Cookbooks have been published since at least the 1600s. Most of those early ones, though, are nigh-unusable by modern standards. Not only were the instructions vague, they hardly ever mentioned measurements of ingredients, and most lacked structure and organisation.
They changed in 1805, when Maria Rundell submitted a manuscript, “A New System of Domestic Cookery,” to a small publishing house called John Murray. She was the widow of a surgeon, just over 60 years old, and had compiled a book on household management for her seven daughters. She sent it to John Murray, a small publishers in London, for free. (I would love to know what spurred her to submit the book! Many women wrote or handed down books like this to their children, but most remained within the family. Very few took the step of releasing it to the world.)
Murray recognised its potential and quickly snapped it up, and the book was published the following year in the UK and in 1807 in the US, where it was titled “American Domestic Cookery and The Experienced American Housekeeper.” It would remain in print for 80 years, and launched John Murray to the top of the publishing game: They launched the Quarterly Review in 1809 and famously published Lord Byron’s work shortly after, catapulting them both to stardom. They would go on to publish Darwin’s “Origin of Species.”
The relationship between Rundell and her publishers quickly soured, though. As early as 1807, Rundell was sending angry letters to Murray, saying the latest edition was “miserably prepared” and full of errors. By 1814 they’d fallen out and she offered the rights to a rival publisher, Longman, blocking Murray from publishing any future editions. Murray, for their part, argued that they had expanded and embellished her original work. The legal battle finally came to an end in 1823, with Murray paying Rundell the sum of £2,100 – roughly £250,000 in today’s money.
What was revolutionary about Rundell’s book? While other cookery books of the time were almost solely made up of recipes, Rundell wrote a complete guide to household economy and management, covering everything from how to carve and stew and how to keep track of household finances to how to look good while working in the kitchen. The actual recipes only start 60 or so pages in.
It was published at the perfect time. The middle classes of England were coming under increasing strain, and members of the family were having to take a more active role in day-to-day tasks as they could afford fewer household staff. Economic living, especially in an elegant and socially acceptable way, was on everybody’s lips, and Rundell was the first to offer it.
Incidentally, it also contained one of the first recipes for tomato sauce in English cooking! As time went on and it became more influential, more recipes were added that reflected the changes in English cooking as a whole – by the time the final editions appeared in the 1880s, it had a large selection of Indian recipes, added because of the Victorians’ growing fascination with Indian cooking. It was a staple of English and American middle-class cookery, a guide that sold almost hundreds of thousands of copies and changed the way cookbooks were written forever. How strange that it has fallen into almost total obscurity.