Pretty dishes, fit for supper

How British social history is written through our cookbooks.

There was a time when cookery books, spotted with grease and reeking of long-digested dinners, were strictly utilitarian. These days, they seem to be more read than used: lovingly displayed on bookshelves or carried around in handbags in case the modern foodie, kept waiting in a café, finds herself in need of the kind of stimulating distraction that only a recipe for "artificial asses' milk" can provide.

My authority on this point and many others is The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy (1747) by Hannah Glasse. Despite the gulf between her life and my own - opportunities to "display" a cooked heron are sadly lacking in 21st-century London - I find myself strangely fascinated by her recipes. Perhaps this explains Penguin's decision to publish an extract of the book in its recent Great Food series - a beautiful paperback might not be practical in the kitchen but if you're after entertainment, it's a feast.

Recipe books are increasingly creeping out of the kitchen and on to our bedside tables. We may not have the time, the cash or even the inclination to cook Heston Blumenthal's roast foie gras "benzaldehyde", but that didn't stop thousands of us splashing out £150 on The Big Fat Duck Cookbook even as the country slid into belt-tightening recession.

Such books aren't just a repository of the weird and niche. Often they are a record of the most mundane aspects of everyday life. Glasse touches on everything from depilatories to the dangers of being cheated by the butter merchant. "Do not trust to the taste they give you," she cautions the unwary reader, "lest you be deceived by a well-tasted and scented piece, artfully placed in the lump." For the keen-eyed gourmand, each page of a cookbook is a fascinating hotchpotch of historical titbits, from the culinary style en vogue - French food was all the rage during the Restoration, eastern European fare a surprise hit between the world wars - to the audience that it seeks to entice.

One of Britain's oldest surviving examples, The Forme of Cury, came from the kitchens of Richard II in the 1390s and was designed as a giant boast. It followed soon after a similar enterprise from the French court; each carefully rendered calfskin page screams, "My monarch's got better taste than yours."

The market for such a collection must have been tiny - a handful of professional chefs in the poshest kitchens in Europe. But the ex­plosion in popular literacy after the English Reformation allowed Thomas Dawson, writing in the late 16th century, to target a less exalted readership with books such as The Good Huswife's Jewell. Suddenly, domesticity was in vogue and Queen Elizabeth, the royal huswife of England, presided over a nation in which women were exercising power and influence as never before.

Gervase Markham makes it clear on the frontispiece of his cookbook Country Contentments (1615) that women were expected to boast a panoply of virtues, including "skill in physicke, surgerie, extraction of oiles, banqueting stuffe, ordering of great feasts, preserving of all sorts of wines, conceiting secrets, distillations, perfumes, ordering of wool, hempe, flax, making cloth, dyeing, the knowledge of dairies, office of malting, oats, their excellent uses in a family, brewing, baking and all other things belonging to a household". Try that lot on for size, Nigella.

Overseeing such an operation must have been hard work. It is not surprising that, as the gentry increased in number, upper-middle-class women started to delegate domestic responsibilities to their servants; many began to consider it somewhat unseemly for the lady of the house to dirty her fingers in the kitchen.

Mass migration to the cities in the 18th century created an aspirational, newly prosperous middle class, cut adrift from friends and family and in need of a little subtle guidance on matters of taste. Although Glasse's intended readership was servants rather than mistresses (the "lower orders" don't know a "lardoon" from a pantaloon but are familiar with the idea of bacon, she notes in her introduction), it cannot have escaped this self-made woman that her instructions on "pretty little dishes fit for a supper" would also be of use to the upwardly mobile. Hence, although her book sometimes lapses into an aristocratic world of turtles and truffles, it largely concerns such wholesome fare as "mutton ragoo", seed cake and rice pudding.

Her spiritual heir Isabella Beeton does the same for a later generation. In Culinary Pleasures (2005), an excellent survey of the cookbook, Nicola Humble notes the "polite fiction" of Beeton's decision to devote separate chapters to the mistress and the housekeeper: "In most middle-class households, the mistress and housekeeper would have been the same person." It was an issue that became even more pertinent after the First World War, when "the servant problem" led to publications such as Catherine Ives's When the Cook Is Away (1928), which discreetly encompasses recipes for those fending for themselves during staff sickness or holidays, as well as distressed gentlefolk who were abandoned permanently.

Little wonder when, as Robert Graves and Alan Hodge point out in The Long Weekend (1940), their account of interwar life, "Any girl who had been used to earning wages in factories and had come to like the regular hours . . . was reluctant to put herself under the dominion of 'some old cat' who would expect her to work long hours for little money but show utter subservience." After a 300-year absence, the mistress was firmly back in the kitchen.

It wasn't just the few remaining servants who came out of the next war yet more disgruntled with their lot. The 1950s are often branded as the decade of the happy housewife, but once the first thrill of peaceful domestic bliss was gone, many women became dissatisfied with their narrow lot.

Ethelind Fearon's The Reluctant Cook (1953) was the first of many books to address the idea that not everyone found joy in preparing Hubby's dinner or entertaining his work pals, a notion pursued more thoroughly in the US writer Peg Bracken's 1960 masterpiece, The I Hate To Cook Book, which includes such recipes as Stayabed stew, "for the days when you're en negligée, en bed, with a murder story and a box of bonbons, or possibly a good case of flu".

Bracken's title may be bold, but the attitude within is one of grumbling, humorous resignation to gender inequality. Shirley Conran's Superwoman, published 15 years later, is by contrast rather brusque in its attitude to cooking, advocating the use of "window dressing" to "disguise the unappetising look, feel or taste of stored foods". You may have to do it but that doesn't mean you have to enjoy it.

This joyless attitude is best exemplified in Delia Smith's first book, How to Cheat at Cooking (1971). The tone is uncompromising, kicking off with a "cheat's charter", which announces that "there are more important things in life than cooking" and goes on to advise: "Never do for yourself what you can get someone else to do for you." Dishes such as fish fingers baked with tinned mushrooms and tomatoes, or packet mousse with crumbled digestive biscuits, are in stark contrast to recipes that the cosily domestic "Saint Delia" subsequently presented to the world.

Her transformation shows that she was a canny businesswoman. Over the past couple of decades, cooking for oneself has become a badge of middle-class pride - Jamie Oliver's latest offering, 30-Minute Meals, promises to put a nightly feast within reach of us all.

Modern recipe books exult in the joys, rather than the mechanics, of food, and many contain much more lyrical description than instruction. Oliver is Britain's second-biggest-selling author; it seems we can't get enough of him. But are we using the recipes in his books, or just drooling over the pictures?

Convenience foods may have liberated us from the enforced drudgery of slaving away in the kitchen, yet it remains to be seen whether later generations will read a love of food between the lines of purple prose by our most feted food writers.

Felicity Cloake is the author of "Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire", to be published on 4 August (Fig Tree, £18.99)