May, Robert

Appears in

Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

  • About

May, Robert (b. 1588) author of The Accomplisht Cook (1660), which has been described as ‘the first full-scale English cookery book’. By its sheer size (over 450 pages and more than 1,000 recipes) and comprehensive scope this book eclipsed its predecessors, none of which had treated all branches of cookery.

May was a professional cook, from the age of 13 or 14. Marcus Bell, in the introduction to the 1994 facsimile reprint of the 1685 edition of May’s book, lists his various eminent employers, starting with Lady Dormer, who sent him over to France to work and study there for five years. Then and later his career progressed in Roman Catholic and royalist households. It is likely that his book would have been published earlier if he had not had to wait for the propitious circumstance of the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660. However, it would be a mistake to view his work as a Catholic cookery book, since it has less emphasis than corresponding books published in continental Europe on fast days, feast days, Lent, etc. It would also be wrong to suppose that it was dominated by material from May’s French experience or from French sources. Such influences are apparent in his book (especially the section on eggs where he borrowed 35 recipes from the French author la Varenne), but in general his borrowing from other authors, English or French, was light and the flavour of his book is English.