If cookbooks give historians insight into cultural moods, they also help trace conversations and public arguments, especially those conducted by women, who traditionally had few such outlets. Many 19th-century cookbooks interspersed recipes with household hints and civic appeals; Massachusetts reformer Lydia Maria Child’s 1829 “Frugal Housewife” advised, “There is no subject so much connected with individual happiness and national prosperity as the education of daughters.” Some entire books were explicitly works of activism. Jan Longone, a pioneering cookbook collector whose stash forms the basis of a culinary archive at the University of Michigan, curated a 2008 exhibit of 19th- and 20th-century “charity cookbooks” that women produced to raise funds for causes including suffrage, education, temperance, and a huge variety of local causes.
These books provide a map to the movements championed by women’s groups. Beyond that, they offer glimpses at the language and logic with which women made political appeals to one another. Early suffrage cookbooks, for example, took pains to reassure women that promoting suffrage didn’t mean abandoning femininity. An 1891 holiday cookbook published in Illinois included recipes and menus interspersed with gentle wishes “that you may enjoy the good things made from the foregoing recipes and that the sentiments found herein will convince you that the ballot would broaden your usefulness and be a protection and safeguard.” Over the years, the tone of the suffrage cookbooks became more aggressive. A 1909 suffrage cookbook from Washington was dedicated “to the first woman who realized that half of the human race were not getting a square deal.”
Of course , culinary historians have also turned a critical eye to ingredients, recipes, and eating habits, including the traditional Thanksgiving meal. This includes the menu at the “first Thanksgiving” in 1621, which looked quite different from the meal we enjoy today; according to researchers, it may have included lobster, but nothing made with wheat or sugar, unavailable at that time in the Colonies. As Veit put it, “People weren’t having apple pies, that’s for sure.” Our modern conception of Thanksgiving as a national family feast day would not be born for two more centuries. In the 19th century, prominent magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale lobbied to make Thanksgiving an official “Union Festival of America”; Abraham Lincoln declared it a national holiday in 1863.
From the start, as 19th-century recipes make clear, the holiday was an exercise in paying homage to simpler, supposedly more authentic times. Thanksgiving is about “trying to recapture something that was lost,” said Mark Kurlansky, a journalist who has written books about the history of cod, salt, and a 1940s WPA project focused on American eating habits. “By design it’s a nostalgia thing. It’s the one day of the year when we eat really American food and cook it ourselves.”
In a sense, the new interest in vintage cookbooks arises from that same nostalgic spirit—tantalizingly, they promise to help rescue what we fear we’ve lost. But they also offer us more. For historians, they’re a snapshot of past domestic and political habits and perspectives. And for some cooks, they’re simply collections of tried-and-true recipes.
Scott Herritt, a Boston chef, spent $10,000 on vintage cookbooks while researching the menu for Kitchen, his new South End restaurant that reproduces old-timey recipes like lobster thermidor; he even includes each recipe’s year on the menu. “The old book, the smell of it, the thought of it used to be in someone’s kitchen, or that someone in 1747 chose to go out and buy this book and that they took that on themselves—for me, that’s part of what cooking’s about,” Herritt said. His Thanksgiving menu, an homage to the idealized 1621 feast, will include venison, duck, wild turkey, cod, and squash. Amelia Simmons would approve.
Ruth Graham is a writer in New Hampshire.