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How Did People Learn to Cook Through the Ages

By Jon, published on 09/05/2019 We Love Prof - AU > Arts and Hobbies > Cooking > The History of Cooking

For a very long time, the only way to learn how to cook was by reading cookbooks and having a family member teach you their methods. Well, aside from experimenting with ingredients independently, that is!

It wasn’t until the 19th century that chefs started putting their heads together and creating culinary workshops, cooking classes and schools.

Nowadays, it’s never been easier to attend a cooking class thanks to the many different types available.

Amateur chefs can now put themselves in the whites of a famous chef and follow their recipes to the letter. No matter how you want your food cooked, you can find a recipe for it online. Anyone can now learn to cook like a professional chef, but not everyone succeeds every time! That is why the culinary world is still seen as a somewhat elite club, particularly for those with enough natural talent to have been awarded a Michelin star for their taste sensations.

In this article, we’re looking at the history of cooking classes, from Ancient Rome to now. If you’ve eaten French cuisine, it probably won’t surprise you to know that we’ll be talking about it quite extensively in this article, since this part of western Europe has been hugely influential on cooking across the continents, especially in the last few centuries.

While cooking foods that aren’t solely for consumption might seem like a modern idea (most of the humans throughout history dedicated their lives to farming and agriculture), food history stretches back much further than you might think.

The Ways That We’ve Cooked Over Time

The first ever example of cooking dates back to two million years ago when humans began using an open fire to cook meals, the one and only way to prepare hot food. They would have approached this cooking method far less thoughtfully than chefs do nowadays (possibly even less so than us clueless BBQ users!) and would have just thrown big chunks of animal meat on to the open flames and watched them sizzle and change colour and texture. There would have been no option in terms of well done, medium or rare steaks!

Richard Wrangham, author of Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, argues that the discovery of cooking would have been a huge developmental leap for mankind, improving our nutrition and boosting our energy in order to help our brains grow bigger, not to mention provide us with more variety in taste.

Fast-forward to 200,000 to 40,000 years ago, the Paleolithic era, and humans had started using primitive hearths (i.e. using stones in a circular shape) to do their home’s cooking on. This set-up is something that is still seen across campsites.

It was as recent as 150 years ago that the gas range was invented but, prior to that, households would have had fireplaces in their kitchen and would probably have had to keep the fire burning 24/7 as, without matches to re-ignite the flames, if their fire was to die then they would struggle to get it alight again.

A large metal fire cover would often have been used to cover the embers overnight in order to keep them burning until morning. It is said that some unlucky firestarters would have walked to neighbours’ houses to actually borrow fire.

An estimated three billion people worldwide still cook meals over open fires, however many more of us have become accustomed to grilling our food on barbecues during hot summer months. That said, about 60% of BBQs sold nowadays are gas-fuelled and so require no manual fire-starting skills at all. The rest are, of course, charcoal grills, fueled with briquettes, lighter fluid and a match.

Find the best cooking courses London here.

Garum and the Ancient Recipes of Apicius

Apicius is thought to be the name of 2 people, one who lived in the 1st century BC, and one who lived in the 1st century AD.

Where did the first cookbook come from? Cookbooks effectively date back to ancient Rome. (Source: dianageanina)

The namesake book of 500 ancient Roman recipes was put together during the 1st century AD and was still being rewritten as late as the 4th century; it’s thought to be the earliest example of a cookbook. At the time, there wasn’t much in terms of formal culinary training nor were there cooking workshops for those wanting to discover gastronomy.

While De re coquinaria (On the Subject of Cooking) will often pop up in Latin classes, there are still those who read it for fun just to see what people liked to eat in the past. There’s actually a restaurant with Ancient Roman food in Rome where you can sample a recipe from 2,000 years ago using the cooking techniques of the time (don’t worry, the ingredients are fresh!).

Nowadays, those who love cooking can get a taste of the most elegant dishes of the time. A lot of the recipes call for wine, honey, and olive oil, of course.

Hungry for a bit of ancient spiced bread, chicken a la fronto, pear soufflé, or are you just preparing a feast for the Roman army?

If you were wondering, Garum was a fermented fish sauce that was commonly used a condiment in Roman cooking. In Campania, Italy, you can still get a fermented anchovy sauce, which is thought to be tastes most like Garum.

If you’re interested in ancient Roman cooking, there are English versions of the book available.

Innovations of the 19th Century

Advancements in Technology

The change in our cooking habits is naturally often led by changes in tools and tactics. For instance, technology plays a big part in the modern world, and such technological inventions have transformed food production dramatically, allowing us to cater for a growing population by speeding up processes.

When it comes to industry, the steam engine, for example, helped to transport fresh meat, fish and dairy products across the country which would not have been possible before.

Aside from innovations that made food production more efficient, though, there were many inventions in the 1800s that made food production much safer and more profitable. Food could be shipped from different countries thanks to new canning technology, and then the emergence of glass technology helped scientists to advance awareness of bacteria and the importance of food hygiene and preservation.

Within the home, oven technology became smarter, introducing the ability to control temperatures using flues and metal plates. Cast iron and tin-plated cooking equipment was to replace the old copper and brass alternatives, and all sorts of gadgets began to emerge like jelly moulds, pastry cutters, pie dishes, biscuit tins, can openers etc…

Cookery Books

During the 19th century, cookery books became popular with authors like Mrs Beeton educating the middle class. Editions were initially published in affordable monthly releases, advising readers on a vast range of ‘essential’ kitchen-related subjects, such as how to entertain guests at a dinner party, how to create an impressive Christmas dinner, and how to fold napkins.

This was the first glimpse of when the public became fascinated by watching people in the kitchen. Some might say that Mrs Beeton was among the first ‘celebrity chefs’. Either way, Mrs Beeton and her fellow leading cooks paved the way for a new wave of cooking tutorials in the form of recipe books.

US Cooking Workshops

Editor, Rena, of the Historic Cooking School website, “[gives] credit to Juliet Corson, founder of the New York Cooking School in 1876, as being the inspiration that began the craze for cooking schools and cooking classes in the United States. Her book, Cooking School Text Book and Housekeepers’ Guide, published in 1879 by Orange Judd Company, laid out the directions for others to open schools, with explanations on furnishings, teacher requirements, and course content.”

The website lists the American cooking schools that were founded after this initial experiment, proving just how popular this educational set-up became in the US and across the Atlantic.

  • 1876: New York Cooking School, St Mark’s Place — director/teacher Juliet Corson
    Maria Parloa taught cooking in Boston circa 1877, Mandarin, Florida c. 1878, and New York City in 1881.
  • 1879-1903: The Boston Cooking School — preceded by Women’s Education Association; directors/teachers Joanna Sweeney, Mary Lincoln, and then Fannie Farmer, and guest lecturer, Maria Parloa — Boston, Mass.
  • c. 1879: The New Century Club Cooking School –Philadelphia
  • 1883: The Philadelphia Cooking School — director/teacher Sarah Tyson Rorer
  • 1892: Drexel’s School of Home Economics –Home Economics Program is now Goodwin College of Professional Studies
  • 1895: Le Cordon Bleu — Paris, France
  • By 1900 there were cooking schools and/or public school cooking classes in most major cities
  • c. 1900: Simmons College’s School of Household Economics — no longer available
  • 1902-1944: Miss Farmer’s School of Cookery — directors/teachers Fannie Meritt Farmer until 1915, then Alice Bradley; Boston, Mass.
  • 1907: Cornell’s College of Home Economics — now called New York State College of Human Ecology
  • 1948: The Culinary Institute of America — main campus, Hyde Park, New York
  • 1971: The Elite Cooking School Newton Centre, Massachusetts — founded by Madeleine Kamman, now The School for American Chefs in Beringer Vineyards, Napa Valley, California, meeting 2-weeks per year
  • 1973: Johnson & Wales University’s College of Culinary Arts — they also have a great culinary museum.

French Cooking Workshops

It wasn’t until 1842 that the association of French chefs union formed and formalised the training for chefs. Their goal was to make cooking an art. And if cooking was an art, why not teach it in schools like all the other arts?

In 1883, a cooking school was opened in Paris by Charles Driessens, where cookery conferences and competitions were also held. However, this school was only open to men. The teachers at the school included Auguste Escoffier and Victor Morin, who were both famous chefs at the time.

The Parisian school only remained open for a year as it wasn’t profitable. However, the art of cooking lived on through the cooking methods passed down through a number of families. 

Other cooking schools, such as Auguste Colombié’s in Paris, would later open their doors for culinary training. One of its alumni was Madame Bonabry of Switzerland. Once she returned to Switzerland, she opened her own cooking school, the École Normale de Cuisine de Fribourg. In 1901, cooking classes were offered to young girls with the goal of making them better mothers and home cooks.

You need to keep in mind that it was only the start the 20th century and hospitality schools that brought cooking workshops to everyone. This is when the art of cooking finally became accessible to everyone.

The practice still continues to this day. In 1990, the École privée des Arts Culinaires d’Ecully (Ecully Private School for the Culinary Arts) was created. In 2002, it became the Institut Paul Bocuse and is considered one of the greatest cooking schools in the world.

All these events have helped create a fertile landscape for amateur cooks to learn more about cooking. Cooking became an art, a domestic practise, and then a leisure activity for men, women, and children (as can be seen with the popularity of cooking for kids classes).

The English Tea

The Spruce Eats website states that “Tea was first brought to Britain in the early 17th century by the East India Company. It was an expensive product and one only for the rich and often kept under lock and key. Catherine of Braganza, wife of Charles II introduced the ritual of drinking teas to the English Royal Court and the habit adopted by the aristocracy. The first tea shop for ladies opened in 1717 by Thomas Twining and slowly tea shops began to appear throughout England making the drinking of teas available to everyone. The British further developed their love of teas during the years of the British Empire in India.”

In the 1800s, with more tea and wheat in the United Kingdom than ever before, prices of these individual items dropped, making tea a less valuable delicacy than in the 1700s. In the nineteenth century, even factory workers had access to cups of tea on their well-earned rest breaks.

Vast amounts of cargo began to be moved across the world, enabling the houses of many Europeans to access new products and this consequently led to the colonies becoming increasingly dependent on European imports.

Where did cookbooks come from? The first modern cookbooks included recipes for women to cook for their families. (Source: Daria-Yakoleva)

Julia Child: The American who Brought French Eating Habits to American Food

You might have heard of Julia Child, the chef who created the most famous book on French cooking in the 1950s. Both passionate and funny, she won over the American people with both her personality and her baking technique (her brioche, in particular).

She became a famous TV chef once she conquered America (and the rest of the world) with her delicious French recipes. Thanks to her, French cuisine can be found both in America and Britain.

Her show, The French Chef, which first aired in 1961, allowed her to show off her love of French cooking. Her famous book is still in print. And it doesn’t matter if you’re American or not, you can still read the book known as “the Bible of French cooking”.

Who was the world's first celebrity chef? Brioche was Julia Child’s bread and butter. (Source: ElodiV)

In addition to her famous brioche recipe, you can also find recipes for a tarte aux pommes (an apple pie) and beef bourguignon.

Want to learn more about her? You should watch the film Julie and Julia where Amy Adams plays Julie Powell, a woman who tried to cook all the recipes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child’s (played by Meryl Streep) book.

The 20th to 21st Century Cooking Health Craze

Our ancestors wouldn’t even recognise modern cuisine, with our water baths, foams, dehydrated fruits and other new discoveries. But the fact is that food has evolved at quite a steady pace over the last couple of centuries.

One of the biggest new trends has to be the eagerness to create gut-friendly food, with vegetarian and gluten-free alternatives popping up in most restaurants.

The term ‘vegetarian’ was claimed by the British Vegetarian Society in the mid-1800’s, yet vegetarianism itself dates back to a time before recorded history. The vegetarian movement gained momentum throughout the centuries thanks to several influential historical figures.

Some of the first known vegetarians were the Pythagoreans. Though Pythagoras loaned his name to the meatless diet, it is unclear whether or not he followed a strict vegetarian regimen.

With vegetarianism still on the rise, it’s now the norm for restaurants to feature vegetarian alternatives on their menus. Shops also now stock a large variety of vegetarian options, proving that there is a strong market for such meatless products.

The Scientific American Blog reads: “Gluten sensitivity or intolerance – a somewhat vague claim by people who definitely do not have celiac that they feel better when they eliminate gluten – was belittled by the scientific and medical establishment for a long time because it had no discernable cause or explanation, but now they are starting to come around and believe that it might be real.”

Gluten-free alternatives are also being given more space in our supermarkets, and there are now gluten-free restaurants appearing in our bigger cities too.

Private Cooking Classes

Cooking is no longer a chore but rather a leisure activity which has resulted in a lot of people wanting to learn how to do it well. Aspiring chefs want to learn how to cook in the same way as Michelin Star chefs even though they’re just making their recipes for fun.

While you can often pick up these chefs’ cookbooks, it’s much better to learn from a chef in the flesh. Most of the big names have opened their own cooking schools and workshops.

In fact, some of these workshops are incredibly affordable (given the name of the famous chef on the door) and, while many of them aren’t taught by the chef themselves, fun. There’s a huge variety, from pastry workshops to tapas cooking classes. You can attend general cooking classes or get a private tutor to come to your house to teach you how to cook.

You could learn how to make choux pastry, pair wine with your meals, or study molecular cuisine,

How do you correctly cut vegetables? Cooking tutorials are useful for learning fundamental techniques like how to cut vegetables. (Source: Zichrini)

Online Cooking Tutorials

As crazy as it may seem, you can attend a virtual cooking class with a chef on the other side of the world. No matter what dish you want to make, you can learn how to make it like a professional.

In the digital age, there are plenty of interesting cooking classes available over the internet. These lessons can still be interactive as participants can send their questions to the chef who’ll respond to them directly. On the other hand, you can’t press pause like you’d be able to on a pre-recorded cooking video.

The best thing about teaching an online cooking class: you can have as many students as you want! You can learn how to make great meals for your family for pennies.

You should check out the testimonials of other students who “attended” the class to see if the course or lesson is right for you.

If you’re looking for a certain type of cooking class, such as learning how to bake or make your own dough, you can look for a cooking teacher on Superprof.

You can find tutors who’ve got loads of experience working in professional kitchens. Additionally, if you’re a vegetarian, vegan, have allergies or other dietary requirements, you can focus on a specific ingredient or cooking style.

Are you looking for a cooking school, cooking workshop, or a particular type of chef?

Find the best UK cookery schools here.

See which are the best-rated cooking schools around the world here.

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