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The language of cooking: from ‘Forme of Cury’ to ‘Pukka Tucker’

The earliest surviving English-language recipes came from the kitchens of kings and their great nobles. Richard II’s Master Cooks boasted that their Forme of Cury contained only the ‘best and royallest viand of all Christian Kings’, and, what’s more, had been approved by the king’s physicians and philosophers. Healthy eating issues and celebrity endorsements are nothing new, then…

However, you’ll search in vain for hot tips for the perfect vindaloo. Cury comes from the old French word for cookery (see Middle English–an overview for the influence of French on the English language at this time) and is cited in the Oxford English Dictionary:

From cury to curry

Curry didn’t enter the English language until a couple of centuries later. It originates in the Tamil kari, which was a sauce or relish for rice first encountered by intrepid English travel writers in the sixteenth century.

It wouldn’t reach the kitchens of England until the East India Company gave the nation a taste for it a century or so later. Hannah Glasse included a recipe in her Art of Cookery  (1747) (perhaps the best-known cookbook of the eighteenth century).

Men still dominated the professional kitchen, and, significantly, Glasse did not ‘pretend to teach professed cooks’. Instead, she addressed an audience which ‘they never thought worth their notice’ – the ‘ignorant and unlearned’ lower and middle-class families. And so such homely fare as mashed potato, potato cake, and Yorkshire pudding made its first recorded appearance in the English language.

Mrs Beeton: the first Nigella?

In the Victorian era, long before Nigella became a domestic goddess , Mrs Beeton was the tutelary spirit of middle-class homemakers. She warned that ‘there is no more fruitful source of family discontent than a housewife’s badly-cooked dinners’ (still a hot topic it would seem – googling ‘why can’t women cook’ provides real food for thought on a woman’s place…)

Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861) was the first cookery book to adopt the modern practice of listing all the ingredients at the start of each recipe, as shown in the OED entry for remoulade which includes a quotation from the book.

It wasn’t long before her name was adopted as a term for an authority on all things domestic and culinary.

From level measurements to celebrity chefs

At the end of the century, across the Atlantic, Fannie Merritt Farmer’s Boston Cooking-School Cook Book (1896) introduced the standardized measurements we use today (or at least some of us do. With my mother’s recipes it’s always ‘add whatever-it-is until it feels/looks right’). The first use of the measure cupful in the OED is from Farmer’s book. A cupful doesn’t sound very precise to me (an espresso cup? A coffee-mug?), but apparently it contains eight fluid ounces. No more, no less.

In the twentieth century, Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking, written ‘with one eye on the family purse and the other on the bathroom scale’, became one of the most published cookbooks in the US. Joy of Cooking has been advising American cooks from the thirties (when OED credits Rombauer with the first use of the culinary term blend), through the Second World War, when she noted that Vichyssoise (already renamed Gauloise) had been further patriotically rebranded (Charles de Gaulle was the leader of the Free French against the Germans and France’s collaborating Vichy regime), and into the present day.

When television came along, recipes moved into a new medium and the celebrity chef was born. With the advent of the Internet, free recipes are only a couple of clicks away (try googling ‘chocolate covered ginger biscuits’, mmm). Yet the recipe book is alive and well in the Age of Austerity (comfort food?). Sales are flourishing – and celebrity chef titles are leading the pack.

And perhaps  Jamie Oliver’s catchphrase pukka (from Hindi) tucker (Australian slang) sums up what’s best about British food – like the English language itself it’s ‘a magpie’s haphazard hoard of…borrowings’ (Diner’s Dictionary).

If you subscribe to OED Online (many UK libraries offer free access if you provide your library card number) why not further explore the origin and history of Food and Cooking words…or dip into cookbooks through the ages via their OED quotations. John Ayton’s The Diner’s Dictionary (an Absinthe to Zucchini of the history of food and drink – out this December) is also a must for serious foodies.