Technology and the downfall of Recipe Books

Times have changed with the advancement of technology, and practically anything can be found on the internet. In the early modern historical period the internet evidently did not exist; books were the principal source for finding information to any questions that one needed to know. Books were available on how to cultivate land, grow food and recipes ranging from food to medicine. But has the advancement in technology meant that recipe books are a thing of the past?

Technology such as the internet has made accessing recipes to be at the click of a button; you can search ‘recipes’ into google and find yourself with over 2.6 Billion sites worth of recipes. In the past the equivalent of this would be a recipe book, which would be passed down through many generations within a family. The Johnson Family recipe book was written between the years 1694 to 1831, with hundreds of distinct recipes that also include medicinal recipes.

The Johnson Family Recipe Book 1694-1831.

Recipe books in family households were passed down through generations; the different handwriting shows how many authors were involved in the making of one recipe book. The Johnson Family recipe book had a continuous change of calligraphy; the writing at the beginning of the book is not the same as the last page in the book. The recipe book also holds sentimental value; ‘Elizabeth Phillips’ is the first name to appear, then it is written ‘Elizabeth Johnson the gift of her Mother Johnson’[1]. The handing down of a recipe book makes it an heirloom, where generation after generation was able to include their own recipes that future generations could try.

Technology has made the sentimental value and worth of recipe books almost disappear. People now no longer need to keep a copy of a recipe, as they can always find the recipe they need by searching for it on the internet. Although it has also allowed for others to share their most special family recipes, one that springs to mind that I have attempted is from Pasta Grannies. They are able to use the internet to share recipes they learned from their mothers and grandmothers. Family recipes are now able to reach all ends of the earth, rather than stay in one family household recipe book.

An example of medicine recipes.

Recipe books were critical in the everyday life, especially for when a person fell sick. Medicinal recipes were used in the hopes to cure people; if it worked then it would be recorded in a book and the recipe would not be lost. A medicinal recipe could be found between food recipes; ‘A salve for any soare but chiefly for a burning sore’ recipe was written following a ‘To make short cakes‘ recipe[2]. By having the medical recipes in-between food recipes shows just how vital and essential it was for people to keep a record of the recipe cures. However, with the advancement of technology, we are also able to find remedies online for common illnesses; there even are online doctors that can diagnose our symptoms! Thus the requirement no longer exists to hold onto recipes that can cure our illnesses.     

An example of a ‘good’ approval on a recipe.

When you look at a recipe book you may notice little squiggles around the recipes. These squiggles are in fact notes which vary from asserting that a recipe is ‘good’ (and even better if they have a tick next to the ‘good’). To even the disapproval of other recipes represented by being crossed out of the recipe book; ‘to make Goosbery Viniger’ in the Johnson Family recipe book was edited to be improved, but in the end crossed out of the recipe book. In some recipes, tips are included of what was done to improve a recipe. A Johnson family member found to perfect making ‘boiled sydar’ you need to have ‘16 pound of pouder sugar to a hogs head’ [3]. This is no different to online recipes’ comment sections, where comments are filled with approval or disapproval of people who have tried the recipes.  Some even offer advice on how to improve recipes by adding or removing ingredients, just like in recipe books.

Recipe books hold significant value, as we are still continuing to use them, this includes both in food and medicine especially. We no longer have to keep a record of recipes, as we can find any recipe through technology; which has meant in the loss of recipe books being written in the modern day. Technology has allowed for the creation of apps such as ‘Food Network’, which allows you to store your favourite food recipes; thus having a large book filled with recipes would be inconvenient. Let me know what you think, are recipe books a thing of the past?      

[1] Wellcome Library. Johnson Family recipe book (MS3082) London, 1694-1831  

[2] LUNA: Folger Manuscript Transcriptions Collection, Medicinal and cookery recipes [manuscript]. (124205) Complicated ca, 1625-1725

[3] Wellcome Library. Johnson Family recipe book (MS3082) London, 1694-1831


2 thoughts on “Technology and the downfall of Recipe Books

  1. I would definitely agree that recipe books in the early modern sense have lost their place in a modern household but I’m not sure if it’s because of convenience or simply a lack of interest from millennials? Until we had spent time discussing and analysing these books, I had never considered asking my nan or mum for separate recipes, as you’ve already said, I just relied on the internet!

    Do you have any recipes passed down in your family at all? Culinary or medical?

  2. I liked the comparison you made between the apps and the internet in the place of the traditional recipe book. If food is part of your family dynamic then sharing ideas and recipes is important whether orally, physically or digitally.

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