An Early Dictionary of Food

In 1830, Richard Dolby, cook at the Thatched House Tavern in London, wrote something “never hitherto attempted.” One might spend quite a bit of time pondering what Dolby produced that, in his own words, seemed so groundbreaking in the culinary world. It wasn’t a recipe/cook book (well, not exactly). It wasn’t an encyclopedia of food history (well, not exactly). And it wasn’t a guidebook for young housewives (well, not exactly). It was, however, The Cook’s Dictionary and House-Keeper’s Directory: A New Family Manual of Cookery and Confectionery, on a Plan of Ready Reference Never Hitherto Attempted.

Title page
Title page

From a historical perspective, we can’t speak to the accuracy of his claim that such a book was never attempted. For all we know, a work was finished, but never published. However, it’s entirely possible a work like Dolby’s was never published before. There certainly were food encyclopedias, guidebooks and household management books, and there was at least one botanical/medical/agricultural dictionary that pre-date 1830. Still, Dolby’s method of blending information about foods along with recipes in a dictionary-like structure seems pretty unique for its day. And it meets its goal of simplicity, as the introduction suggests:

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The meat of the book (pun intended, of course!) is an alphabetical listing of foods, food groups (classifications of recipes, rather than what we might think of as contemporary food groups), and recipes that are representative of foods. Even when an entry blends all three, it is provided as a straight narrative, recipe included, which is characteristic of many pre-20th century cookbooks.

Nor does Dolby abandon his readers after he finishes the “Zs.” His leaves us with two helpful additions: One, a short list of terms used throughout the book, and two, a calendar year list of when certain foods are available in season. While the latter may not be accurate today, nor overly helpful outside the UK, where growing seasons may differ, it’s easy to see how they could be useful to readers in 1830.

You can find the full text of Dolby’s dictionary online here. If you’re curious to see what he included, it’s very much worth the look. Plus, it’s in alphabetical order, so there’s no difficulty in finding an ingredient!

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