Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all.



Fists and Pinches

When Fannie Farmer enrolled in the Boston Cooking School in the late 19th century, recipe books were almost impossible to use effectively as there were few agreed quantities. Some recipes called for a ‘lump’ of butter or a ‘fist’ of flour; others referred to cups of water or jugs of milk. Various condiments were measured out in spoons and pinches but none of the recipe writers actually specified exactly how much any of these volumes represented. Nobody knew how big a ‘jug’ should be as it was just the jug the recipe writer had to hand. If your jug wasn’t the same size (and you had no way of knowing this) the recipe could go horribly wrong.

The 1896 Boston Cooking School Cook Book revolutionised cookery. Fannie Farmer treated recipes like chemical experiments, spending months measuring and weighing in various containers and averaging out how to produce a set of standardised measurements that everyone could follow. Farmer was the first to decide just how much there was in a cup, a teaspoon and a tablespoon, and how any of the one should fit into the other – e.g. there are 16 cups in a jug.

Fannie Farmer was also insistent that cups and spoons should be filled only until they were level with the top – never heaped – so that everyone should end up with the same results. For her work she became known as ‘the mother of level measurements.’


I eat at this German-Chinese restaurant and the food is delicious. The only problem is that an hour later you’re hungry for power.

The Beeton Family

Mrs Beeton died four years after the publication of her book, aged 28. Her husband and two of her sons were all named Samuel Orchart Beeton. Her husband was the publisher of the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes, ‘A Study in Scarlet’, in Beeton’s 1887 Christmas Annual.

Household Management contains 900 pages of recipes, though not the line ‘First, catch your hare.’


My cooking is so bad my kids thought Thanksgiving was to commemorate Pearl Harbor.

Love jam

Nostradamus’s Traité des fardemens et confitures (Treatise on Make-Up and Jam) appeared in 1555 and was intended, according to the Introduction, 'to satisfy the Will and Affection of several Nice Characters, even of the Female Sex, who are greedy of knowing and understanding novel things'.

 It contains a number of perfectly viable recipes (the cherry jam is said to be particularly good) as well one for an aphrodisiac 'love jam' so efficacious that 'if a man were to have a little of it in his mouth, and ... kissed a woman ... , and expelled it with his saliva, putting some of it in the other's mouth, it would suddenly cause ... a burning of her heart to perform the love-act'. 

Auguste Escoffier invented more than 10,000 recipes.

Mystery potatoes

One of the earliest celebrity cookbooks was the 1940 book, A Kitchen Goes to War: Famous People Contribute 150 Recipes to a Ration-time Cookery Book. Recipes included 'Agatha Christie's Mystery Potatoes', 'Sir Kenneth Clark's Ham Roll Salad', and a recipe from music hall star Jack Warner called 'Cheese and Chutney Crackers'.

This was the recipe for Cheese and Chutney Crackers: 'Ingredients: 1 dozen water biscuits, 2 oz. margarine or butter, 2 tablespoonsful chutney, about ¼ lb cheese. Method: Spread the biscuits with margarine or butter. Cover with cheese in slices and chutney.'

Kenneth Clark's Ham Roll Salad, on the other hand, was much more lavish, requiring any readers to have '1 jar pate de foie paste' and French mustard in stock.

 Other contributors included the actor John Gielgud and Mrs Neville Chamberlain, Lady David Douglas-Hamilton, Viscountess Halifax, the Countess of Oxford and Asquith, and the Dowager Lady Nunburnholme.

How to boil an egg

Before people had accurate kitchen timers, many recipes advised cooks to measure cooking times with prayers. One medieval French recipe advises boiling a batch of walnuts for the length of a 'Miserere' – in other words, about two minutes.

Almost everyone went to church, so not only were the prayers widely known but everyone knew the speed they were supposed to say them. Another method was to cook something ‘for as long as it took to walk half a mile’.
Before thermometers, one way of telling temperature was to put a big white stone inside the oven, which would change colour as it heated. In the 19th century, cooks were advised to throw a sheet of paper in their oven: 'If a sheet of paper burns when thrown in, the oven is too hot. When the paper becomes dark brown, it is suitable for pastry. When light brown, it does pies. When dark yellow, for cakes. When light yellow, for puddings, biscuits and small pastry.'

Mrs Beeton's cookbook included nine recipes for eel.

The oldest known recipe for soup is flavoured with hippopotamus.

J. A.  BRILLAT-SAVARIN (1775 -1826)

You first parents of the human race, who ruined yourself for an apple, what might you not have done for a truffled turkey?


I went to a restaurant that serves 'breakfast at any time' so I ordered French toast during the Renaissance.

1541 Recipe Book

The oldest known recipe dates to the 19th century BC and describes how to make beer.

The oldest known recipe for French Toast is from 1st century Italy and calls itself 'Roman Toast'

A popular recipe in Ancient Rome was for stuffed dormice.