Books

How a 1661 ‘Ladies Directory’ Blazed the Trail for Contemporary Cookbooks

September  8, 2020
Photo by Courtesy of Scribner

Anne Willan is the award-winning culinary historian, cookbook writer, and founder of La Varenne Cooking School in Paris. In her latest book, Women in the Kitchen, released last month, she introduces us to 12 cookbook writers "who defined the way we eat"—stretching from 1661 to modern day. Below, in an excerpt from the book, we'll start at the beginning: Get to know trailblazer Hannah Woolley.


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The first handbook written in English by a woman for women was published in 1661, almost two hundred years after the first cookbook was printed (in Latin). In The Ladies Directory, Hannah Woolley began to reveal not just her own life but a whole new world for her readers, that of the expanding English middle class of prosperous tradesmen, physicians, and the like, all of them profiting from the newly restored monarchy of King Charles II. In a group of later books Woolley elaborated on the skills called for in the domestic kitchen, a very different world from the grand establishments of the professional male cooks who had hitherto dominated the cookbook scene.

Hannah’s audience was the mistress of the house who did the work in the kitchen, often with her daughters, backed up perhaps by a scullery maid. Before The Ladies Directory, no printed cookbook had existed for the English housewife. If she were lucky, she could turn to a “commonplace” book of handwritten recipes and notes passed down to her from a previous generation, to which she would add her own comments and ideas. But a printed book of domestic instruction with actual recipes for cooking was very new.

Hannah Woolley went on to write four more books over ten years, all of them household manuals, with digressions into beauty tips and even the art of fishing. The feminine focus is reflected in their titles: The Cooks Guide (1664); The Queen-like Closet, or Rich Cabinet (1670); and The Gentlewoman’s Companion or, a Guide to the Female Sex (1673). In all her titles, she mentions “Ladies,” “Gentlewomen,” or even “Female Sex,” declaring in the preface of her last book “I hope it may deserve the Title of The Accomplish’d Ladies Delight [1675] and may acquire Acceptance at your Fair Hands, whereby you will very much Encourage and Oblige.” She has the invaluable gift of appealing directly to her market, a very modern approach.

Hannah must have been a voracious taker of notes, with one of those inquiring minds that strays from subject to subject with delightful inconsequence. Certainly she would have kept a commonplace book of remedies, cooking and household hints, with special treats such as raspberry wine and white sugar candies. She focuses on cookery, though The Ladies Directory jumps about with recipes for “Consumption” and the “Chin-cough” among the cakes and cordials. Her books were filled with her own knowledge—useful, somewhat disorganized information on cooking, running a house, and keeping the family healthy and well fed. “A cordial to cause sleep” might follow “To perfume gloves” and “To preserve cherries in jelly.”

Like many women of her time, Hannah was skilled in “Physick” to which she added “Chirurgery” (work as a physician). Her mother and elder sisters were also involved in medicine, though nothing is known of her father. From 1639 to 1646, Hannah was employed as a servant, more likely a kind of apprentice in a great house—probably that of Lady Anne Maynard, who lived near Hannah’s family home of Newport in Essex, a village forty miles north of London. Lady Maynard remained a friend to Hannah and perhaps subsidized the free grammar school run by Jerome Woolley (sometimes spelled Wolley), whom Hannah married in 1646. The couple had at least four sons and two daughters; a comparatively small family for the time, and the marriage was depicted by Hannah as a happy one.

Jerome died in 1661 and five years later Hannah was married again to Francis Challiner at St. Margaret’s, Westminster, a fashionable address. In 1670, her most successful cookbook, The Queen-like Closet, or Rich Cabinet: Stored with all manner of Rare Receipts, was published. (“Closets,” “cabinets,” and “secrets” were buzzwords of the time.) It ran several editions, including translations into German, and concentrated on the kitchen—unlike her earlier books that digressed into medicine and beauty care. Mrs. Woolley had earned a reputation as a successful physician, despite her amateur status and the unwelcoming environment for female medical practitioners at that time. She used her books as an advertisement for her skills, and invited her readers to consult her in person.

The kitchen in which Mrs. Woolley worked is vividly illustrated in the frontispiece vignettes of her Queen-like Closet. Here again is the emphasis on cooking for women housewives, so different from that of male professional cooks. The hem of her skirt leaves her slippered feet free, and her arms are protected by long sleeves. Her hair is shielded from steam and sparks in a bonnet (each one makes a different fashion statement) and a long apron is tied around her waist to keep clean what was probably her only dress. She is at work filling a cauldron, beating a sauce over a brazier, working in the stillroom, and setting bread in the oven with the long-handled shovel called a peel (from the French pelle). Thank heaven for today’s electric food processors, choppers, and slicers that help with these back-breaking tasks. How lucky we are!

By 1670 Hannah was a well-known author and probably lived in London. She had gained an influential patroness, a Mrs. Grace Buzby, “Daughter to Sir HENRY CARY, Knight Banneret,” to whom Queen-like Closet is dedicated. Wanting to appeal to a wide audience, Hannah announced that her “Bills of Fare” were for “Great Houses,” in one of which she had trained, and also for “Houses of Lesser Quality,” just as she lived at home. Still, times must sometimes have been hard, as she laments in the book: "I sit here sad while you{r} are merry, Eating Dainties, drinking Perry; But I’m content you should so feed, So I may have to serve my need."

By today’s standards, Hannah Woolley’s books may seem confusing, but she includes all the elements we think essential to a modern cookbook—a trendy title, an alluring frontispiece, an author’s statement of purpose, and an index. The recipes may lack many of the attributes we think important such as ingredient quantities, but her instructions would have been intelligible to an experienced cook. As for serving amounts, in Hannah’s day a variety of dishes were laid out on the table for all to help themselves or be served by passing plates from hand to hand. For more diners, more dishes would be added, so that the number of people to be served by a given recipe, as is the norm in today’s cookbooks, was scarcely relevant.

Mrs. Woolley’s focus was on the practical instructions: “Take your artichokes before they are overgrown, or too full of strings, and when they are pared round, that nothing is left but the bottom, boyl them till they be indifferent tender, but not full boyled . . . ,” she says. And of an Eel-Pye: “if you please, you may put in some Raisins of the Sun, and some large Mace, it is good hot or cold.” She had an eye for novelty and the very first mention in a cookbook of “chaculato,” the magic ingredient from the New World that was to sweep the dessert table in following centuries, comes in The Queen-like Closet, recipe 162, where she simmers a chocolate drink with claret wine, thickening it with egg yolks and sweetening it with sugar. (Chocolate arrived in Europe first as a drink, and it was decades before it was used to flavor other dishes.)

Hannah borrows from at least one earlier author, Sir Hugh Plat, who like other gentlemen enjoyed experimenting in his “elaboratory,” a sort of kitchen. At the time, plagiarism was not regarded so unkindly as now, though copyright was recognized and enforced. Imitation was thought of as a way of passing on to others the best of the best. Hannah was not averse to plagiarizing herself, occasionally repeating recipes from book to book, perhaps because they filled a gap or she particularly liked them.

In 1675, almost at the end of Hannah Woolley’s life, The Accomplish’d Ladies Delight was published, devoted to “Preserving, Physick, Beautifying, and Cookery.” The frontispiece includes another handsome portrait, perhaps of the author, her hair dressed with curling irons in the latest style. On the title page are illustrations of a stillroom, a lady at her dressing table, and a working kitchen, together summing up the breadth of Hannah Woolley’s expertise. Her name brought money and an unauthorized title, The Accomplish’d Lady’s Delight in Preserving, Physick, Beautifying, and Cookery (1675) appeared falsely under her name. The Compleat Servant-maid: Or, the Young Maiden’s and Family’s daily Companion, appeared in 1729, so long after Mrs. Woolley’s death as surely to be merely trading on her reputation. Her name as author made the book a bestseller, though most if not all of The Accomplish’d Ladies text is believed to be written by others. As a sure sign of success, her books started to be plagiarized by other authors in such titles as The Compleat Servant-Maid (1677). Most of her books must have crossed the Atlantic to colonial America.

Woolley’s work stands out, reflected in her book sales in a market dominated by men. She firmly established a woman’s authorial competence. Nonetheless, her success was slow to inspire others and only one new cookbook by a woman appeared in England before the turn of the seventeenth century. However, this was a winner: Rare and Excellent Receipts, Experienced and Taught by Mrs. Mary Tillinghast was published in London in 1678. As the title implies, Mrs. Tillinghast ran cookery schools, a genre that flourishes today, leading to countless book-of-the-school cookbooks.

After 1700, more cookbooks by women writers gradually began to appear, but just four in the first half of the century, a slow start for what was to become a surging tide of cookbooks written in English by women. Mrs. Woolley was a pioneer, it was her somewhat erratic example that led the way to the plethora of domestic printed cookbooks to come. She enabled me, three centuries later, to write an illustrated series of cookbooks that were translated into eighteen different languages and sold millions of copies, and I am by no means the only cook who has done so. The shape our books have taken, and their ultimate success, can be directly traced back to Hannah Woolley, proof of her abundant talent and leadership. She was onto a good thing.

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Cookbook author & founder of La Varenne Cooking School

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