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David Sacks/Thinkstock

Almost every cookbook library has its grease-stained treasures: a hand-me-down parish cookbook from the 1920s with a great-aunt's adjustments in the margins, a wartime Joy of Cooking, or a 1961 first edition, maybe, of The Playboy Gourmet (but just for the recipes).

Anne Willan and Mark Cherniavsky's renowned cookbook collection, however, goes a little further back. Two hundred of the books in their collection were printed before 1800; about 20 of those, before 1600. Their copy of Bartolomeo Sacchi's De honesta voluptate et valetudine – Of Honest Indulgence and Good Health – was printed in 1520. The Court and Kitchin of Elizabeth, Commonly Called Joan Cromwel, The Wife of the Late Usurper, is relatively new, by contrast, having been published in 1664. (It was a political satire, with "vulgar" recipes for buttered eggs and red quince cake; even 17th-century England, it seems, had its own version of Jersey Shore food.)

Yet the most interesting thing about the collection owned by the Santa Monica, California couple – Ms. Willan is a cookbook author and the founder of La Varenne Cooking School, while her husband, Mr. Cherniavsky, is an avid collector – is how much the books say about how the way we eat today.

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In their fascinating new history, called The Cookbook Library: Four Centuries of the Cooks, Writers, and Recipes that made the Modern Cookbook, the couple chart the rise of the form from the first-known example – a remarkably sophisticated manuscript from the first century (pig's womb was a standout recipe) – through the introduction of quantities in cookbooks (Nostradamus, the French seer and apothecary, was among the first to use precise measurements), tracking the common acceptance of plates, knives and forks (it happened far later than you'd think) and the rage for refined sugar into the early 19th century.

They trace the spread of ideas, fashions, cooking and nutritional advice (nutrition has always been a pseudo-science, no surprise), as well as the durability of written recipes (if you've eaten pears poached in wine lately, you can thank a medieval cookbook author named Taillevent). The book is an intellectual history, primarily.

It's The Cookbook Library's trivia that stands out. One of the first printed cookbooks, Küchenmeisterei, from 1485 Nuremberg, mentions beaver, for instance. Also, crayfish were so common and unloved then – medieval Bavaria's answer to microwave lasagna – that households were forbidden from feeding them to servants more than once a week. Galangal, a root that's common in Southeast Asian cooking but rarely used elsewhere today, was all the rage in 15th-century Europe; cooks then were more worldly in some ways than we are today.

In one brilliant page, the authors follow the evolution of the day's heaviest meal from 10 a.m. in medieval days to evening by the early 1800s. Key lessons? "There is nothing more hurtful for man's body than to eat meat upon meat," according to one 16th century English doctor named Andrewe Boorde.

In France, Protestants refused to plant potatoes, because they weren't mentioned in the Bible. Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, who introduced the potato to Europe, was an early PR genius: in addition to throwing a series of high-profile dinners – olden-day blogger bashes, sort of – built around the tubers, he hired soldiers to guard a field of potatoes near Paris by day, but to leave at night. The locals, thinking they must be valuable, stole them, ate them, and liked them, apparently.

Aspic, by the way, has been loved but disgusting since at least the 1400s.

The common pairing of lemon with fish emerged from the 15th-century medical theory of the four humours. (Lemon was considered a "fix" for fish, which eaten alone was believed to lead to sloth and idleness).

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Claims of recipe plagiarism – hello, Jessica Seinfeld! – go back more than 500 years, Ms. Willan writes.

And the contemporary coffee table cookbook is cheap compared to a 14th-century manuscript. Your average 14th-century cookbook would have cost about 10 times the average annual wage of a kitchen labourer. This made it almost as expensive in real terms as last year's six-volume blockbuster, Modernist Cuisine.

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