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Oldest cookbook

Mix egg yolks, dates, honey, vinegar, oil, wine, shallots, and herbs, and then add a roasted flamingo. This is Apicius, one of the earliest surviving cookbooks.

We have individual recipes dating back much earlier (think Akkadian tablets from 3770 years ago), and cookbooks likely existed in some form well before this one, but Apicius is the earliest actual cookbook still extant.

This cookbook, also known asĀ On the Subject of Cooking, is thought to date back to the 1st century CE Roman Empire. Like many useful Roman texts it was copied and preserved through the Middle Ages by eager and possibly hungry monks: the manuscript in the photo above dates to 900 CE and was held in the library of the monastery of Fulda in Germany.

(Side note: a lot of important manuscripts were preserved in Fulda, such as Tacitus’ history of the Roman Empire Annales. The monastery was in operation for more than a thousand years – from 744 CE through until 1802 CE – which is lucky for us.)

The recipe at the top is for sauce to accompany roasted flamingo but it doesn’t specify a cooking technique. The following recipe, for actually cooking the flamingo itself, is more detailed. There are many English translations of Apicius, but the Vehling translation is in the public domain now so that’s the one I’ll quote:

Scald the flamingo, wash and dress it, put it in a pot.
Add water, salt, dill, and a little vinegar, to be parboiled.
Finish cooking with a bunch of leeks and coriander, and add some reduced must [a kind of grape juice] to give it color.
In the mortar crush pepper, cumin, coriander, laser root, mint, and rue.
Moisten with vinegar, add dates, and the fold of the braised bird.
Thicken, strain, cover the bird with the sauce and serve.

Good luck duplicating this recipe, by the way: laser root is probably extinct… but that’s a post for another time.

Also, if you happen to be all out of flamingo, the cookbook happily adds this final note: “parrot is prepared in the same manner.”

Categories: Ancient history Arts & recreation Europe Food & agriculture History Literature Places Sciences

The Generalist

I live in Auckland, New Zealand, and am curious about most things.

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