Cookbooks, Cookbooks in Context

Content Marketing circa 1923: Dr. Oetker’s School Cookbook

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There are many reasons to write a cookbook.

Perhaps, you are an aging 14th century Parisian compiling a housekeeping book to instruct your young wife on how to look after her lord, manage her newly-bestowed house and of course, prepare banquets.

Later during the 16th and 17th century say, you would probably be publishing as the chef to a nobleman or clergyman. This book would sell your own knowledge, raise acclaim for your benefactor and commit to posterity a record of the privileges of wealth.

Aspirational cooking has long been a part of how we cook.

Cookbook traditions follow cultural traditions. They move from medieval household manuals to renaissance instruction manuals. They develop over time from simple lists of ingredients to complex images of papal feasts with diagrams of the insides of kitchens and long lists of utensils (the first known picture of a fork, for example, only made its appearance find in a 16th century cookbook.)

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Or perhaps your cookbook is just another marketing outlet.

In the age of sponsored blog posts, I guess this comes as no surprise to any informed blog reader. However, knowing that the same tactics were employed nearly 100 years ago to draw readers in came as a surprise to me.

Perhaps it is only logical that a company dedicated to selling baking material would eventually develop a cookbook to sell more products, but they sure had me fooled. It was after all 1927 and they had called it “The School Cookbook,” and so I unwittingly assumed that this was another Home Economics cookbook designed to teach young girls how to cook. How wrong I was.

But then again, of all countries, it makes sense that Germany in the 1900s was a place rife with opportunities to sell this brand new type of cookbook.

 

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From 1871 to 1914, Berlin’s population tripled in size.  With new immigrants arriving nearly every day, food processes also had to change. Population growth meant significant food industrialization. In the process, many city dwellers lost the know-how to make their own food.

It seems then, this little book arrived right in time to fill the many knowledge gaps that existed in these booming cities. But from the title “Dr. Oetkers School Cookbook” to the pages upon pages of recipes that mention Dr. Oetker’s products, I began to wonder whether this little book really could be the tome I had been hoping for.

There were clues. Henriette Davidis’ cookbook was a huge well-revised masterpiece that she worked on for nearly a quarter of a century. The name of this cookbook’s author on the other hand has long been forgotten. Davidis’ cookbook has few pictures and lots and lots of text. Dr. Oetker’s is petite and has many illustrations. They have invested into colorful glossy pages, but almost exclusively for the pages displaying baked goods.

However, in its own way it captured the Zeitgeist of its time and sprang into being the most consumed cookbook of 20th century Germany.

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By 2011 on their 100 year cookbook anniversary, Dr. Oetker announced that 19 million copies of this cookbook had been sold.

Today, Dr. Oetker employs more than 30,000 employees, has revenues of over 10.9 billion a year and their frozen pizza can be bought in nearly every super market in the world.

Next time you reach to grab that frozen pizza though, I hope you stop to think about that studious doctor tinkering away on his baking powder formula and the cookbook that propelled him into each German household.

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