In 1796, a self-described orphan named Amelia Simmons published a slim cookbook “calculated for the improvement of the rising generation of Females in America.” Now considered the first American cookbook, “American Cookery” took British cooking methods and applied them to the ingredients of the New World, including cornmeal and squash.
But the book is striking for another reason, too: Simmons’s pumpkin pudding baked in a crust is the ancestor of the classic Thanksgiving pie. And her recipe for roast turkey—a North American bird—suggested stuffing the bird with bread and herbs, and then serving it with cranberry sauce. It was the first time the combination, now so central to this holiday, had been suggested in print.
This week, millions of Americans will gather around tables groaning with similar bounty. At the same time, “American Cookery” itself is staging a comeback. This fall, the Worcester-based American Antiquarian Society has teamed up with Andrews McMeel Publishing to reissue facsimile editions of 100 historic American cookbooks in print and e-book editions. The line kicked off with Simmons’ no-nonsense manual, and moves on to titles like “What to Do With the Cold Mutton” and “Fifteen Cent Dinners For Families of Six.”
The return of these volumes represents more than just new life for your mutton leftovers. It’s the latest evidence of a rediscovery of American cookbooks among both historians and chefs. Scholars in fields like culinary history and food studies are working alongside a thriving community of food professionals and amateurs, all of whom find cookbooks an invaluable window into daily life in yesterday’s kitchens. “As cultural documents they’re extraordinary,” historian and law professor Sandra Sherman, who has written frequently about cookbooks, explained. “We learn about the 18th century by reading Jane Austen, and we learn about the 18th century by reading cookbooks.” As researchers pay more attention to these grease-spattered guidebooks, they’re unveiling a surprisingly lively, emotional, and even political world.
It wasn’t so long ago that many serious scholars turned their noses up at cookbooks. When the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, which focuses on women’s history, received a trove of 1,500 volumes in 1960, some feminists on staff accepted the gift only begrudgingly, protesting that they wanted nothing to do with such stereotypically feminine ephemera. “It wasn’t seen as a historic resource,” the curator of books and printed materials at the Schlesinger Library, Marylène Altieri, explained. “It was, ‘What do we want to do with that? We want to get out of the kitchen.’”
At the time, the way cookbooks offer historians a rare glimpse into both aspiration and daily practice was only just becoming clear. Consider how Martha Stewart, say, offers both practical advice and fantasies of a more glamorous life. Similarly, old cookbooks hint at how American families actually lived—the tools they had available, the ingredients they favored—and what they valued, be it frugality or fanciness.
Research into culinary history began to take off in the 1980s, and the last decade or so has brought a wave of new research into cookbooks. Now, the Schlesinger Library, along with Michigan State University, the University of Michigan, New York University, and others, house serious and growing collections. Specialized projects including Feeding America, an effort to digitize a trove of historic American cookbooks, have made many old texts widely available. These resources are being used by scholars interested in what happens when cultures urbanize, why we believe certain foods are good or bad for us, agricultural history, attitudes toward colonialism, how the poor eat compared to the rich, and beyond.
Helen Zoe Veit, a historian at Michigan State University, says that in the early 2000s, when she began working on her dissertation on American eating habits during World War I, she was a little embarrassed about it. “I thought it was kind of crazy to be working on culinary history,” she said. “It seemed to me potentially flaky, or a light topic.”
She’s no longer worried. Veit is now working on a book on children’s food and editing a forthcoming series called “American Food in History,” which incorporates selections from historic cookbooks. The first volume, to be published next year, focuses on the Civil War era—and the cookbooks of that period showed her something unexpected. It’s hard for us to imagine how technologically advanced the military tactics of the Civil War felt to mid-19th-century Americans, she says; the sudden profusion of recipes with titles like “Old Times Johnny Cake” indicates an otherwise nearly undetectable anxiety. “If all of a sudden a lot of cookbooks have this new nostalgic bent,” she said, “that suggests people were seeking comfort in old-fashioned things. They were using food as a way to escape, as a coping mechanism, or just a form of comfort.”Continued...