La première femme auteur de livres de cuisine en Suisse s'appelait Anna Wecker et était originaire de Bâle. Illustration : Marco Heer
La première femme auteur de livres de cuisine en Suisse s'appelait Anna Wecker et était originaire de Bâle. Illustration : Marco Heer

The almost-pioneer from Basel

Anna Wecker from Basel is Switzerland’s first known cookbook author. She infiltrated this male-dominated sphere in 1598.

Michael van Orsouw

Michael van Orsouw

Michael van Orsouw has a PhD in history and is a performance poet and author. He regularly publishes historical books.

Osterchüechli Easter pies and Osterfladen Easter cakes are back in demand at this time of year. In many places, these delicious pastries made with flour, sugar, butter, jam, grapes and rice are enjoyed – logically enough – at Easter. But what only a handful of those who bake or eat this treat know is that the original recipe is more than 400 years old and was created by Anna Wecker. Anna who? Hardly anyone knows who she is today. Anna Wecker was Switzerland’s first culinary author, and as if that weren’t enough, her work “Ein Köstlich new Kochbuch” was the first cookbook in German ever to be written by a woman. It was a truly pioneering achievement, and ‘Weckerin’ was a true pioneer!
This book dating from 1597 made her a pioneer: it was written by Anna Wecker from Basel, reprinted in 1977.
This book dating from 1597 made her a pioneer: it was written by Anna Wecker from Basel, reprinted in 1977.   Bibliothèque nationale suisse
In addition, unlike other cookbooks of the time, Wecker’s work wasn’t intended for aristocratic households with huge kitchens and legions of domestic servants; it was designed for simple, home-style cooking. Or, as food historian Rudolf Trefzer put it: Anna Wecker’s recipes bespeak “the spirit of Protestant moderation and sobriety”. The story of Wecker’s cookbook is therefore remarkable in several respects. In her book, Anna Wecker does more than just offer practical advice on cooking vegetables, fruit, meat, game and “Gebachenes” such as the Osterchüechli. She describes how to make your own almond milk, and gives numerous recipes using barley, the most important grain at the time. Weckerin, as the feminine form of the name was expressed in the late Middle Ages, also provides instructions for dealing with fruit varieties from southern Europe that were still a rarity at that time: she uses bitter oranges, figs, dates and grapes.
Almond milk recipe, reprinted in 1977.
Almond milk recipe, reprinted in 1977. Deutsches Textarchiv
Interestingly, Anna Wecker also produced recipes for “Krancke” (invalids), “Schwangere Weiber” (pregnant women), “Kindbetterinnen” (women in childbed) and “alte schwache Leute” (old, weak people). She was far ahead of her time because she not only passed on cooking instructions, but also tailored her recipes for specific audiences, creating a kind of special menu for each group. But still, this woman has been forgotten. Why is that? One reason is that we know so little about her. As with many women in the Middle Ages, not much is known about the life of Anna Wecker. We can’t even be certain of her date of birth. She was born Anna Keller in Basel. Her first marriage was to Israel Aeschenberger, the town clerk of Altdorf bei Nürnberg. The couple had a daughter, Katharina. After Herr Aeschenberger’s early death, Anna married Basel doctor and professor Johann Jacob Wecker. But the couple rarely lived in Switzerland, instead residing mostly in Colmar in Alsace, where Johann Jacob worked as “town physician”. When he died in 1586, Anna posthumously published her husband’s papers. She acted as publisher for her late husband, who had encouraged her to write down her vast culinary knowledge.
Portrait of Johannes Jacob Wecker, 1660.
Portrait of Johannes Jacob Wecker, 1660. Wikimedia
Ten years after her second husband, Anna Wecker also died, without ever having published anything of her own. But a year later, in 1597, Anna Wecker’s cookbook was published by Katharina Taurellus, her daughter from her first marriage. A young woman published another woman’s book after that woman’s death; a very emancipatory undertaking, one would think. But Anna Wecker was insufficiently independent, insufficiently conscious of her own separate identity and worth as a woman, and that makes her unsuitable as a feminist figurehead. She saw herself as her husband’s assistant, accompanied him on his house calls, and was very much at home standing by the stove. She demonstrated her attitude in a piece she wrote in 1586 for newlyweds Barbara and Jacob Pömern-Löffelholzin. In this piece of writing, she not only gave practical tips for household management, but also espoused the biblical view that man and wife are two souls in one body: Anna Wecker urged the groom to remember that his Barbara was a rib of his body and should therefore be given special protection.
The woman on the left is probably Anna Wecker: she’s in charge of what’s going on in the kitchen, reprinted 1977.
The woman on the left is probably Anna Wecker: she’s in charge of what’s going on in the kitchen, reprinted 1977.   Deutsches Textarchiv
On the cover of her well-known cookbook, too, Anna Wecker appears quite unemancipated. The woodcut shows, on the left, a woman standing in a large kitchen, her left hand on her hip and a frying pan in her right hand; it might be the author herself. The cook is supervising everything that’s going on in the kitchen, including the second woman in the kitchen, who is using a spoon to taste the cooked food in other pots. Over the open fire that warms the kitchen, a large chunk of meat is roasting on a spit. Is this the very same kitchen where Anna Wecker made her Osterchüechli and Osterfladen? That detail, too, has been lost in the mists of time. In any case, she presented her sweet pastries in a very simple way. In keeping with her unpretentious style and simple cuisine, she filled the little cakes not with a sweet filling, but with bread.

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