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Cookbooks as a Historical Source

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Kim, Yerin
Term Paper, Categories of Historical Sources Class, July 2010

Table of Contents

I. Introduction
I.1 Introduction
I.2 Organization of the paper
I.3 Criteria of source selection
II. Cookbooks
II.1 Definition
II.2 Brief history
II.3 The significance of cookbooks
III. Characteristics of cookbooks
III.1 The earliest cookbooks
III.2 Cookbooks of the 18th century
III.3 Cookbooks of the 19th century
III.4 Cookbooks of the 20th century
III.5 Cookbooks of the 21st century
IV. Analyzing a cookbook
IV.1 Where was it published ?
IV.2 When was it published ?
IV.3 Who published it, for whom ? Why ?
V. Analysis : What cookbooks tell us
V.1 Ingredients
V.1.1 Economy
V.1.2 Climate
V.2 Flavor
V.3 Social structure
V.3.1 Social classes
V.3.2 Cookbooks and women¡¯s place in society
V.4 Culture
VI. Conclusion

I. Introduction

I.1 Introduction
            Food has been, is, and always will be an essential part of human life. Within the society, it serves several functions including the provision of nutrients, the continuation of traditions, and as symbols at religious functions. Cookbooks, records of what and how foods are prepared, serve as a guide to understanding the culture and society of the time.

I.2 Organization of this paper
            This paper will firstly define the meaning of the term cookbook, as well as examine the reason why cookbooks are so significant in researching the history of a society. Then it will go on to firstly examine the major characteristics of cookbooks from each era, from the earliest stages to the 21st century. Finally, two types of analysis will be presented. The first will be about analyzing a single cookbook, the questions one needs to ask when reading such a source as well as the knowledge one is able to gather from a cookbook. The second analysis will be a comparative analysis, employing the main characteristics of cookbooks from each era and comparing them with each other to find out more about the society of the time. In the conclusion, the information that we can learn from analyzing cookbooks as well as the shortcomings it has will be discussed.

I.3 Criteria of source selection
            Due to the limitation of time, as well as resources, this paper is not based on all of the cookbooks that mankind has produced until now. Instead, this paper focuses on the most famous cookbooks of each time period, especially in Europe and the United States of America. In order to select the cookbooks for study, three lists were referenced, beginning with the ¡®cookbook¡¯ page on Wikipedia.

      Famous cookbooks from the past, in chronological order, include (1):

      De re coquinaria (The Art of Cooking) (late 4th / early 5th century) by Apicius
      Kitab al-Tabikh (The Book of Dishes) (10th century) by Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq
      Kitab al-Tabikh (The Book of Dishes) (1226) by Muhammad bin Hasan al-Baghdadi
      Liber de Coquina (The Book of Cookery) (late 13th / early 14th century) by two unknown authors from France and Italy
      The Forme of Cury (14th century) by the Master Cooks of King Richard II of England
      Viandier (14th century) by Guillaume Tirel alias Taillevent
      De honesta voluptate et valetudine (1475) by Bartolomeo Platina (Italian) 1487
      The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Knight Opened by Kenelm Digby (England 1669)
      The Compleat Housewife (first edition England 1742) by Eliza Smith
      The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy (England 1747) by Hannah Glasse
      Hjelpreda I Hushållningen For Unga Fruentimber (Sweden 1755) by Cajsa Warg
      Le Cuisinier Royal (France 1817) by Alexandre Viard
      Modern Cookery for Private Families (England 1845) by Eliza Acton
      Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management (England 1861) by Mrs Beeton
      El Cocinero Puerto-Riqueno (Puerto Rico 1859) author unknown)
      La scienza in cucina e l'arte di mangiar bene (Italy 1891) by Pellegrino Artusi
      The Epicurean (U.S. 1894) by Charles Ranhofer
      The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book (U.S. 1896) by Fannie Merritt Farmer
      The Settlement Cook Book (U.S. 1901) and 34 subsequent editions by Lizzie Black Kander
      Various cookbooks (France, between 1903 and 1934) by Auguste Escoffier
      The Joy of Cooking (U.S. 1931) by Irma Rombauer
      Larousse Gastronomique (France 1938)
      The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook (U.S. 1954) by Alice B. Toklas
      Cooking with the Chinese Flavor (U.S. 1956) and subsequent books by Lin Tsuifeng ("Mrs. Lin Yutang")
      Mastering the Art of French Cooking (U.S. 1961) by Julia Child
      Helen Gurley Brown's Single Girl's Cookbook (U.S. 1969) by Helen Gurley Brown
      The Fanny and Johnnie Cradock Cookery Programme (U.S. 1970) by Fanny and Johnnie Cradock
      Diet for a Small Planet (U.S. 1971) by Frances Moore Lappe
      Moosewood Cookbook (U.S. 1978) by Mollie Katzen

            With this list as the starting point, the paper also took into consideration the ten most influential cookbooks selected by culinary historian Barbara Wheaton (2) and the timeline of important cookbooks designated by Cheryl Miller (3). It is important to point out that this paper focuses on the cookbooks of the Western hemisphere. In the comparisons that are made between Western and Eastern cultures, the basis for the Eastern cultures may come from other historical sources.

II. Cookbooks

II.1 Definition
            The online dictionary Merriam-Webster gives the definition of cookbooks as "a book of cooking directions and recipes; broadly : a book of detailed instructions" (4) This is a definition from a rather objective point of view. Cheryl Miller gives her definition of cookbooks as "a chronicle and treasury of the fine art of cooking" (5). This paper sets the definition as a record of the way to cook, and includes single recipes and 'household manuals' in the definition.

II.2 Brief History
            The earliest known cookbook dates back to 1500 B.C., a clay tablet from Babylon. It contained brief instructions for sophisticated, aromatic dishes. The first cookbook with written and translatable characters was Marcus Gavius Apicius¡¯ De re conquinaria, compiled in the 4th or early 5th century. With the invention of the printing press, cookbooks such as Küchenmeisterei ("Cooking Mastery") were published, and circulated within high society. Until the end of the 18th century when women began to write everyday cookbooks, cookbooks were for royal and aristocratic families, as well as the bourgeoisie. From the 18th century, women writers especially in colonial America started to write "household manuals" such as the "Compleat Housewife" by Eliza Smith. These encyclopedias gave housewives not only recipes, but also general tips for housekeeping such as medicine, or even effective cleaning methods.
            However, women writers like Eliza Smith or Amelia Simmons were of a minority as they published in their own names. Many women authors of this period refrained from doing so. It was at the beginning of the 19th century that women stepped into the center of the field of household literature both in authorship and readership. Some of the most famous cookbooks in history, such as Eliza Acton's Modern Cookery for Private Families and Isabella Beeton's Book of Household Management, were published during this time.
            By the end of the 19th century, a more scientific approach to cooking was prevalent within the cookbooks, following the foundation of various 'cooking schools' in metropolitan areas such as New York, Philadelphia, and of course, Boston. Fannie Merritt Farmer's Boston Cooking-School Cookbook published in 1896 was one of the first books to have very precise measuring scales. "Correct measurements are absolutely necessary to ensure the best results." (7) Cookbooks of this era also had household tips aimed at all classes of women, who considered these as special treats.
            From the 20th century, cookbooks were regarded as regular sellers by publishing houses, and women authors no longer had to finance their own books. Publishing houses began to actively publish cookbooks, and the overall quality of the cookbooks was raised with the introduction of photographs. Nowadays, the cookbook is not a mere collection of everyday recipes, but a work of art with recipes of every kind complete with beautiful photography. The authorship has also expanded with the appearance of the Internet and blogs, and nearly anyone can become a cookbook author. The content of the cookbooks has also widened tremendously, ranging from Harry Potter cookbooks to cookbooks containing the exotic foods from around the world, which also is a marketing tool for the popular TV show Top Chef.

II.3 The Significance of Cookbooks

II.3.1 Personifying history
            "One needs to know both the context and the particulars of the culture that produces a culinary tradition. For the particulars, I turn to cookbooks. These volumes have not, on the whole, enjoyed a great deal of respect." (9) writes Barbara Wheaton. Eating and food is significant in the study of a culture because it is a part of daily life, but also an essential part of social gatherings and religious ceremonies. Understanding the kind of foods that people eat, when people eat them, and how people consume them is important to be able to personalize history. After all, history is not just about the facts, but rather about understanding what it was like to live in that time. Cookbooks and recipes can be a perfect way to understand this.

II.3.2 Glimpse into Society
            Cookbooks are peculiar because they were one of the earliest fields of writing to be dominated by female writers. For this reason, they are one of the sources we can research to look into the changes in women¡¯s role within the society. What classes of women wrote cookbooks, why they wrote cookbooks, and for whom they wrote cookbooks are all valid questions one can use to determine such changes.
            Another significant glimpse into society that we can get from studying cookbooks is the changes in social class. By examining the main audience of cookbooks and their purpose, it is possible to figure out whether the social structure was a rigid one, with many classes of people with little fluidity between the classes. These will be further elaborated in the analysis part of my paper.

III. Characteristics of cookbooks

III.1 The earliest cookbooks

            The earliest recipes that have been found are from 1500 B.C., on a clay tablet in Babylon. Inscriptions of recipes in kitchen walls and fireplaces were also found in the Pompeii ruins, estimated to be from around 79 A.D. De re conquinaria, although associated with Apicius (who lived in the 1st century A.D.) was compiled in the late 4th or early 5th century. dating back to the reign of Emperor Tiberius is also one of the earliest cookbooks. These cookbooks contain recipes for exotic foods, sometimes even to the point that these foods didn¡¯t actually exist. This is a recipe for flamingo meat and tongue that can be found in Apicius¡¯ book of recipes. The validity of this recipe is still being disputed - "some cookbook writers seem to feel obliged to call for esoteric ingredients to demonstrate how recondite are their tastes." (Barbara Wheaton) The cookbooks were written mainly by royal cooks, for royal kitchens or for banquets in upper-class, private homes. The writers used the recipes themselves, or to train other professional cooks. (10)

III.2 Cookbooks of the 18th century
            The 18th century marked a slight change for cookbooks. First of all, the authorship base was expanded to the Americas, especially American women, which influenced the change in its readership. While the European cookbooks were focused on feeding the aristocrats, with the cookbooks mainly for cooks in royal or upper-class families, American cookbooks were for everyday homes, literally manuals for housewives. The most famous cookbooks from this time are Eliza Smith¡¯s The Compleat Housewife and Hannah Glasse¡¯s The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy, as well as Amelia Simmon¡¯s American Cookery.

III.3 Cookbooks of the 19th century
            By the 19th century, both the readership and the authorship of cookbooks were dominated by women. Both the 18th century and 19th century cookbooks were directed to women of middle class or higher, as housewifery was regarded as a social responsibility of the women. These women would sometimes use the cookbooks to prepare meals themselves, but more often they used them to direct their kitchens - in other words, they used them to tell their servants how and what to cook. Another interesting characteristic can be found in the American cookbooks of this era - a 'nationalist flavor'.

            "Between 1796 and 1808, Amelia Simmon's book was published in four editions, and its repertoire widened to include Independence Cake, Federal Cake, and Election Cake (a rich, spicy, fruit-strewn loaf designed for town meeting occasions) - all three titles speaking of a new nationalist fervor. There was talk of an 'American mode of cooking.'" (11)

III.4 Cookbooks of the 20th century
            Cooking itself became more professionalized during this period, with the cookbooks following suit. Various 'cooking schools' were established around Europe and the United States, but the American cooking schools and European cooking schools had a difference. While cooking in Europe remained for the most part a masculine profession, cooking in the States was a feminine profession. Even the aforementioned cooking schools had women founders and educators who taught the public as well as how to cook. As the word 'teaching' implies, cooking was no longer regarded as an intrinsic skill of women but rather a skill that could be taught to anyone. Cookbooks were also designed to follow suit, and cookbooks of this era were the first to have specific measurement scales and cooking times.


III.5 Cookbooks of the 21st Century
            Modern cookbooks are diverse to the point where they have no limitation. Unlike cookbooks of the decades past, 21st century cookbooks do not have a single defining characteristic. Both the authorship and readership include anyone with even the slightest interest in cooking, and the format of the cookbooks range from online-based recipes with scant directions to professional ones in heavy-set volumes. These cookbooks are directed to a specific group of people, not just a vague group such as 'housewives'. Many people, for many purposes, turn to cookbooks and the diversity that exists in today's culinary market reflects this demand.

IV. Analyzing a cookbook

IV.1 Where was it published ?
            Most cookbooks have existing records that tell the readers about the country it was published in, which may make this question seem pointless. However, this question is not only about the countries, but more about the specific regions in which the cookbooks were published.
            "Amelia Simmons, in her American Cookery, begins her discussion of peas with recommen-dations about what varieties to plant, while Eliza Acton, writing in her Modern Cookery, is concerned with helping the housewife not to be cheated by her greengrocer." (13)
            From these two cookbooks that are targeted at an urban area and a rural area, readers can firstly infer about the different lifestyles of people in each region. Readers can know how they measured food (urban cookbooks sometimes used price as a measuring unit), what kinds of foods they ate, and the social atmosphere of each region. Furthermore, the reader can find out more about transportation both within and outside of the country. Since the urban regions were more connected with the outside, ingredients and recipes that appear in an urban cookbook of the same era tells us how developed the international commerce was, and what countries traded actively with the original nation of the cookbook. Rural cookbooks are more apt to provide the readers with information about traditional dishes that employ fresh ingredients, which give clues to the climate and distinctive flavors of the nation.

IV.2 When was it published ?
            Knowing when a certain cookbook was published is important because it provides a basis for all of the things that the reader can deduce from the book. The significance of the ingredients, instruments, and cooking methods described in the book would hold little or no meaning without the background, the time period in which it was written. The publication date also serves an important part in source criticism. A cookbook is a source that can, for the most part, be trusted. However, there are instances where the cookbook doesn¡¯t faithfully mirror the society of the time due to factors such as personal aspirations or favoritism on the author¡¯s part. We cannot trust the author to be the ideal ¡®average¡¯ person of the time and place, especially since cookbooks are the product of an individual¡¯s taste. In some cases, the authors added ingredients and recipes that made their tastes seem more refined, even if they were not available at the time. By knowing the date and the various transportation methods of the time, the reader will then be able to judge the credibility of the cookbook.

IV.3 Who published it, for whom ? Why ?
            The readership and authorship of cookbooks are very important when discussing the social structure of the time. For example, most cooks until the end of the 18th century did not know how to read, but cookbooks were still written at this time. This reveals that the cookbooks written during this time were either for housewives of the middle class who had received primary education and did the cooking themselves or housewives of both middle and upper class who had at least one cook. We can take the analysis further and deduce that housekeeping was regarded by the society as a profession, much like a managerial job. Women who had no other means to prove themselves saw the area of cookbooks as a viable means to establish their names, an attitude which contributed greatly to the emergence of feminist ideas in the late 18th century.

V. Analysis: What cookbooks tell us

V.1 Ingredients

V.1.1 Economy
            An ingredient and how often it is mentioned can be a reliable measure of the availability. For example, potatoes made a frequent appearance in cookbooks, after the appearance of household manuals. This is because potatoes were cheap, easy to grow, and easy to get whether the author lived in the country or the city. From this, the readers can infer that potatoes were a staple food that most households were able to afford. Another economy-related area that ingredients tell us is the trade between nations. With the developments in transportation methods followed developments in commerce which led to the diversifying of cuisine. This process is reflected in cookbooks, and it is even more significant in cookbooks since the 18th century because this is when cookbooks became focused on the middle class. The fact that commerce with other nations was established and the price lowered so that even the middle class could have access to ingredients from overseas means that the national economy was stable and developing at a fast pace. Also, comparisons between rural and urban cookbooks indicate developments in intra-national modes of transportation, which lessened the gap between the two areas and also contributed greatly to the development of the national economy.

V.1.2 Climate
            The ingredients also tell much about the climate. This is pretty straightforward, as it shows which crops were able to grow best in the given climate of the region. However, there is something to be aware of in this case. The most frequently used ingredients do not always indicate the climate. For example, tomatoes in Italian dishes in the modern age is almost a given. However, tomatoes are not native to Italy : they are native to the Americas, from which they were shipped to Italy after the Age of Discovery and incorporated seamlessly into Italian cuisine.

V.2 Flavor
            Each region has a distinct flavor that is made by the foods that the people in the region eat. However, this is not influenced by the ingredients as much as the spices that are used. This is also related to the climate of the region - for example, if the author of the cookbook lives in a dry, arid environment spices are less likely to be used. On the other hand, if the author lives in a humid, cool environment, the author would be more likely to write about colorful foods with lots of spices involved.

V.3 Social Structure

V.3.1 Social Classes
            One of the most interesting facts about cookbooks is that most people who did the actual cooking couldn¡¯t read. This begs the question, who actually used the cookbooks? The answer can be found in the records of women's education, especially that of the 17th century.
            "Schools however were generally for the boys. It was not customary to educate women since her place was the home. She didn't have any economic pressure to earn her own living since she was going to get married and raise a family and care for her home, often at an early age. Women then were basically illiterate; many could only sign their names with an x. If they did go to school, it was to a dame school where they taught some reading and knitting and maybe a little arithmetic, music and dancing. They were taught reading for Bible study and arithmetic for household expenses, not to encourage thinking! It was more important to learn how to be a housewife: to cook, to spin, to weave and to knit socks. Women and young girls during leisure time often embroidered samplers, they made fancy scarves and veils and did much quilting." (14)
            Though the excerpt above describes American education for girls, this type of attitude towards female education was hardly out of the norm in Europe as well. From this fact we can see that women¡¯s role within the household and the society as well was to efficiently run a household. This does not mean that the housewife did all of the housework. In fact, this shows that the middle or upper class housewives who used the cookbooks had servants and slaves to whom they issued instructions from the cookbook. Until the 18th and 19th centuries, this kind of loose social structure existed. We can also infer from the fact that cookbooks developed into more scientific manuals in order to teach more women how to cook that this was the period when it wasn't the norm for the middle class to have cooks or slaves.

V.3.2 Cookbooks and Women's Place in Society
            Cookbooks reinforced housewifely duties, yet cookbooks played a big role in the women gaining independence from their ties to the kitchen. With no other outlet for social recognition, the women of the 18th century professionalized what they were required to do. "Women who thought their lives too ordinary to be of interest to others, used their cooking skills and prized recipes as a vehicle for making themselves visible." (15)
            The change in cookbooks that came in the 19th century and the 20th century, scientific accuracy, shows that cooking was no longer considered an 'inherent' skill of women, but something that could and should be taught. While in the period before, women were considered to be born for the job of housewifery, this was no longer the case. It is also memorable to note that women sometimes wrote cookbooks to fund their other interests, such as literature or suffragist activities.

V.4 Culture
            Cookbooks tell us a lot about culture, especially of the culinary traditions. We can know what kind of foods people of different regions ate on different occasions, especially festivals. One main example is the syllabub, which is an English dish similar to milk pudding and served often at festivals.


            One of the analyses we can give is about the differences in western and eastern ideas of eating. Eating was a communal affair in the west. In western cookbooks, recipes for main dishes make up the bulk of the book. Unlike the East, there is no 'central dish' that is served with many 'main dishes'- a single 'entree' is served. We can also spot this in the different festival cultures - feasts and fairs in the West usually included a large communal meal, such as a potluck dinner or a picnic.
            "Potluck dinners are often organized by religious or community groups, since they simplify the meal planning and distribute the costs among the participants. Smaller, more informal get-togethers with distributed food preparation may also be called potlucks. The only traditional rule is that each dish be large enough to be shared among a good portion (but not necessarily all) of the anticipated guests. In some cases each participant agrees ahead of time to bring a single course, and the result is a multi-course meal. Guests may bring in any form of food, ranging from the main course to desserts. In the United States, potlucks are associated with crockpot dishes, casseroles and jello salads." (17)
            Participants would each bring a dish that would be shared among their friends, whether it was a special family recipe for ham or a prize-winning pie. On the East, however, the eating culture was a bit different. Even when a fair was held, the food was often sold by vendors because the fair was often a market, not shared, and recipes were limited. It was so limited, in fact, that there are specific terms for such foods: the jang-dduk, rice cake sold at festivals is a main example. Others include guk bap, rice in soup and the jeon, batter fried on a griddle. (Note: guk bap and jeon are not specific terms limited to Korean markets, but common foods available at a market) The occasion for communal eating would be a family ¡®hee-no-ae-rak¡¯ (event/events of happiness, anger, sadness, festivity) where a single family would provide all the food for visitors, which usually consisted of rice, kimchi (Korean traditional pickled cabbage), and some variation of , namul, a simple dish akin to salad. Food sharing was done on a personal level, from one family to another, and cases like a western community feast were nonexistent.

VI. Conclusion
            "Something that is essential to life" : in this sense, food is one of the most essential things to life that has ever existed. The way people consume food, what they consume, in what setting are questions that can be answered from any perspective of history because it has always existed. A record, though it may be partial, is kept through cookbooks: from these books we can learn about the culture by analyzing and comparing it with other records.
            This paper firstly examined the definition and history of cookbooks, to give it validity as a source and also to provide background information on its reliability. Analyzing the earliest cookbooks to get information on female cooks would not be effective, nor would it yield reliable information. Then several levels of analysis that could be made were given, including the social classes, women's status, and food culture.
            However, the analyses that can be driven from cookbooks do not merely end here, especially in today's society where anyone can have access to historical cookbooks anywhere, thanks to the Internet. These were examples of what could be learnt from cookbooks. With much more time and research, there is a plethora of other aspects of history that could be driven from cookbooks. The most important questions regarding the analysis of cookbooks were mentioned throughout the paper - who, when, where, and why. By continually asking these questions, more detailed glimpses into everyday and festival lives of people past can be acquired.
            It is important to stress that cookbooks are a partial view. Only relying on cookbooks for such glimpses will not only be inefficient, but very unreliable. The limited authorship and the personal aspirations as mentioned before are just two of the many factors that warn against the sole reliance on cookbooks as a historical text. In order to get a more complete and more authentic picture, other historical sources such as journals should be complemented.
            Cookbooks enable people to personalize history, to take a step back in time to see what people ate and did every day. It's not about the history of great people and great events that shook the world - it's about the history of an individual, an ordinary person and their life and personifying their history, experiencing it on a firsthand basis.

(1)      Wikipedia article : Cookbook
(2)      Wheaton 1998
(3)      Miller n.d.
(4)      'Cookbook', entry in Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary
(5)      Miller n.d.
(7)      Farmer 1896
(9)      Wheaton 1998
(10)      Originally from: Apicius Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome, edited and translated by Joseph Dommers Vehling (1936), Image from: Stu 2009
(11)      Miller n.d.
(12)      Glasse 1747; bottom: Farmer 1896
(13)      Wheaton 1998
(14)      Grenet 1990
(15)      Miller n.d.
(16)      Randolph 1824
(17)      Wikipedia article : Potluck

Bibliography The following websites were visited in June/July 2010

Primary Sources
1.      Fannie Merritt Farmer, The Boston Cooking School Cookbook, 1896, posted on Google Books :
2.      The Virginia Housewife, Mary Randolph, (1824) reprinted in 2007-, posted on Google Books :
3.      The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy, Hannah Glasse (1747), posted on Google Books :
4.      The Compleat Housewife, Eliza Smith (1742), posted on Google Books :
5.      Mrs. Beeton¡¯s Book of Household Management, Isabella Beeton, (1861), posted on Google Books :
6.      Eliza Acton, Modern Cookery for Private Families, (1845), posted on Google Books :
7.      Charles Ranhofer, The Epicurean Part II, (1894), posted on Google Books :
8.      Mrs. Simon Kander, Settlement Cook-book, (1901), posted on Google Books :
9.      Donald N. Clark, Culture and Customs of Korea, (2000), posted on Google Books :

Secondary Sources
10.      Wikipedia article, Cookbook
11.      Vintage Cookbooks : A History, Cheryl Miller,
12.      Finding Real Life in Cookbooks : The Adventures of a Culinary Historian, Barbara Wheaton 1998,
13.      American Life: A Comparison of Colonial Life to Today's Life, Phyllis Grenet, 1990,
14.      Wikipedia article : Potluck,
15.      'Cookbook', entry in Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary,
16.      Stu, Let me Educate You in the Art of Cooking Flamingos, posted on Yelpar, 2009,

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