Culinary History

Cooking Schools: Guide to Culinary History

There are a few basic necessities humans need to survive: sleep, water and food. Learning about what people ate over the course of human history teaches us a great deal about the evolution of culture, tradition and health. It also teaches us the environmental conditions of our early ancestors and about the developments in agriculture and cultivation that allowed populations to grow and civilizations to thrive.

Historically, hunting, gathering and agriculture were the primary means for acquiring food, and this is still the case for many people around the world. However, as many cultures advanced, the types of food humans ate became more varied, as did the methods for preparing that food. Travel and trade spread many types of plants to far-reaching geographic areas, enhancing the possibilities for more complex and exotic recipes.

This resource is meant to provide teachers, students and culinary enthusiasts with valuable information on culinary history. While it would be impossible to summarize all of human culinary history here, there are many in-depth resources available online for further reading. In an ongoing effort to provide the best resources on food and cooking, compiled below are lists of useful links on the subject.

10,000 B.C.E.


We have evidence of cooking from as early as 17,000 B.C.E., but the year 10,000 B.C.E saw the beginning of agriculture. This is significant because it meant early humans could plan a reliable harvest they could count on to feed them throughout the year. It also meant they could begin to devise recipes with reliable ingredients. The first recipes for bread come from this time period. While geographic region certainly played a significant role in the types of plants humans could grow, some staples from the time period included: mushrooms, emmer grain, almonds, cherries and wheat. In coastal regions oysters, fish and shellfish were popular. In tropical regions, insects were an important protein source and featured prominently in recipes from the time.

  • The Food Timeline offers a history of bread, beer and yeast. This is the first evidence of yeast in cooking.
  • Kidipede offers a food timeline, beginning before 10,000 B.C.E.
  • In the Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson writes about the introduction of almonds to cooking, beginning in 10,000 B.C.E.

5,000 B.C.E.

By the year 5,000 B.C.E. food choices had expanded considerably. Cattle and sheep had been domesticated and beef, milk, yogurt, sour cream and cheeses were integrated into cooking. Other food products included lentils, pork, pistachios, beans, walnuts, wine, spelt, maize, tortillas, dates, broccoli, honey, chickpeas, lettuce, olives, olive oil, buckwheat, cucumbers, squash, avocados, taro, chili peppers and potatoes. Food historians map the emergence of each of these new foods, and investigate the development of recipes. Yogurt, for example, is thought to have been invented accidentally by Neolithic people in Asia.

  • The Daily News reports on the invention of yogurt in Turkey.
  • What’s Cooking America tracks the emergence of potatoes in agriculture and cooking from ruins in Peru.
  • Global Gourmet tracks the history of olive oil cultivation, citing fossilized remains of olive trees in the fertile crescent, near Livorno, Italy.

3,000 B.C.E.

This is the year ice cream was invented, according to An A to Z of Food and Drink by John Ayto. It was first made in China, though it didn’t arrive in Europe until the 13th century. By this year chickens had been domesticated, resulting in the incorporation of eggs and chicken meat in cooking. Other foods available by this time include: onions, garlic, butter, palm oil, barley, carrots, peas and many spices. Native Americans were active in the Americas at this time, and they were hunting Bison, using the meat for food and the hides for blankets, clothes and as covers for homes.

  • Irish Central reports on the discovery of a store of “bog butter” found in Tullamore County. Historians believe butter was buried in bogs as an ancient form of refrigeration.
  • The Archaic Period offers an overview of the era with information on food sources and cooking as discovered through in-depth studies of the archeological record.

1,000 B.C.E.

The ancient Egyptian civilization was fading by the year 1,000, but their culinary arts, masterful cultivation techniques and extensive trade brought many new foreign foods to the tables of people in Africa and Asia. According to the book Food in History by Reay Tannahill, the Egyptians were particularly adept at fishing and had many recipes involving wild fish caught in the Nile River. Foods available by the year 1,000 B.C.E. included figs, soybeans, tea, rhubarb, duck, saffron, pasta, radishes, carob, marshmallows, liquorice, peanuts, chocolate, vanilla, horseradish, raisins, sugar, pickles, peaches and oats. These foods were not available everywhere, and they each have a unique history of cultivation, preparation and trade

  • Ochef offers a recipe for blood sausage from 1,000 B.C.E. This is the earliest known recipe, referenced in Homer’s Odyssey.
  • Mongabay provides information on food from Bangladesh in the year 1,000 B.C.E., including mangoes, jackfruit, bananas and pineapples.
  • ThinkQuest details the food of the Australian Aborigines from this time period including some that feature insects.

100 A.D.

By the first century, historians began to have better records of recipes. This was the bible era and the era of Ancient Rome. This century saw the first fried chicken, foie gras, rice pudding, omlettes, French toast, flan, cheesecake, haggis, challah and Italian wedding soup. Many different types of foods were readily available in Europe and Asia including chestnuts, truffles, vinegar, artichokes, cabbage, cinnamon, celery, tomatoes, peppercorns, beets, asparagus and quinces. In coastal areas, lobster, crab and shrimp were finding their way to the table.

500 A.D.

500 A.D. saw the evolution of Anglo-Saxon foods, a fusion of cuisine from the ancient Romans, Scandinavians, Celts and Normans. It was a cuisine of invaders that incorporated elements of many different traditions and cultures. While the people themselves were unable to find compromise, on the table they created a cultural mélange, recipes from which continue to be traditional dishes on European tables today.

  • The Independent reviews Colin Spencer’s book British Food: An Extraordinary Thousand Years of History in which he explores the history of British gastronomy.
  • In Tastes of Anglo-Saxon England, Mary Savelli explores the history of the culinary arts during this century and includes modern recipes based on antiquity. Tzung-lin Fu reviews the book with extensive discussion of the history.


The food of the first millennium continued to change as people traveled more extensively from place to place. This was during medieval times with the feasts of meats, wines, fruits and pies stereotypically depicted in fairy tales. The modern fascination with this time period has resulted in a glut of books and websites devoted to medieval recipes for creating banquets at home. This was a time before refrigeration when most fruits and vegetables were cooked and meats were eaten immediately or salted and dried. Popular spices included caraway, cardamom, nutmeg, pepper and ginger.

  • The Gode Cookery offers a search engine organized by food type with both Medieval and Renaissance recipes.
  • The British Library offers a bibliography of books on medieval cooking with a summary of the popular food types. It includes information on the many hand-written medieval cookbooks that have survived for posterity.
  • The University of Washington offers a resource on Mongolian food from this time period including recipes and information on food customs.



The year 1500 saw the reign of the Tudors in England. It was a time of many sugary dishes: tarts, pies, blintzes, tapioca, vanilla and chocolate. According to the British Library, Queen Elizabeth was so fond of sugar her teeth turned black.  While the poorer classes survived on potatoes, bread, meat, fish and wine, the upper classes enjoyed the spoils of explorers like Christopher Columbus who brought back a wide variety of new foods and spices from the new world. These included: tomatoes, kidney beans, maize, peanuts, pineapples, red and green peppers and apricots.

  • Le Ménagier de Paris includes 197 pages of recipes, menus, household cooking implements and historical references from French kitchens of the 1500s.
  • Food Timeline offers a history of risotto and its role in the cuisine of the Mediterranean.
  • History for Kids offers information on food in North America in 1500, including recipes from both Native Americans and European settlers.


The 18th century was a time of great expansion and development. In Europe, peasants were forced off the land in order to make room for commercial farming. With large-scale farming came exporting and importing in quantities never seen before. This democratized food in a new way, making exotic dishes available to the poorer classes. Cities were growing rapidly and street vendors sold much of the food. The kitchen was greatly influenced by the invention of culinary technology in this century. Kitchen utensils were made out of iron that spread heat more evenly and improved heating grates allowed chefs to cook meat more slowly. Imports included fresh seafood, many varieties of fruit plants and the easy transport of prepared foods like cheeses and preserves. In America, cuisine was simpler since people were still living off the land in many regions of the country.

  • Plimoth Plantation offers a menu from the time period that includes food grown by the settlers and by the Native Americans.
  • The National Parks Service offers information on the culinary practices of settlers in early America with a focus on fishing and hunting.


The 19th century was the time of frontier America. The colonies were growing and cuisine in the Americas included many imports from Europe, South America and even Asia and Africa. This was the era of the Victorians and their utensils for every occasion. Victorian tables were elaborate and ornate with fine china, silver and crystal. This was also the century of Napoleon and the great French banquets of his regime. Many of today’s delicacies can be traced back to this century, only a few hundred years ago. These include: Remoulade, pumpkin pie, chicken fried steak, crackers, duck a l’orange, fondue, gazpacho, pancakes, modern wedding cakes, shepherd’s pie, pickled peppers, canapés and hamburgers.

  • The English Art of Cookery by Richard Briggs explores this century’s culinary arts in Europe.
  • American Cookery by Amelia Simmons explores “the art of dressing viands, fish, poultry, and vegetables, and the best modes of making pastes, puffs, pies, tarts, puddings, custards, and preserves, and all kinds of cakes, from the imperial plum to plain cake: Adapted to this country, and all grades of life.”
  • The Frugal Housewife by Susannah Carter explores the English traditions in American cooking. In her words, “the art of dressing all sorts of viands is explained in upwards of five hundred approved receipts, in gravies, sauces, roasting … also the making of English wines.”
  • The Cook Not Mad, written by an anonymous author, explores the tradition of preserving meats and vegetables. It is an American book about American cooking, written in Watertown, NY.


The 20th century saw the vast expansion of agriculture on a national scale. This century also saw the explosion of supermarket culture, with all sorts of world foods available locally to people of every walk of life. Scientific advances in food preservation, cultivation and analysis led to farmers growing single crops, refrigeration and the discovery of vitamins and minerals. World governments, particularly in Europe and the United States, invested large amounts of money in food and nutrition research. This eventually led to the explosion of nutrition marketing and to a world literature of healthful eating. Restaurant eating became a cultural norm in this century.

Some new foods from this century include: Jello, Crisco, monosodium glutamate (MSG), maraschino cherries, fortune cookies, Hostess cup cakes, girl scout cookies, frozen foods, gummi bears, Wonder bread, Wheaties, Hawaiian Punch, sloppy joes, SPAM, Krispy Kreme, corn dogs, chicago-style pizza, Nutella, nachos, canned soda, and many more modern food items we find in the supermarkets today.

  • Duke University Libraries offers an online version of the 1927 book, Electric Refrigerator Recipes and Menus, issues by General Electric along with its first home refrigerators.
  • View a 1910 advertisement for Jello.
  • Reform Cookery Book: Up-to-Date Health Cookery for the Twentieth Century illustrates cultural ideas about food, health and cooking from the early 20th century. The book was written by Mrs. Mill, a housewife in Scotland.
  • The Good Housekeeping Woman’s Home Cookbook by Isabel Gordon Curtis (1909) includes many recipes and home-making tips for women. It illustrates how food culture and women’s cultural role in the United States evolved side-by-side.


While this century has only just begun, we have seen many culinary innovations, primarily in the realm of modernist or science cooking: genetically modifying our food for greater nutritional value and using our knowledge of the molecular chemistry of food to create food art. As climate change, global conflict and environmental disasters have threatened our food supply, we have also seen a movement towards more sustainable, local agriculture. More people are growing their own food and are supporting local farms. At the same time, the obesity epidemic has become a global crisis. Much of the new literature on food and food culture center on how to bring better nutrition to more people without contributing to problems related to overeating.

Still, despite all of the advances in agriculture, food preparation, food preservation and exporting, there are millions of people who do not have enough to eat. Many charities and health organizations are working to establish sustainable farming in impoverished areas while providing food aid to people in arid climates or war-torn regions.

  • Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking is a six-volume set that explores the use of chemistry in the kitchen to create food art. The books include thousands of images of modernist cuisine with step-by-step recipes for recreating the dishes at home. Note, however, that many of the recipes require scientific instruments and chemicals that may be dangerous or difficult to acquire.
  • Food Timeline offers an overview of popular foods and trends in the 2000s. It includes a list of new products and innovations in food storage and marketing.
  • Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab explores the psychology of eating, food culture, marketing, research and consumer habits.
  • The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) offers information on consumer health issues, medical research and alerts about food-related dangers.
  • The Economic Research Service provides “indepth economic analysis of the nation’s food consumption trends, consumer reactions to changes in food prices and income, dietary patterns, and the relationship between food intake and nutritional/health outcomes such as obesity.”
  • The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States provides information on food policy, prices, reforms, initiatives for providing food-related aid, and global food-related news.
  • The White House has published the menu from Barack Obama’s inaugural luncheon.

Additional Reading

  • The Food Timeline offers a comprehensive database of culinary history beginning in 17,000 B.C.E. and continuing on to the present day.
  • Culinary History offers an “online research library and network of historical culinary texts, dating from the earliest times to the year 1700.”
  • The Food Museum offers information on types of food throughout history with recipes, political history and many photographs.
  • The New York Public Library’s Menu Collection offers recipes organized chronologically throughout history.