<Food, history, culture, and community
The Rooted Cook is a cookbook in progress and a cookbook in context. It’s my cookbook, my own collection of recipes, which I share with family and friends. It’s also a place to experiment with recipe design and to work out and share some thoughts on food history and culture.
1. A manuscript cookbook
A century or two ago, cooks jotted down their recipes in little books that today’s historians call “manuscript cookbooks.” The books might be passed down from generation to generation, the recipes passed on to friends — not “recipes,” actually, but receipts, indicating that they were something literally received. Since everyone who had or needed a receipt already knew how to cook — you learned to cook in those days by doing it, not by reading about it, and with the guidance of someone older and more experienced — receipts were brief, informal, and unfussy.
The Rooted Cook is, first, my 21st-century manuscript cookbook. It’s where I keep the recipes I’ve developed or heavily adapted, the ones that are truly mine. Since I jot them down here as I think of them, they’re a grab bag — you get what you get. They’re also written more or less the way I actually cook — estimating measurements and judging by eye, feel, and taste whenever possible. They call for the amounts of things I actually use — a medium onion, or half of one, for example, not a half-cup of diced onion. And they don’t belabor instructions, telling you over and over again how to cream butter or what heat you need to cook onion.
I post my recipes online so my daughter can find them on her iPad and so I can share them with friends. For them, and for you if you’re stumbling across this site, I usually include some background about a dish and my own ideas, observations, and suggestions. But I’m not trying to teach you to cook — not through my recipes, anyway.
And note that I don’t usually have photographs of my recipes. You’re here to cook, right? And if you’re not, there are lots of foodie blogs out there, and I won’t be offended if you read them instead.
With the rise of printed cookbooks, receipts became recipes, lengthy affairs that took nothing for granted, assuming no knowledge at all on the part of the cook — which, I believe, was self-fulfilling. If you can only read a recipe linearly, you have to give up the thought and control that come with skill and craft. I find it quite difficult to cook from recipes as they’re written today, precisely because I already know how to cook, and cook well.
And so I also built this website to experiment with recipe design. Two blog posts, “Why are recipes so hard to use?” and “Are personal recipes more usable,” written a couple of years ago, got me started thinking about that problem. I want a recipe to be easily readable, not while I’m sitting at my desk or on my couch, but while I’m actually working in the kitchen, and that’s what I believe I’ve created here. (For those who care, the recipes are marked up with semantically valid HTML and laid out with CSS.)
My format organizes the entire recipe into steps and places the ingredients for each step in a list on the left. The ingredients and instructions for each step are thus side by side on the page, but you can still scan the left column to gather all your ingredients at once. To ease scanning, the ingredients (apart from quantities or instructions like “grated” or “sifted”) appear in bold type.
Then, I’ve streamlined instructions to make them easier for a reasonably experienced cook to follow. Or actually for me to follow. They are after all notes for myself, which I’m sharing with you as a sort of gift. But I’d rather read someone else’s recipes this way, too. I’ve dispensed with the sort of instructions that might appear generically in any number of recipes — what creamed butter and sugar ought to look like, for example — and included detail only when it’s specific to a given recipe or likely to surprise a cook with some experience. I don’t usually specify what size bowl or pot to use unless it isn’t obvious — again, I assume you can figure out that if you have four cups of flour you will need a bowl on the larger size. I also don’t tell you to preheat your oven, because if you have ever baked anything at all, you know you have to preheat the oven. That means that the oven temperature is in the first place you’d look for it, in the last step where you bake the thing. (At least that’s where I’d look for it.)
3. History and culture
This site also incorporates the better of my food blogging over the years. Because I’m a historian, most of the articles have to do with history and culture — with why we cook and eat as we do. I find that most of the big public debates about food today — about organic agriculture, industrial processing, regulation, health and nutrition, even how food ought to taste and how much we ought to enjoy it — could benefit from a little historical perspective. For most of us, “food history” is what our grandmothers made for dinner. In fact, our present-day food system has roots in the eighteenth century, and sometimes we need to dig up and untangle those roots in order to figure out what’s happening now and what we ought to do about it. I’ll continue posting that sort of thing as I have time and interest.
In the long run I hope to add some articles on technique to make this “cookbook” more useful to others, and I’d like to integrate some of my articles on history and culture into the site. Given that I’m not getting paid for this, it may take awhile. However, if there’s something you’d particularly like to see, or you just want to leave me a note, you can contact me here.
About the Author
David Walbert is a writer, historian, and educator with interests in food, cooking, agriculture, craft, and sustainability. He holds a Ph.D. in history (2000) from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is the author of Garden Spot: Lancaster County, the Old Order Amish, and the Selling of Rural America (Oxford, 2002) and developer, editor, and co-author of North Carolina: A Digital History, a web-based textbook of North Carolina and U.S. history. He has worked with the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association and the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy and has written about backyard agriculture for online and print publications and on his own website, The New Agrarian, since 2002. He speaks locally on food history. Walbert lives in Durham, North Carolina, with his daughter, a basset hound, and a vast collection of cookbooks.