To Cook, Perchance to Dream: Recipes for Reverie in Early Modern France

Timothy J. Tomasik
Valparaiso University


Liberated from the medieval oral apprenticeship tradition of the kitchen, late medieval French manuscript cookbooks and early modern printed recipe collections can often be read as spurs to the imagination rather than strictly as practical instructions for constructing a meal. By examining recipes in early modern French cookbooks, one sees that the utilitarian ends of recipes are sometimes supplanted by dramatic presentations, exotic names, and complicated instructions. Rather than just compiling a cookbook to aggrandize the culinary stature of a patron, or to record for posterity a summa of culinary knowledge and practice, early-modern French cookbooks also create spaces for culinary reveries. Cookbooks on the cusp of the sixteenth century in France can thus be read not just as practical texts or representatives of the artes mechanicae, but also as texts for reflection and culinary speculation, prone to exciting the imagination and inducing dreams.

Keywords: recipes, cookbooks, artes mechanicae, Viandier, Ménagier de Paris, Condamnation de Banquet, François Rabelais, early modern period, France, reveries


In the preface to the modern British novel The Debt to Pleasure, what turns out to be a rather disturbing murder mystery recounted by an unreliable first-person narrator begins with a telling quote from the narrator’s frumpy, despised neighbor regarding cookbooks. “D’ya know,” she says, “I love cookbooks. I read them just like novels!” (Lanchester xii). This atypical view of cookbooks as akin to literature likely runs counter to our contemporary view of such texts as inherently utilitarian. However, given the proliferation of cookbooks in the modern publishing industry and the ubiquity of recipes in online forums and social media feeds, there is clearly an interest in reading culinary texts for reasons that surpass the traditionally utilitarian practices surrounding such works. Cookbooks and recipes abound in contemporary media, yet how often do we ever actually cook from them? We might be tempted to assume such an attitude is merely a product of our postmodern condition. However, in light of the production and consumption of early modern French cookbooks, we can in fact see that divergent and surprising ways of reading recipes are far from new.

Recipes are increasingly an important object of study in early modern studies. As genres that often cross the traditional boundaries between the artes mechanicae and the artes liberales, recipes and cookbooks offer a complex array of cultural data about the history and practices of foodways. More recently, recipes have been used to make compelling arguments about gender and identity formation, particularly in English studies. Carrie Helms Tippen, for instance, has analyzed recipes as a form of feminist historiography. Likewise, Michelle DiMeo and Sara Pennell have edited an entire volume devoted to reading and writing recipes in the early modern period, many articles of which address recipes as texts that empower female agency. Wendy Wall’s work on issues of gender and domesticity in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English cookbooks reveals that recipes may have divergent objectives. For her,

[cookbook composers] might intermix the familiar and the exceptional, the practical and the fanciful. Recipes might address readerships that did not exist, yet still bear practical information hungrily consumed by some readers. It is the fact that recipe books move so readily between the whimsical and the pragmatic that renders them so intriguing. (6)

Indeed, Carrie Griffin has argued for a more expansive view of recipes beyond issues of recording food consumption. She argues that recipes “may have functioned as fictions, narrative wish-lists of delicacies and combinations that may or may not have been realistically accessible” (142). Deborah Krohn takes this view even further by not only highlighting the empirical underpinnings of recipes but also suggesting that they are “a form of magic” (227). As we will see, early modern French recipes and cookbooks provide further evidence that culinary readers and writers were not always focused on the practical side of such texts.

A sea change in culinary tastes and practices takes place in France between the end of the Middle Ages and the first half of the seventeenth century. In the realm of cookbooks, an equally dramatic shift occurs in the compositional styles of recipe writers. Liberated from the medieval oral apprenticeship tradition of the kitchen, late medieval manuscripts and early modern printed recipe collections begin to evoke other culinary mentalities. This freedom extends to the reception of such culinary texts in that they can be read as spurs to the imagination rather than strictly as practical instructions for constructing a meal. By examining recipes in late medieval and early Renaissance cookbooks, we can see that the utilitarian ends of recipes are sometimes supplanted by dramatic presentations, exotic names, and complicated instructions. Rather than just compiling a cookbook to aggrandize the culinary stature of a patron, or to record for posterity a summa of culinary knowledge and practice, the compilers of early modern French cookbooks also create spaces for culinary reveries. These recipes can certainly represent “what’s for dinner” but their names can also elicit intrigue and mystery. In this sense, cookbooks on the cusp of the sixteenth century in France can be read not just as practical texts or representatives of the artes mechanicae, but also as texts for reflection and culinary speculation. Like novels, early modern French cookbooks can excite the imagination and induce dreams.

The first cookbooks in almost all countries of Western Europe begin to appear around 1300. Historians have often wondered why such texts did not exist before this time. If they did, why have they not survived? Perhaps a more pertinent question would be why cookbooks existed at all. Culinary historians generally concur that, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the culinary arts were practiced by those for whom reading was not essential. This common judgment appears with little discussion in historical studies ranging from Barbara Wheaton’s (27) to Jean-Louis Flandrin’s (8). Culinary skills were generally learned and transmitted among professional cooks via oral apprenticeships in which the memorization of a finite number of simple recipes counts far less than keen observation and repeated hands-on manipulation of foodstuffs. If such cooks could not or did not need to read, why would cookbooks have ever appeared and for whom would they be destined if not for the very cooks who presumably already possessed the implied knowledge contained within them?

Culinary historian Bruno Laurioux offers several hypotheses to explain the genesis of practical culinary manuals, but he remains committed to the idea that they did not come about with a view to training future cooks. As he puts it, “Si le cuisinier entend par le livre de cuisine transmettre son savoir, c’est donc en dehors du milieu de ses pairs” (Le règne de Taillevent 227). Yet, what interest would the base business of cookery hold for the uninitiated, outside the confines of the kitchen? For royalty and the high nobility, having highly trained cooks write or dictate their best recipes could certainly be seen as political propaganda championing the accomplishments—culinary and otherwise—of a sovereign lord. Indeed, Laurioux makes a compelling case for the role of such propaganda in Chiquart’s late medieval cookbook, De fait de cuisine, and Taillevent’s version of the Viandier (Le règne de Taillevent 181–85, 229). If such writings merely transcribed the menus of a cook’s best banquets held at court, this hypothesis would certainly seem plausible. However, would any sovereign lord truly feel aggrandized by being associated with his cook’s favorite recipe for hare pâté?

If cookbooks were not actually used by experienced cooks, they may have targeted other members of a royal or bourgeois household like a “maître d’hotel” or a “maître de maison.”   Such household managers were ostensibly in charge of general provisioning and the surveillance thereof. As Laurioux points out, the author of the fourteenth-century treatise on household management, the Ménagier de Paris, is not in fact concerned with teaching his young wife how to do the cooking herself. Rather, she is charged with supervising the process from start to finish, from market shopping to garnishing a finished dish. As the mistress of the house after her husband’s death, she would also be responsible for the surveillance of the entire household staff (Le règne de Taillevent 227). For other household managers, the details gleaned from cookbook collections might help them not just to maintain the necessary provisions in food, but also to assure the proper and economic production of household cuisine. Their cookbook reading would furthermore put them in a position to judge the success of the final product. By reading the text of a recipe, even if the language was somewhat laconic and the tours de main remained implicit, household managers would still find “de quoi vérifier la consistance, la couleur et le goût des plats répondants aux désirs de leur employeur” (Laurioux, “Les livres et la table” 32). Such texts thus offer instruction for both the theoretical and the practical arts of the table.

In spite of these hypotheses about the potential readership for early cookbooks, it is important to note that the style of these cookbooks suggests that they would be virtually unreadable by the uninitiated to whom they were presumably addressed. Paradoxically, Laurioux concedes that these works are written with an audience of professionals in mind. He indicates that they are often little more than “mémentos enregistrant l’enchaînement des actes et des gestes” in which “le non-dit y est au moins aussi important que ce qui a été consigné” (Le règne de Taillevent 228). Such a reading presumes that these books could not have been written for cooks because cooks would not need them. Yet, they could not really have been written for those outside the kitchen because lay readers would generally lack the specialized vocabulary and technical savoir-faire necessary to understand and enact even the most rudimentary recipes. As Jean-Louis Flandrin opines, “L’apparition et la multiplication des manuscrits culinaires à cette époque a donc quelque chose de paradoxal” (8). Indeed, this paradoxical status of early modern French cookbooks opens the door to readings and readerships that are neither utilitarian nor professional. As we will see, the artes mechanicae implicit in so many cookbooks often also evoke the realm of fantasy and imagination.

An obvious starting point for recipe reveries would be among the many fantastical recipes for entremets. These elaborate dishes often appeared near the end of a banquet in dramatic fashion. In one of the later 15th century manuscripts of the well-known Viandier, we find five “edible” entremet dishes and five “inedible” ones. The edible entremet recipes present varieties of chopped meat farces stuffed into various animal membranes and fashioned to look like hedgehogs, flowerpots, and towers among other things (Scully 264–66).  Following these are recipes for other “stuffed” dishes, the enormously popular “cignes revestuz” [“Swans Redressed in their Skin”] and a similar preparation for peacock (Scully 267–68). For the two latter, the feather-studded skin is carefully removed before roasting the bird so that the final product can be placed back in its feathery exterior and presented at table as if still alive. Though we might be tempted to view such recipes as archaic remnants of medieval cuisine, we see recipes for such dishes continuing to appear in cookbooks throughout the sixteenth century.

Following these elaborate dishes, a series of five other entremets in the Viandier presents no less theatricality, though much less edibility. The compiler here provides “recipes” for what amount to stage props and centerpieces. They depict various scenes from literate and ecclesiastic culture like “Le chevalier au Cigne” [“The Swan Knight”], “Saint George et sa pucelle” [“Saint George and his Maiden”], and “Saincte Marthe” [“Saint Martha”], the latter two complete with dragon in tow. In a final description of the somewhat inappropriately named “Entremetz plus legiers” [“Easier Entremets”], the compiler explains how to fashion a lion that actually breathes fire before the guests at table (Scully 269–71). These elaborate entremets would obviously be more realizable by carpenters and painters than by the average kitchen staff. As Terence Scully puts it, “ce n’est pas la cuisine qui compte ici, c’est le faste, le spectacle, c’est l’étalage d’inventivité magnifique” (217). Laurioux attributes these fantastical banquet creations to the excesses of the Burgundian court around the time of Philippe le Bon. At least one of them, Saint Martha with dragon, figures in the notorious “Feast of the Pheasant” of 1454 (Le règne de Taillevent 78).

The Ménagier de Paris, the previously-mentioned medieval cookbook and household manual, occasionally offered fanciful recipes in spite of its preference for the simplicity of bourgeois cooking. By Laurioux’s count, almost a third of the Ménagier’s recipes can be directly traced to the Viandier tradition (Le règne de Taillevent 150). This being said, the author of the Ménagier evidently does not transcribe all of the Viandier’s recipes. In fact, he tends to add blocks of recipes that are generally absent from the latter text. Interspersed among blocks of recipes transcribed in sequence from the Viandier, a number of recipes in the Ménagier for eggs, sick dishes, and pâtés (among many others) complete the transcribed material. Laurioux suggests that such recipes, which are traditionally associated with less noble tables, demarcate the bourgeois social status of the Ménagier’s author (151). This culinary bias can be gleaned even more directly from specific comments made by the author. At the end of an elaborate recipe for “Poules farcies coulourees ou dorees” [“Stuffed chicks that are painted or gilded”], the author opines: “maiz il y a trop affaire, et n’est pas ouvrage pour le queux d’un bourgoiz, non mye d’un simple chevalier. Et pour ce, je le laisse.” [“But this is too much to do and is not the work of a bourgeois cook nor even that of a simple knight. For this reason, I omit it”]. In the next entry for “espaulles de mouton” [“mutton shoulders”], he doesn’t even bother to transcribe the recipe, but hastens to add (in Latin this time): “quia nichil est nisi pena et labor” [“this is worth neither the trouble nor the labor”] (Brereton and Ferrier 281). We can clearly see in this commentary a bourgeois preoccupation with avoiding luxurious dishes. However, we may also wonder why the author of the Ménagier left these recipes or at least their titles in his text. That is, if he truly felt they were too fanciful, why mention them at all?

A partial answer to this question may be found in a later cookbook with equally bourgeois origins. The 15th century Recueil de Riom includes some very simple dishes, those perhaps common to a modest bourgeois table, but a fair number of them represent the complexity and luxury typically found only at aristocratic banquets (Lambert). On the one hand, the compiler has included a recipe for a “puree d’Engleterre” [“English pureed peas”], which, Carole Lambert points out, is no stranger to the Ménagier de Paris in that the latter provides a similar recipe. The shared heritage of this recipe would thus suggest an allegiance on the part of the Recueil to the simple cuisine of the average French bourgeois. On the other hand, a recipe for “espaulez de mouton farcies” like that mentioned by the Ménagier also appears in the Recueil. Here, the compiler of the Recueil chooses to include a recipe that the author of the Ménagier found to be over-complicated and frivolous. Yet, the recipe for stuffed mutton shoulder in the Recueil goes one step further. It specifies that the finished dish should be garnished with silver and gold leaf, a detail absent from any other versions of the same recipe in cookbooks of the period. Lambert wonders whether such a fancy dish would be within the financial or culinary reach of a bourgeois from Riom. Perhaps the compiler had recorded the recipe, as she puts it, “davantage pour rêver que pour la reproduire” (44). Here, the Recueil offers hints of transformation that is taking place not only within early modern cuisine, but also in the literature that records it. Recipes begin to enter cookbooks where they do not seem to belong.  Rather than compiling a cookbook to aggrandize the culinary stature of a patron, or to record for posterity a summa of culinary knowledge and practice, the compilers of the Recueil de Riom have created a personalized space for culinary reveries. Among the typical recipes of bourgeois cuisine, they have carved out additional space to dream about more complicated dishes that would adorn the tables of the nobility. The inclusion of the recipe for mutton shoulder suggests that aspirational rather than alimentary desires are at play.

As French cookbooks enter the age of print, we begin to see signs of a reappraisal of early modern cuisine and an updating of its culinary repertoire. The first printed edition of the Viandier appeared around 1486 from the Parisian printer Antoine Caillaut. Between 1486 and 1615, it appeared in twenty-five editions, the texts of which conform to the format of the editio princeps with a few noteworthy exceptions. Most of these editions came from printers in one of the two main printing centers of France, Paris and Lyon, though a few were printed elsewhere (Hyman and Hyman, “Les livres de cuisine et le commerce” 66–68; “Les livres de cuisine imprimés” 55–57). Culinary historians Philip and Mary Hyman have demonstrated that only a third of the over two hundred culinary preparations in the printed Viandier come from the medieval manuscript tradition. The other two thirds remain largely independent from any other extant medieval cookbooks. The printed Viandier thus stands at the intersection of two culinary eras and imaginations. The medieval repertoire still exerts a degree of culinary inertia, but this inertia begins to cede to an updating of tastes and the ways they are made textual within the new realm of printed culinary literature.

In the printed version of the Viandier, the cookbook compiler alters the text significantly, adding and omitting recipes with abandon. For instance, several simple recipes for eggs are omitted from the manuscript tradition, but a new one is added. The somewhat exotically-named “Oeufz rostis en la broche” [“Eggs roasted on a spit”] is indeed anything but simple. The text of the recipe reads as follows:

Pour faire rostir des oeufz en la broche farcis, faictes des petis pertuis au bout des eufz, et mettés ce qui est dedens dehors, et puis prenés sauge, marjolayne, poulieul, mente et toutes aultres bonnes herbes, et les hachés bien menu, et les faictes frire au beurre, et les oeufz, et les mettés sur ung ays et hachés bien menu, et y mectés du gingembre, du saffran et du sucre parmy, et puis mectés la farce dedens les coques des oeufz, et puis prenés petites brochètes bien dougées, et mettés une douzaine de oeufz en chescune broche, et mettés dessus le gril à petit feu (Pichon and Vicaire 1892, 166).

[To roast stuffed eggs on a spit, make some small holes at the top of the egg and take out what is inside. Then take some sage, marjoram, pennyroyal, mint, and any other good herbs, and chop them finely and then fry them in butter with the eggs. Put them on a plank, chop them finely, and then add to them ginger, saffron, and sugar. Put the stuffing inside the eggshells. Then take some small and very slender spits and put a dozen eggs on each one. Put them on the grill over a low flame.]

Even the most experienced cook can imagine the challenge of stuffing the egg and herb mixture through the “small holes” pierced in the eggshells. Even more difficult would be spitting the stuffed eggshells onto tiny skewers before grilling them. If the compiler wished to avoid elaborate and complicated dishes when choosing which recipes to include from the manuscript tradition of the Viandier, one wonders why he would have eliminated the series of egg dishes.  The compiler chooses rather to substitute an entirely extravagant recipe for these simple egg dishes. This particular strategy suggests that the criteria for adding or omitting recipes often work at cross-purposes. Perhaps the complier, like us, was fascinated by the complexity of this dish and so felt compelled to include it in spite of its complexity. As I have argued elsewhere, similarly exotic egg dishes appear in other sixteenth century cookbooks, and even find their way into Rabelais’s Quart livre (Tomasik 39). Given the evidence of early modern works on food, these various egg dishes are far from fantastical, but their somewhat exotic names seemingly invite the reader into a world of fantasy.

Another series of recipes from the printed Viandier appear in no other medieval cookbook and also happen to be the most detailed recipes of the collection (Pichon, recipes #32–71). At times, their “exotic” names make them ripe for culinary reveries. The first item in this series, “Pour faire un violé” (#32) [“To make a violé”] takes its name from the fact that an orchil lichen (“toresot”) is added to a veal and chicken stew to give it a violet hue. The rather banal nature of the stew is belied by the emphasis on an unexpected color palette for the dish. A few articles later, a recipe for “Oyes a la traison” (#37) [“Betrayed geese”] appears. The recipe itself seems rather tame, consisting of a stew of spit-roasted geese. It contains a standard array of ingredients, except for an addition of mustard at the very end. Yet, the name of the recipe certainly piques the reader’s curiosity. It is unclear what practical purpose is served by the reference to treachery, except perhaps to evoke curiosity. Near the end of this series, the unlikely recipe title “Beurre frais frit” (#63) [“Fresh fried butter”] materializes. Anyone who has visited a county or state fair in the United States would likely be familiar with the name of such a dish, but surely an early modern reader would have had to wonder how one would go about frying butter. Should it be fried in oil, lard, or…butter? Having read the recipe through to the end, the dilemma dissolves. The recipe is actually for a type of pastry wrapped around a quince and fried. From the base business of cookery arises a penchant for culinary poetry in which recipe names aim to elicit intrigue and mystery.

For other dessert recipes with unexpected names, we can turn to another literary work from the period, the 1507 morality play, La Condamnation de Banquet. In one described meal in this play, a number of thick custard-like preparations are offered (Koopmans and Verhuyck 141). The “cresme fritte” [“Fried cream”] is in fact not fried but boiled according to the printed Viandier recipe of the same name (Pichon and Vicaire, recipe #45). This dish is absent from any previous French cookbooks, but reappears later in the sixteenth century in the 1539 Livre de cuisine. The character Banquet from La Condamanation also serves “ung beau daulphin” [“a nice dolphin”] that in fact is not made with a marine mammal, but with sugar and egg yolks (Koopmans and Verhuyck 141). Though references to such “dolphins” can be found listed on the menus of the Ménagier, the printed Viandier offers the first, albeit laconic, “recipe” (Pichon and Vicaire, recipe #109). The “recipe” reads “Daulphins, fleurs de lis, estoille de cresme fricte, fort sucre et moyeulx d’eufz” [“Dolphins, fleurs de lys, stars made of fried cream with much sugar and egg yolks”]. Less of an actual recipe, the article here points out a number of custards that are formed into various shapes for a visual display at table. The unexpected and exotic names of such dishes evoke the theatricality of a formal banquet, with a focus on visual rather than gustatory priorities.

The character of the Cook in La Condamnation de Banquet also introduces a few pastries by saying “Aprés chair, selon noz usaiges, / Il faut tartes a deux visages” (Koopmans and Verhuyck 140, v. 1051–52). The cook’s words suggest that the two-faced tart is commonly served at this point in a banquet. This practice must have been established rather recently because a recipe for “tartres a deux visaiges” does not appear until the publication of the 1486 printed Viandier. This cookbook offers two recipes for the same dish, the second substantially longer than the first. In fact, the second recipe is the most detailed of all the pastry recipes in the printed Viandier and perhaps the longest in the entire collection. Creating two-faced tarts is a complicated business. Oublies, or wafers, are placed in the bottom of a pre-baked crust. A mixture of cubed cheese and egg yolks is then layered upon the wafers. Once baked, this “face” of the tart is sprinkled with sugar and turned over onto a plate. Another layer of wafers, and cheese, and egg is then placed in another crust. After baking, the second tart is turned over and the crust is removed to display the wafers of the second “face.” The recipe text appears somewhat inscrutable in the finer points of the exposition, but the final product seems clear: this tart is in fact a double tart, each with a slightly different appearance. While the ingredients in the recipe are far from exotic, the final presentation accentuates the visual qualities of the dish in an almost theatrical way, which may explain why it was appropriated by the morality play in question. Food names and imagery give rise to imagined meals rather than actual ones.

In the conclusion to his history of cookbooks, Bruno Laurioux remarks that:

Les titres ronflants, mystérieux, exotiques, ou simplement inédits de certaines préparations, ainsi que l’énumération d’épices rares et très coûteuses, tout cela excitait l’imagination gourmande et suscitait peut-être le rêve. (Le règne de Taillevent 345)

 In this way, late medieval and early modern French recipes can be and do many things. They are undoubtedly precious documents recording the culinary practices and tastes of the past. Given that cookbooks are often compilations, they can also be hybrid, promiscuous texts that share and swap recipes from a variety of sources. By choosing to include certain recipes, compilers may have selected those that represented best the tastes of their age, but as we have seen they may also have elected to include certain recipes because they struck their fancy. In presenting complicated recipes with exotic names, these early cookbook writers may also have created spurs to the imagination of contemporary readers. Cookbooks and recipes can offer up detailed knowledge of the kitchen, but they can also open up new spaces for imagination and reverie.


Works Cited

Brereton, Georgine E. and Janet M. Ferrier, eds. Le menagier de Paris. Clarendon Press, 1981.

DiMeo, Michelle and Sara Pennell, eds. Reading and Writing Recipe Books, 1550–1800. Manchester UP, 2013.

Flandrin, Jean-Louis. Fêtes gourmandes au Moyen Age. Paris, Impr. Nationale, 1998.

Griffin, Carrie. “Reconsidering the Recipe: Materiality, Narrative and Text in Later Medieval Instructional Manuscripts and Collections.” Manuscripts and Printed Books in Europe 1350–1550: Packaging, Presentation and Consumption, edited by Emma Cayley and Susan Powell, Liverpool UP, 2013, pp. 136–49.

Hyman, Mary, and Philip Hyman. “Imprimer la cuisine: les livres de cuisine en France entre le XVe et le XIXe siècle.” Histoire de l’alimentation, edited by Jean-Louis Flandrin and Massimo Montanari, Fayard, 1996, pp. 643–55.

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Lanchester, John. The Debt to Pleasure. New York: Henry Holt, 1996.

Laurioux, Bruno. “Les livres et la table à la fin du Moyen Age.” Livres en bouche: Cinq siècles d’art culinaire français, Hermann/BnF, 2001, pp. 31–45.

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Scully, Terence. “Les Modifications du Viandier dit de Taillevent dans le quinzième siècle.” Fifteenth Century Studies, vol. 18, 1991, pp. 211–19.

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Tomasik, Timothy J. “Fishes, Fowl, and the Fleur de toute cuysine: Culinary Discourses in Rabelais’s Quart livre.” Renaissance Food from Rabelais to Shakespeare: Culinary Readings and Histories, edited by Joan Fitzpatrick, Ashgate, 2010, pp. 25–51.

Wall, Wendy. Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern English Kitchen, U of Pennsylvania P, 2016.

Wheaton, Barbara Ketcham. Savoring the Past: The French Kitchen and Table from 1300 to 1789, U of Pennsylvania P, 1983.

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