Researchers have compared Northern European cookbooks from the last 800 years and report that contemporary recipes are more advanced and varied than recipes from cookbooks for kings of old. Contemporary recipes contain more steps, separate processes and methods, and also a larger diversity of ingredients, both basic foodstuffs and semi-manufactured ingredients.
“We wanted to investigate if the general trend that cultural complexity increases over time also applies to such a basic human activity as cooking”, says Patrik Lindenfors, Associate Professor of Zoological Ecology. “This was something we could confirm. Since the oldest available cook-books were recipe collections for kings and noblemen, we could also conclude that contemporary recipes for ordinary people are more advanced than old recipes for kings.”
Slow evolutionary process
The researchers could also show that the development of cookery is a function of a slow evolutionary process rather than subject to rapid fashion fluctuations, except for spices and certain vegetables.
Sven Isaksson. Foto: Eva Dalin
“During the investigated period, Europeans discovered America, something that of course left its mark on what ingredients that are used”, says Sven Isaksson, Associate Professor of Archaeology. “In the middle of the 19th century there was also a shift from cooking over an open fire to using stoves, something that changed the way cooking was carried out for all.”
Tried old recipes
The researchers have tried some of the old recipes.
“There are several individual dishes in all the old cookbooks that are delicious also in a modern version, but we would not want to completely switch to food from the 13th century, no matter how how royal it is. What tastes good and what we think is disgusting is mostly acquired” , says Sven Isaksson.
About the research
The studies are a part of a larger project to understand general cultural change at the Centre for the Study of Cultural Evolution at Stockholm University.
The results are presented in the articles ‘An Empirical Study of Cultural Evolution: The Development of European Cookery from Medieval to Modern Times’ in the journal Cliodynamics and ‘A Novel Method to Analyze Social Transmission in Chronologically Sequenced Assemblages, Implemented on Cultural Inheritance of the Art of Cooking’ in the journal PLoS ONE.