A HISTORY OF COOKS AND COOKING by Michael Symons

How does a writer compile, in one volume, a book about the history of cooks and cooking? And yet, this is exactly what author Michael Symons has set out to do.

The University of Illinois Press (demonstrating once again the incomparable value of the books provided by University Presses) has published A HISTORY OF COOKS AND COOKING. *

In the preface to A HISTORY OF COOKS AND COOKING, the author notes, “Between us, we have eaten an enormous number of meals. We have nibbled, gorged and hungered our way through history. Cooks have been in charge…finding, sharing and giving food meaning. We could not have survived without them. They have been everywhere yet writers have hardly noticed. In fact, I suggest that t his is the first book devoted to the essential duties and historical place of cooks…”

Symons claims, “If this is, with few qualifications, the world’s first book on the world’s most important people, it implies a surprising intellectual oversight. Nearly two and a half millennia ago, Plato warned against an interest in cooks, and western scholars have largely complied. Almost without exception they have failed to inquire into the chief occupation of at least half the people who have ever lived. Even thinkers must eat…”

And while I might not totally agree with Symons assertion—and finding myself wondering exactly why Plato warned the world against an interest in cooks—I do concur with his statement that “Cookery books are so consumable that French Chef Raymond Oliver compares them with wooden spoons, ‘one is astonished at the number which have disappeared…”

Symons states, “We have devoured innumerable books on how and what to cook, and even some about certain cooks and aspects of cooking, but this abundance makes the central gap even more peculiar. There are so many texts for, and so few, about cooks…cooks have always been in the background both ever present and unnoticed. Their contributions have seemed too common, pervasive, trivial, unproblematic…”

He also writes, “Virtually every archaeological dig, every diary, every streetscape tells the cooks’ tale. We do not lack evidence, and can appropriate much scholarship. But no one has tried to pull this all together. Since the nineteenth century, we have become so hyper-specialized that we scarcely know any longer how to place cooks within the great scheme of things…”

Symons also observes that, “If we are what we eat, cooks have not just made our meals, but they have also made us….”

The author provides, in the preface, a capsule breakdown of the chapters and the best way to give you some idea what this book is really about, is to quote Symons himself:

“In quest of cooks,” he begins, “we initially enter the kitchen of just one Sydney chef, Phillip Searle, (Chapter One). The book then relates how certain novelists have portrayed some cooks (Chapter Two) and finds the gastronomic tradition; often appreciative (chapter Three). Having traced the development of fire (Chapter Four), existing assumptions about what cooks do are examined (Chapter Five), why their key tool is the knife (Chapter Seven and how they are behind festivals, beauty and love (Chapter Eight).

Symons embarks on a journey, exploring how food, and the cooks who prepared it, were written about in books, including Laura Ingalls Wilder’s THE LONG WINTER, AND Nora Ephron’s HEART BURN, touches on the American diner and street food, the contributions of various famous chefs, such as Henri Charpentier. (In yet another instance of synchroniscity, I acquired a book about Henri Charpentier and have written about him in an article for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange and on my blog).

The publishers explain, “Symons sets out to explore the civilizing role of cooks in history. His wanderings take us to the clay ovens of the prehistory eastern Mediterranean and the bronze cauldrons of ancient China, to fabulous banquets in the temples and courts of Mesopotamia, Egypt and Persia, to medieval English cookshops and southeast Asian street markets, to palace kitchens, diners and modern fast-food eateries.

Symons samples conceptions and perceptions of cooks and cooking from Plato and Descartes, to Marx and Virginia Woolf, asking why cooks, despite their vital and central role in sustaining life, have remained in the shadows, unheralded, unregarded and underappreciated…”

No longer. Michael Symons’ A HISTORY OF COOKS AND COOKING FROM THE University of Illinois Press has provided a tribute to cooks and will surely join the ranks of all other important food-related books.
*The Australian author uses the European spellings, whereas Americans spell many of these words with a Z instead of an S—I’ve corrected them for easier reading in this post—for one thing, my spellcheck has a nervous breakdown whenever I try to use European spellings.

Well, I don’t necessarily agree with much of what Symons has written but I wrote a review of this book for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange in 2001—and I think much has changed in our culinary landscape in the past eleven years. If nothing else, programs such as those shown on the Food Network focus on cooks and chefs all the time. There have also been many more books about individual cooks and chefs as well. Still, you may want to read A HISTORY OF COOKS AND COOKING and decide for yourself. And even though this was published by the University of Illinois Press, the Australian author’s viewpoint may reflect what he has observed and studied in Australia.

Michael Symons is a former journalist for Sydney Morning Herald and also the author of “THE PUDDING THAT TOOK A THOUSAND COOKS.”

Symons is also the author of two other food-related books, ONE CONTINUOUS PICNIC: A HISTORY OF EATING IN AUSTRALIA, and THE SHARED TABLE.

–Review by Sandra Lee Smith

*Originally posted in 2012. So many of my subscribers are so interested in food and cooking history that I thought this would appeal to many of you who know who you are! – sls

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