M.F.K. Fisher, Ruth Reichl, David Lebovitz, Anthony Bourdain… these names ring with familiarity as famous food writers. They fill our kitchens with stories, recipes and inspirations to become better cooks ourselves. But these are just the modern bigwigs, those of the last century. Before Jamie, before Rachel, yes, before even Julia, there were food personalities just as prominent in the mainstream foodie scene. They’re the food writers of yore. They wrote, they cooked, they inspired virtually anyone who’s anyone in the food world today—and they didn’t even have a blog (gasp). Read on for the who’s-who of our mothers and fathers of modern food writing, lest we forget them…
Hannah Glasse (1708—1770) was a female cookery writer not concerned with the frivolities of the trendy highbrow French cuisine of her time. Instead, she wrote for servants, home cooks and the general lower class. Paragraphs of her recipes sound less like directives and more like audio blurbs of how a grandmother describes making traditional borscht or pot roast. Phrases like “sweeten to your palate,” “take some fine raspberries” and “when you have yeast in plenty” illustrate Glasse’s open-ended way of explaining recipes to her audience. The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1776) is no doubt her most famous work; it reigned supreme of English-style cookbooks for half a century. Using traditional English foods and techniques, Glasse’s work embodied the turning point in English cuisine when American foods (maize, maple) were just on the cusp of being discovered—and as a leading voice of the kitchen, she helped to shape the birth of American cookery.
Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755—1826) was a bit of a know-it-all and do-it-all of his time. French-born and raised, Brillat-Savarin studied law, chemistry and medicine in Dijon before becoming mayor for a year in Belley. He then exiled in Switzerland to avoid a bounty on his head and even moved to America for a short time to become the first violin at the Park Theater in New York. Then at the ripe age of 70, he happened to become one of the most notorious food philosophers of all time. (Talk about having a strong CV.) As a well-educated man of the French bourgeoisie era, Brillat-Savarin was a staunch proponent of haute cuisine. Food should have class, dignity, honor and intention, he believed, and he looked down on those who did not share such a sentiment. Such notable quotes like, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are,” and, "Animals feed; man eats; only a man of wit knows how to eat," reflect his disdain for the so-called gourmands with gluttonous tendencies. He paved the way for modern food writers like M.F.K. Fisher, who also saw food as a form of high art.
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Alexandre-Balthazar-Laurent Grimod de la Reynière (1758–1837) was another 18 century French aristocrat who led the food writing revolution. While not hailing the same notoriety as Brillat-Savarin, he achieved just as much (some may say even more) in the mainstream food world. Grimod was like the first Zagat, and he was far ahead of his time with the creation of an Iron Chef-style jury. He’s credited with being the first food critic, going around France and critiquing food shops, restaurants and cooks that were blossoming so rapidly in Paris. In 1803, his first collection of stories, reviews and food essays came together as a book called L'Almanach des gourmands; there would be eight of these Zagat-like volumes in total. For one of the sections in the Almanach, Grimond would gather a jury of 12 men every week to sit around a dining table and deem excellence (or failure) in the food world. For this, he has been dubbed the “father of the table.”
Elizabeth Robins Pennell (1855—1936) bridged the gap between high-art food writers Brillat-Savarin and the not-yet arrived M.F.K. Fisher. She, too, deemed the art of cookery and eating one of intellectualism and class. She was also a devout cookbook collector, accumulating a reported 1,000 volumes of work during her lifetime. She was, in a way, one of the first food historians. In one of her most noted works, The Delights of Delicate Eating, Pennell writes of the glories of well-intended food with a sense of floral poetry. She claimed that women could elevate their place in society by mastering cookery, as well as find personal divine enjoyment from the process.
Elizabeth "Eliza" Acton (1799—1859), an English poet and cook, wrote one of the most definitive cookbooks that influenced modern cuisine. Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845) was indeed written for the home cook, the wife and the culinary lay person, with the intention of taking simple, traditional English cuisine into everyone’s home. She was not concerned with fancy French food, or even the “high art” of cookery; rather, Acton was devoted to showcasing good, wholesome ingredients with ease and enjoyment (she was also among the first to give precise quantities and directives in her recipes). In a way, she was like a Jamie Oliver or Alice Waters of her time—using foods from the garden, classic local ingredients, and a clear way of cooking things without great expense.