukaryotes—plants, animals, and fungi—as opposed to the one-celled prokaryotes, mostly bacteria). The discovery of bacterial restriction enzymes, which sever DNA strands at specific base-pair combinations, inspired molecular biologists to attempt to use these as microscopic scissors. In principle, if a researcher could identify and locate a particular eukaryotic gene, she could use a restriction enzyme to “cut” it out of chromosomal DNA and insert it into a circular bacterial plasmid (Figure 1). Cloning eukaryotic genes was an immensely difficult task, and several early attempts faltered. Other efforts did not go forward due to the potential public health hazards of placing genes from widely-studied tumor viruses into E. coli, a bacterium that usually inhabits the gut of humans. No one knew whether exposure to bacteria toting these tumor-associated genes could give people cancer.

Figure 1. Image and caption from Congress of the US, Office of Technology Assessment, Impacts of Applied Genetics: Micro-Organisms, Plants, Animals (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office), 5. Public Domain.

In 1973, a group of scientists at UCSF and Stanford, led by Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen, succeeded in placing a copy of a frog gene (one that encoded ribosomal RNA) into a bacterial plasmid. Not only was the inserted gene on its plasmid vector taken up and replicated by E. coli, but also the foreign DNA was expressed into the corresponding product RNA. Their 1974 publication became the much-cited proof that genes from a higher organism could be cloned and expressed in a bacterium.

Few scientists, however, had the specialized materials with which to achieve such a feat. Richard Roberts at Cold Spring Harbor discovered and purified many of the restriction enzymes essential for this work. He recalls that “Summer visitors would stop by with a tube of their favorite DNA in their pocket, just to see if we had an enzyme that would convert it into some useful fragments.” Unable to persuade his own institution to start manufacturing and selling restriction enzymes, Roberts helped the newly-founded New England Biolabs corner this market. The first company catalog was issued in 1975; their enzymes became indispensable to the early gene cloners. Biologists who worked on bacteria were able to rapidly exploit these newly commercialized enzymes and customized plasmids, so that the cloning of genes from microbes took off.

However, cloning of genes from higher organisms remained in the hands of the experts who could make the difficult techniques work. In 1977, Shirley Tilghman and other members of Philip Leder’s group cloned the first mammalian genes from mice.[2] In addition to academic researchers, biotech entrepreneurs were keenly interested in cloning eukaryotic genes. Simply obtaining genetic material from higher organisms in a form that could be searched for a specific gene was a formidable challenge. Tom Maniatis, part of the group that cloned the first human gene, created a human genomic “library” and shared it with other biologists.[3] But researchers also needed protocols and know-how. Courses (for practitioners, not only university students) became a popular way to meet this demand.

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory had been offering summer courses on new laboratory techniques since the 1940s. One popular course, “Advanced Bacterial Genetics,” already offered researchers a chance to learn how to identify, map, and copy genes from prokaryotes. In 1980, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) began offering a postgraduate summer course called “Molecular Cloning of Eukaryotic Genes.” James Watson, director of CSHL, asked Maniatis to teach this course, and others joined the effort. Nancy Hopkins, who had taught a tumor virology course that had just ended, stayed on for the cloning course. Ed Fritsch, a postdoc in Maniatis’s lab, put together the laboratory materials, and Helen Donis-Keller and Catherine O’Connell served as course assistants.[4]

The coursebook was made up of “consensus protocols” defining the field at the time (many of which were already circulating informally).[5] Upon advertising the postgraduate training course, “Molecular Cloning of Eukaryotic Genes,” more than 300 applied to take it. Only sixteen students could enroll. Watson immediately saw the opportunity to make cloning know-how available to a wider base of users through publication. Issuing an instructional guide from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory would further consolidate the institution’s reputation for being at the vanguard of molecular biology—and there was already a tradition there of publishing course manuals as books.

Figure 2. Cover of Tom Maniatis, Ed Fritsch, and Joe Sambrook, Molecular Cloning: A Laboratory Manual (Cold Spring Harbor, NY: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 1982). Author photo.

Watson wanted Maniatis on the team of authors, as his reputation in cloning genes was already formidable. But he had recently moved to Caltech, where he was busy chairing an NIH study section and running his own lab. He only agreed to prepare a manual based on the course if he had significant help.[6] Watson persuaded Joe Sambrook, a long-time tumor virologist at the lab, to join the effort. Although Sambrook had not taught the summer course, he did have extensive relevant knowledge, and he would do a lion’s share of the manual-writing.[7] Fritsch, who was about to leave for a tenure-track faculty position at Michigan State University, remained involved with the project having helped teach the course twice.[8] In the end, the collaboration was productive, and the first edition was published in 1982 (Figure 2). Maniatis handed off teaching of the “Molecular Cloning of Eukaryotic Genes” summer course at CSHL to others the same year as the manual came out.

The three authors explain in the Preface that because “the manual was originally written to serve as a guide to those who had little experience in molecular cloning, it contains much basic material.”[9] Indeed, the book was full of both recipes and tips. That said, part of its success, according to one early user, was that it communicated enough about the science behind the recipes that users were able to trouble-shoot the problems they ran into.[10] And part of the utility of the book was that, by virtue of its plastic-ring binding, it could be laid flat on a laboratory bench [11] (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Pages 92 and 93 of Maniatis, Fritsch, and Sambrook, Molecular Cloning: A Laboratory Manual. One can see how the book is spiral bound so it lays flat when open. Author photo.


Just as Watson had suspected, Molecular Cloning met widespread demand. There were orders for more than 5000 copies before the publication date. Consequently, the press sold 5113 copies the first month of its appearance, in July 1982 (as compared with its original number for sales projected by the press: 210 copies). In August 988 copies were sold, in September 2487, in October 1863, and in November 768. That fall, Molecular Cloning was outselling every other book in the press’s line-up.[12] As a reviewer for the British Society for Developmental Biology put it, “no laboratory with any serious interest in molecular biology of development and their [sic] cloning should be without it.”[13] By late June 1983, more than 18,000 copies had been sold.[14] Plans for a second edition, initially scheduled for 1984, were already underway.[15] The second edition, which actually appeared in 1989, was received just as enthusiastically as the first. As a reviewer in Nature put it,

Few molecular biologists welcome publication of any of the many protocol books that promise to be the single source for their laboratory methods. For the most part, such laboratory methods fall far short of this goal. So why the excitement surrounding the long-awaited second edition of the classic guide, Molecular Cloning, which first appeared in 1982? The original version immediately filled the need for an anthology of laboratory procedures pertinent to the emerging field of recombinant DNA. With the 545-page spiral-bound paperback in hand, virtually any experimentalist could make a stab at cloning and have a reasonable expectation of success.[16]

Figure 4. Frederick M. Ausubel, Roger Brent, Robert E. Kingston, David D. Moore, J. G. Seidman, John A. Smith, and Kevin Struhl, eds., Current Protocols in Molecular Biology, vol. 1 (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1987). Author photo.

In short, the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory publication became the canonical manual—or “Bible”—for gene cloners. Extending this common metaphor, one biochemist made reference to “those who daily workshop the Cold Spring Harbor idol.”[17] But the deity had rivals. Its strongest competitor was Current Protocols in Molecular Biology, introduced in 1987 by a group of researchers based at Massachusetts General Hospital.[18] Sarah Greene was the original publisher, but the series was soon bought by Wiley. Rather than being written by three authors, this manual was produced by an entire team of scientists, who contributed individual pieces on various techniques. In addition, Current Protocols had a very different way of dealing with the rapid growth (and obsolescence) of techniques—the book was designed to be expanded via subscription. Through a quarterly update service, subscribers received supplements to insert into the original loose-leaf binder, which was separated into sections by preprinted dividers (Figures 4 and 5). This meant that the Table of Contents also needed frequent updating. Five thick binders were published in the original series (Figure 6).

Figure 5. Ausubel et al., eds., Current Protocols in Molecular Biology, open so that dividers between the sections of the loose-leaf bound book are visible. Author photo.

The loose-leaf format proved unwieldy, and in 1989 Wiley published Short Protocols in Molecular Biology: A Compendium of Methods from Current Protocols in Molecular Biology. This single volume work was bound as a traditional text, with wide pages in a format that would prop open easily on the back of a lab bench. The challenge of updating was more easily accommodated by the growth of multimedia technologies in the 1990s. The 2001 edition came with a CD-ROM “Lab Book.” By the third edition (2001), Molecular Cloning: A Laboratory Manual also had an associated website for its publication. Moving manuals online put knowledge at one’s fingertips in a new way, yet the demand for guides that can be plopped open on a lab bench has meant that print versions retain value, as evidenced by the publication of a fourth edition of Molecular Cloning in 2012. Most fields of life science today, including bioinformatics, cell biology, immunology, neuroscience, stem cell science, and toxicology, have their go-to manuals and protocol books, in print and online.

Figure 6. Three of the first five volumes, published in the late 1980s, of Ausubel et al., eds., Current Protocols in Molecular Biology, stacked on office table. Author photo.

These “cookbooks” occupy the shelves, benches, and hard-drives of most biology labs, important if unnoticed. Their ubiquity enriches our understanding of the scientific process. An obsession with innovation may blind us to the importance of procedure, repeatability, and tried-and-true methods. Manuals make discovery possible, by leading scientists through the routine steps of their experiments and (if the manual is good) helping them trouble-shoot when experiments fail. In a world of hyper-specialized research, guide books are bridges, carrying technical know-how between laboratories and enabling researchers to master the latest methods without going back to school.


[1] For an overview see William Hayes, The Genetics of Bacteria and their Viruses (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1965).

[2] S. M. Tilghman, D. C. Tiermeier, F. Polsky, M. H. Edgell, J. G. Seidman, A. Leder, L. W. Enquist, B. Norman, and P. Leder, “Cloning Specific Segments of the Mammalian Genome: Bacteriophage  Lambda Containing Mouse Globin and Surrounding Gene Sequences,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 74 (1977): 4406–4410; D. C. Tiermeier, S. M. Tilghman, and P. Leder, “Purification and Cloning of a Mouse Ribosomal Gene Fragment in Coliphage Lambda,” Gene 2 (1977): 173–191.

[3] Richard M. Lawn, Edward F. Fritsch, Richard C. Parker, Geoffrey Blake, and Tom Maniatis, “The Isolation and Characterization of Linked d- and b-Globin Genes from a Cloned Library of Human DNA,” Cell 15 (1978): 1157–1174.

[4] Interview with Tom Maniatis, Columbia University, New York, Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016.

[5] Jonathan Karn, “Yet Another Maniatis?” Trends in Genetics 4/9 (Sept 1988): 268.

[6] He was chair of an NIH study section and running a big lab, which involved constantly writing grants, as well as teaching a full load at Caltech. Interview with Maniatis, op. cit.

[7] Joe Sambrook was a talented and combative British tumor virologist whom Maniatis met when doing his cloning work at CSHL in the 1970s. Involving him as an author of the molecular cloning manual enabled a certain redress at CSHL. A few years earlier Sambrook had contributed significantly to John Tooze’s Tumor Virology book, but this was not acknowledged by his being an author. Personal communication, Alex Gann, 26 May 2010.

[8] Interview with Maniatis, op. cit.

[9] Tom Maniatis, Ed Fritsch, and Joe Sambrook, Molecular Cloning: A Laboratory Manual (Cold Spring Harbor, NY: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 1982), iii.

[10] Conversation with Michael S. Levine, fall 2016.

[11] Stephanie Radner, Yong Li, Mary Manglapus, and William J. Brunken, “Joy of Cloning: Updated Recipes,” Trends in Neuroscience 25/11 (Nov 2002): 594–595.

[12] Memorandum from Susan Gensel to Jim Watson, 10 Dec 1982, re: sales at the American Society for Cell Biology meeting, Watson papers, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archives. At that meeting Molecular Cloning sold 83 copies, and all the other sales together, 22 titles in all, made up 102 copies.

[13] British Society for Developmental Biology Newsletter VII, October 1982, review of Molecular Cloning: A Laboratory Manual, copy in Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archives.

[14] Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Annual Report 1982, 12.

[15] J. Sambrook, E. F. Fritsch, and T. Maniatis, Molecular Cloning: A Laboratory Manual, 2nd ed. (Cold Spring Harbor, NY: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 1989). This edition was three volumes.

[16] Stuart Orkin, “By the Book,” Nature 343 (15 Feb 1990): 604–605, on 604.

[17] S. J. W. Busby, “Comprehensive Cloning,” Trends in Genetics 4/12 (Dec 1988): 352.

[18] The Harvard-affiliated editors were Frederick Ausabel, Robert Kingston, Jonathan Seidman, and Kevin Struhl.

Blog Series: Learning by the Book

Join the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #lbtb18. Tweet or email links to related discussions. Read more posts in this series, and check out the conference website.

Old Cookbooks, New Audiences

By Sarah Peters Kernan

In my last post I mentioned that relatively few medieval cookbooks included menus for actual events. The ones that did were typically included in cookeries originally composed for noble households; by the fifteenth century, these cookeries were being used by gentry and professional households as aspirational texts. That is, readers would use these cookbooks to learn about the foods served in the social class to which they aspired.[1] This continued into the early years of printing. In England, Richard Pynson printed the first vernacular cookery in 1500, based on recipes originally circulated in manuscript form.[2] Despite being a printed book, the Book of Cookery is very similar to typical medieval cookeries. The size of the book and appearance of the text mirrors many fifteenth-century manuscript cookeries. The black gothic typeface is unadorned, nary a decorated capital or border in sight. Clearly differentiating the printed text from a manuscript one is the lack of rubrication, which speckles so many handwritten recipes.

Printer's mark of Richard Pynson.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Printer’s mark of Richard Pynson. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Book of Cookery begins with the menus of several fourteenth and fifteenth-century noble feasts: one hosted by Henry IV at a Smithfield joust, the coronation feast of Henry V, a feast of the Earl of Huntingdon at Calais, a feast held for the king in London by the Earl of Warwick, the installation feast of Bishop Clifford in London, and an installation feast for the Archbishop of York in 1465.[3] The author describes several other untitled feasts before discussing dishes appropriate for various seasons. Following this calendar, which also serves as a recipe index, the author provides 275 recipes for dishes familiar to late medieval nobles. The text is filled with high status birds and fish fit for noble tables.

Longleat House. John Edward Jackson, The History of Longleat (Devizes, 1857), 10. Source: The British Library.

The Book of Cookery now exists as a unique copy in the library of the Marquess of Bath at Longleat House. It is bound with a fragment of a tract, also printed by Pynson in 1500.[4] This text, Remembraunce for the traduction of the Princesse Kateryne, lists noblemen and women assigned to escort Catherine of Aragon through England upon her arrival from Spain in 1501 for her marriage to Prince Arthur. Only two leaves of the tract are bound with the Book of Cookery. This tract presents an interesting counterpoint to the cookbook, as the list of nobles seems an appropriate way to conclude a book which begins with descriptions of feasts for or hosted by specific nobles in the preceding century.

I have located a reference to one other copy of the 1500 edition of the Book of Cookery in a list of books in the possession of James Morice, a gentleman in the service of Lady Margaret Beaufort.[5] Morice recorded a list of his twenty-three books in his copy of Cicero’s De senectute. His copy was bound with seven other texts, including books on courtesy, carving, and verse.[6] Morice’s books appealed to nobles and gentry refining their manners and intelligence.

Shortly after he printed the Book of Cookery, Pynson moved his printing shop inside the city of London and became the royal printer.[7] He printed a variety of texts and genres within the reading preferences of professionals, gentry, and nobles. His wholesale book prices reflected this range, priced between 20 d and 10 s, with most valued at 2 s.[8] The Book of Cookery was probably priced at 2 s. Given that 2 s was the equivalent of four days wages for a master craftsmen, the Book of Cookery was an expensive book, though still more affordable than manuscript cookeries.[9]

Once printed, the Book of Cookery made a noble manuscript cookery available to a larger number of people. Such a book would appeal to noble households as a tool for planning meals, as well as gentlemen aspiring to be more like their social superiors. The cookery’s incipit specifically targets these higher status readers rather than reaching out to a broad audience. Neither Pynson nor any other hand involved in the printing changed the incipit to reflect a desire to reach a new audience. Pynson’s output also targeted a higher status audience, one that encompassed professionals, gentry, and nobles. The tract fragment bound with the extant Book of Cookery also suggests a gentry or noble reader who wanted or needed information about Catherine of Aragon’s travels. Additionally, the two known copies of the book were housed in the private libraries of noble estates. It is notable that the extant copy of the book was consistently preserved in an estate library, passed down through several generations.

The Book of Cookery is an excellent example of the way readers used cookbooks at the turn of the sixteenth century, devouring menus and recipes to learn how to imitate higher social classes.



[1] Sarah Peters Kernan, “‘For al them that delight in Cookery’: The Production and Use of Cookery Books in England, 1300–1600” (PhD diss., The Ohio State University, 2016).

[2] Here begynneth a noble boke of festes ryalle and Cokery (London: Richard Pynson, 1500). Henceforth I will refer to this book as the Book of Cookery. For the book’s manuscript sources, see Constance Hieatt, “Richard Pynson’s Noble Boke of Festes Ryalle and Cokery and its Relationship to Two Analogous Manuscripts,” Journal of the Early Book Society 1 (1997), 78–95; Robina Napier, ed., A Noble Boke off Cookry ffor a Prynce Houssolde or eny other Estately Houssolde; Reprinted Verbatim from a Rare MS. in the Holkham Collection (Elliot Stock, 1882).

[3] Book of Cookery, fols. aiir–avir.

[4] Kate Harris, “Richard Pynson’s Remembraunce for the Traduction of the Princesse Kateryne: the Printer’s Contribution to the Reception of Catharine of Aragon,” The Library XII, no. 2 (June 1990): 99.

[5] J. C. T. Oates, “English Bokes Concernyng to James Morice,” Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society 3, no. 2 (1960), 124–32.

[6] Oates, 130–31.

[7] Frank Burgoyne, “Printers of England, I.—Richard Pynson,” The Library Assistant: The Official Organ of the Library Assistants’ Association IV (1905): 148.

[8] Henry Plomer, “Two Lawsuits of Richard Pynson,” The Library X, no. 38 (April 1909): 126–27. The “d” is an abbreviation for pence. There were twelve pence in one shilling (s), and twenty shillings in one pound.

[9] “Prices & Wages (Munro),” MEMDB: Medieval and Early Modern Data Bank,

Cookbooks, nationalism and gastronationalism

By Venetia Congdon, Astra Spalvena, Dominika Zagrodzka

This post is part of the European Institute for the History and Cultures of Food (IEHCA) series “Summer University on Food and Drink Studies”

Few of us anticipated the extraordinary week we spent in Tours for the IEHCA’s Summer School on Food and Drink. It broadened our minds and made us aware of the many subjects of research in food studies today. Here, the authors would like to discuss a common theme of their research: the relationship between cookbooks and nationalism. Venetia Congdon researches the role of food in the contemporary Catalan nationalist and secessionist movement. Astra Spalvena studies Latvian cookbooks; from the first compilations of translated recipes published in 1795 to the coffee-table books of 2012. Dominika Zagrodzka researches Polish culinary tourism and food as cultural heritage.

Nationalism has once again come to the forefront of world politics, demonstrating its enduring power as an ideology. Cultural manifestations of the nation, including food and drink, take on new and increasingly important meanings. As everyday objects, they are tools through which to express and channel complex ideas about nationhood in a simple, relatable way.

La Cuynera Catalana

Since the inception of contemporary Catalan nationalism in the nineteenth century, cookbooks have played a role in the movement. The first explicitly Catalan cookbook was La Cuynera Catalana (Anonymous, 1833-35), contemporaneous with the beginnings of the Catalan literary resurgence. The next significant cookbook was La Cuyna Catalana, in 1907, by Josep Conill de Bosch. Its introduction makes it clear that the premise for the cookbook was world domination. Good food eaten with pleasure, leads to better digestion, and stronger people. In 1928, an even more obviously nationalist cookbook appeared, the Llibre de Cuina Catalana, by Ferran Agulló. Agulló was a politician and journalist, who made a still-famous statement in this work: “Catalonia, just as it has a language, a right, customs, its own history and a political ideal, so it has a cuisine”. So, by the 1930s, cuisine (and cookbooks) were clear standard-bearers of Catalanism, though the hardships of Civil War, and Franco’s anti-Catalan policies affected Catalan cuisine. However, Franco-era cookbooks were places where sentiments of Catalan difference could be covertly expressed. Today, cookbooks are part of a large market of books on Catalan culture, which has grown in the last few years in response to the pro-independence movement.

The Kaucminde School, from “The Work of Kaucminde Alumnae 1925 – 1938”

Latvian cuisine evolved as an interaction between Latvian peasant food and gastronomic traditions of Baltic German manors. The crucial point in the formation of a national cuisine was the 1930s when endeavours to strengthen Latvian national identity involved also reflection on culinary heritage and its use in modern world. Favourable social and economic conditions encouraged cookbook publishers to focus not only on modernization but also on nationalism. The nationalistic politics of president Karlis Ulmanis’s authoritative regime (1934-1940) was a further spur. In a time of economic growth when the newly-evolved middle-class demanded new living standards, Latvian national cuisine was localised in the renowned school of home economics Kaucminde, whose students continued to educate the nation at large: writing modern cookbooks, publishing recipes in magazines, organizing seminars, travelling across the countryside to popularize contemporary household management, and systematizing culinary knowledge. The cookbooks of the 1930s emphasized the use of local products, the modernization of local culinary habits, and modern nutritional science. Rational and practical approaches to nourishment dominated over the excesses and luxury of the past. This nutritional approach became a good basis on which Soviet ideologists, following Latvia’s occupation after World War II, started to develop Soviet cuisine. However, Latvian national food and cookbooks of the 1930s experienced a renaissance after the state regained independence in 1990. 

Kaucminde Christmas table. Illustration from “The Work of Kaucminde Alumnae 1925 – 1938”

The oldest Polish cookbook is Compendium ferculorum by Stanislav Czerniecki (1682), a book for professionals. The recipes provide a perfect example of how rich Polish people ate in the 17th century, characterised by plenty of spices, sweet and sour flavourings, and attractive presentation. The author was inspired by both French cooks and local ingredients. The next national cookbook to appear was Wojciech Wieladko’s Excellent Cook (1786). The recipes were simpler, based on French La cuisinière bourgeoise by Menon (1746). In 19th century, there were many cooking guides written by women for women. The most popular were by Lucyna Ćwierczakiewicz and Karolina Nakwaska. The  20th century was characterised by eating cheap, quick and healthy food. As in Latvia, Soviet ideologists also encouraged this. After the political and social transformation of 1989, Poles were impressed by food from other cultures, but have since revalued their culinary heritage. Modern chefs are interested in restoring old tastes and reviving culinary heritage, for instance Maciej Nowicki’s work at the Museum of King Jan III’s Palace in Wilanów, involving the reproduction of recipes from Compendium ferculorum and cultivating heritage vegetables.

As anthropologist  Arjun Appadurai has pointed out, cookbooks tell unusual tales in complex civilizations. Cookbooks, and the cuisines they represent, are often means for government actors seeking to assert a particular worldview. Yet they are also the representation of grass roots initiatives, such as the first Catalan cookbook, and the Latvian Kaucminde. They are educational tools, for bettering the health of the nation. And finally, today, they are connections with a national past, and objects of global consumerism.

Venetia Congdon completed her doctorate in Anthropology at the University of Oxford in 2015. For her thesis, she studied how Catalans use food to express national identity. She is currently a post-doctoral research associate with the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Oxford. Her research interests include the intersections between national identity and cuisine, and the lived reality of nationalist movements in Europe.

Astra Spalvena is a lecturer at “RISEBA” University of Business, Arts and Technology in Riga, Latvia. She teaches courses on Media Semiotics and Food Advertising among others. She defended her PhD on historical and cultural aspects of Latvian food. Currently Astra studies the history of Latvian cookbooks with a focus on reflections of ideological dimensions and power structures. Another area of her research is Soviet cuisine and especially the role of public catering in imposing soviet ideology on territories incorporated into the Soviet Union after World War II.

Dominika Zagrodzka is a doctoral student in Cultural Science on Faculty of Philology of the Silesian University. She also graduated in Political Science on Faculty of Social Sciences. She is interested in food studies and has attended many conferences on the topic. She conducts researches on Polish contemporary food culture. Her thesis is about food as cultural heritage in Polish culture. She plans to create an academic magazine about anthropology of food.

A Tale of Two Omelettes, Part 2

By Amy Vidor and Caroline Barta

A good French omelette is a smooth, gently swelling, golden oval that is tender and creamy inside. And as it takes less than half a minute to make, it is ideal for a quick meal. There is a trick to omelettes, and certainly the easiest way to learn is to ask an expert to give you a lesson. — Julia Child.

In our last post we traced the origin of the omelette recipe (or at least one of the origins) to François Pierre de La Varenne, but what we did not expect in our research was to draw a straight line to Julia Child. Through our research, we discovered that not only did Child own two 1712 volumes of La Varenne’s Le Cuisinier Fran FRANÇOIS, but also she carried on the style and type of cuisine pioneered by La Varenne’s incipient textual project.

Child’s two volumes of La Varenne’s text can be found within her significant personal collection of 5,000 cookbooks, which are now catalogued at the Radcliffe Institute’s Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. Marylène Altieri, Curator of Books and Printed Materials, and Honor Moody, Rare Book Cataloger, informed us that Child rarely marked any cookbooks dating before 1900 (even with an ownership signature). A rare exception is an annotated copy of Larousse Gastronomique E, “but otherwise she did not [generally] mark her collection of research books. On the other hand, she marked her own publications with many corrections for future printings”, especially Mastering the Art of French Cooking  (hereafter MAFC).

Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, and Simone Beck, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961). Credit: Harry Ransom Center.

When we further discovered that the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin held Julia Child’s editorial correspondence, we could not resist the opportunity to dive into the behind-the-scenes creation of MAFC, one of the most iconic cookbooks ever published. Starting from its 1960s publication, this best-selling cookbook introduced French cooking into countless homes.

1950s America was not far removed from the restrictions and rationing of wartime (or the generational memory of Depression-era food shortages). Like their medieval and early modern forebears, those responsible for feeding themselves and their families prioritized sustenance and ease of preparation.

The post-War generation was naturally enamoured with convenient and cost-effective processed foods, such as Jell-O and frozen TV dinners. While time-saving kitchen appliances like refrigerators and electric mixers made daily cooking quicker, home cooks across the country needed help transforming the everyday chore of cooking back into an educational, pleasurable experience, as La Varenne had once done.

Enter Julia Child, a chef who helped introduce the idea of gourmet home cooking for modern audiences. Rather than settling for convenience, she advocated for cooking as a meticulous process that allowed room for error and fostered hospitality. She revived interest in taste over function, preaching the value of simple, local ingredients and flavors developed with care and attention.

Arnold Newman
Photograph of Julia Child in her kitchen for McCall’s Magazine, France, 1970. Credit: Harry Ransom Center.

While her husband was stationed in Paris, Child decided to attend Le Cordon Bleu. Shortly after, she met French chefs Simone (“Simca”) Beck and Louisette Bertholle at Le Cercle des Gourmettes, a culinary club for women in Paris. Child’s eventual bestseller, co-written with Beck and Bertholle, drew inspiration from her close friendships with these women.

L’École des Trois Gourmandes: Louisette Bertholle, Simone (Simca) Beck, and Julia Child, 1953. Credit: Harry Ransom Center.

In 1952, the trio started L’École des Trois Gourmandes, an informal “school” primarily aimed at American women living in Paris who wanted to learn about French cuisine. The lessons were held in Child’s kitchen. Although the school “closed”  in 1953 when Child moved to Marseille, their collaboration was the foundation for Mastering the Art of French Cooking, a 734-page encyclopedic cookbook published in 1961.

In effect, this trio had translated the collaborative kitchen environment developed over centuries in France for home cooks across the world. Once again, a chef’s decision to share knowledge with the world, using the medium of a book, inspired generations to attempt “professional” skills from the comfort of their home kitchen. By creating a systemized text to train the next generation of home cooks, they continued the cultural exchange began by La Varenne in 1651 (for more on early modern cooking, particularly female alliances in the kitchen, see previous RP post by Amanda Herbert).

A letter from Julia Child to Judith Jones, 31 October 1960, p. 1. Credit: Harry Ransom Center.

The voluminous Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. collection in the Harry Ransom Center archives includes the editorial correspondence between Julia Child and her Knopf editors Judith Jones and Carol Brown Janeway. Looking at pages of contracts, book-signing notices, and editorial letters revealed the work of active editors. At their best, an editor ventriloquizes purpose back to the author, creating a loop of meaning that frustrates a sense of singular authorship. They also facilitate translations of works into other languages.

A letter from Julia Child to Judith Jones, 31 October 1960, p. 2. Credit: Harry Ransom Center.

Judith Jones, Julia Child’s primary editor, began her career at Alfred A. Knopf as a French translation reader. She was quickly promoted to editor, ultimately spending 50 years at the publishing house. She recently passed away at the age of 93, and is remembered best for her dual passions for cooking and editing. These shaped her editorial collaborations with not only Julia Child, but also chefs like Jacques Pépin, Alice Waters, and Claudia Roden. It also inspired her to write her own cookbooks and blog, including The Pleasure of Cooking for One.

When adapting manuscripts for new audiences, cookbook translators often prioritize word-for-word accuracy, useful equivalencies across different measurement systems, and cross-cultural labeling of ingredients. Caution is advised, as altering formatting and spacing of the text also can change meaning.

In a letter dated November 6, 1975, Carol Brown Janeway related Child’s feelings about the British “translation” of MAFC:

Julia [Child] has always been very dissatisfied with what [British editors] did…they entirely changed the layout of the book which reduced to nonsense her whole method of teaching recipes.

Child was meticulous in her kitchen pedagogy, providing exacting instructions interspersed with diagrams for proper technique. The original MAFC progresses deliberately: beginning with basics such as knife skills, followed by tips selecting and using ingredients like wine, and building to the most simple type of recipes, soups. Just as La Varenne had done three centuries earlier! When the British editors rearranged the layout, they disrupted this meticulous process, transforming the book from a process of skill-acquisition to a collection of recipes.

Notwithstanding the potential difficulty, MAFC was rapidly translated into numerous languages including Finnish, Danish, Chinese, Russian, Italian, Korean, Dutch, and Spanish, and a second volume was ordered for 1970.

If all this talk about food makes you hungry, head to MAFC, Volume 1, to whip up a delightful omelette. It’s what Julia would want you to do.

Julia Child’s French Omelette Recipe

Makes 1 serving

2 extra-large or 3 large or medium eggs

Large pinch salt

Several grinds black pepper

1 teaspoon cold water (optional)

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, plus extra to garnish

Several sprigs parsley, to garnish

Combine the eggs, seasonings: In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, salt, pepper and water, if using, until just blended. Set aside.

Cook the omelet: Place a nonstick skillet over high heat. Add the butter and tilt the pan in all directions to coat the bottom and sides. When the butter foam has almost subsided but just before it browns, pour in the eggs. Shake the pan briefly to spread the eggs over the bottom of the pan, then let the pan sit for several seconds undisturbed while the eggs coagulate on the bottom. If adding any fillings, such as sauteed vegetables, do so now. Start jerking the pan toward you, throwing the eggs against the far edge. Keep jerking roughly, gradually lifting the pan up by the handle and tilting the far edge of the pan over the heat as the omelet begins to roll over on itself. Use a rubber spatula to push any stray egg back into the mass. Then bang on the handle close to the pan with a fist and the omelet will start curling at its far edge.

Unmold the omelet: Maneuver the omelet to one side of the pan. Fold the third of the omelet farthest from you over on itself. Lift the pan and hold a serving plate next to it. Tilt the pan toward the plate, allowing the omelet to slide onto it and fold over on itself into thirds.

Presentation: Spear a lump of butter with a fork and rapidly brush it over the top of the omelet. Garnish with parsley.


Beck, Simone, Louisette Bertholle, and Julia Child. Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Knopf, New York, 1961.

About the authors

Caroline B. Barta is a third-year PhD student in English Literature at the University of Texas Austin. Her work researches questions of literacy, access, gender, and cultural commodity. She received her Masters in English Literature from Boston College (2015), and her bachelors in Great Texts and Classics from Baylor University (2012). She considers recipes useful textual artifacts, revealing how women especially retrieved and shared practical literacy in their households and kitchens.

Amy Vidor is a fourth-year doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Texas at Austin. She completed her Bachelors’ degrees in English and French from the University of Southern California (2012) and her Master’s degree in History and Literature at Columbia University (2014).  Her work analyzes how female testimony and textual inheritances complicate cultural memory. Her research areas include francophone and anglophone literature.