American Cookbooks: History 101 (II)

Continued from April 28, 2009:

virginia-housewifeBy the 1820s other cookbooks followed, The Virginia Housewife among them, written by Mary Randolph, a member of one of Virginia’s first families. These cookbooks were different from what we know today. They failed to mention of the size of the dishes used in baking, the number of portions the recipe made, the temperature at which to cook the dish, or even details about the addition of flour.  All (or nearly all) cooks at that time recognized that one added as much flour as needed until the “feel” was correct.

In households like the Randolphs’, the actual work was done by servants, most of whom could not read, hence the need for the lady of the house to have a book like The Virginia Housewife to use in training and recording successes.

Sarah Josepha Buell Hale wrote The Good Housekeeper; or, The Way to Live Well and to Be Well While We Live (1839). Mrs. Hale authored the nursery rhyme, “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and edited The Godey’s Ladies Magazine.

In 1846, Catherine Esther Beecher, related to Harriet Beecher Stowe, published Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book; she bad-mouthed English cookbooks, making disparaging remarks about English weather! (And reflected the still sore relations in many cases between the former colonists and their colonies!)

Eliza Leslie

Eliza Leslie

Eliza Leslie’s New Receipts for Cooking, the first cookbook with contributions from African-Americans appeared in 1854.  In 1881,  a former slave, Abby Fisher published  What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, Pickles, Preserves, Etc. (1881, new edition edited by Karen Hess).

And many of the “receipts” had to do with basic household items that we buy today, like soap, medicine, starch, and so on. Food historian Karen Hess said that Randolph’s book was the most influential American cookbook of the 19th century. It certainly documents the kitchen activity of the early days of the American experiment.

Another interesting tidbit of information related to The Virginia Housewife is that Thomas Jefferson introduced macaroni and vanilla beans into Virginia. Just this past week, several of us were presented with a question about preserved coconut, served in glasses at the table of a Wilmington, NC family during the Civil War years. First of all, how did they get coconut? And how did they prepare it? Did it have anything to do with the blockaders who could get to the Caribbean and back at that time?

Sanitary Commission Officers and Nurses, Fredericksburg 1864

Sanitary Commission Officers and Nurses, Fredricksburg 1864

A discussion of cookbooks and women’s history would not be complete without a tribute to the women who produced charity cookbooks. Starting during the Civil War with benevolent societies — the U.S. Sanitary Commission, etc., this trend toward creating a cookbook to raise money is still with us today and these book give us all sorts of insights into what people considered their best recipes, what ingredients could be had (canned and prepared foods versus homemade versions), and so on. The tragedy of all the “canned” cookbook publishers is that much of the individualism of these earlier versions tends to be left out, due to the database aspect of the publishers’ products. But this too is an indicator of what is happening in America — no one has time to put the books together as was done in the past. Much less cook.

What, for example, becomes apparent about the English or colonial American housewife by looking at period cookbooks?

  1. She healed both her family and the animals with them.
  2. She butchered the animals and preserved the meat.
  3. She managed all the dairying, including making cheese and butter.
  4. She brewed ale
  5. She baked bread.
  6. She tended a vegetable and fruit garden.

And she cooked all the food she grew and preserved.

Today commercial establishments handle most of these tasks.

Step-side stove

Step-side stove

It was not until the 1850s that cookbooks were designed for cook stoves, and even then, no temperatures were given since the stoves of that time had no thermometers. With the advent of gas ranges, cookbook recipes took on a more definite form and when the first all-electric kitchen was unveiled at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, the cookbook became even more precise.

Changes in cooking followed rapidly. In the early 1920s, more cooks were allowed more accuracy with the precise measuring of cups and spoons advocated by Fannie Farmer, a name most of us think of as being more fictional than factual. The ongoing changes in the kitchen included the invention of the electric refrigerator in 1916, and from there the freezer. These, of course, revolutionized women’s lives. And so did the TV dinner, the microwave, and the food processor.

The study of culinary history, then, affords insights into daily life, as well as culinary trends, economic history, religious rituals, technological innovations, advertising campaigns, health and medical beliefs, and childrearing practices.

French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote, “Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are.” What are we now? What will we be?

Brief Bibliography on American women and their cookbooks:

Bower, Anne, L. ed. Recipes for Reading: Community Cookbooks, Stories, Histories. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.

Haber, Barbara. From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals. New York: The Free Press, 2002.

Inness, Sherrie A. Dinner Roles: American Women and Culinary Culture. Iowa City, Iowa: University of Iowa Press, 2001.

Mcfeely, Mary Drake. Can She Bake a Cherry Pie? American Women and the Kitchen in the Twentieth Century. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000.

Schenone, Laura. A Thousand Years Over a  Hot Stove: A History of American Women Told through Food, Recipes, and Remembrances. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004.

Shapiro, Laura. Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1986.

Theophano, Janet. Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives Through the Cookbooks They Wrote. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

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4 thoughts on “American Cookbooks: History 101 (II)

  1. What wonderful articles Cindy. I truly enjoyed them both. Oh, if I could only convey my thoughts as well as you do.

    Thank you so much for this wealth of information and tidbits of culinary history.

    While I’m here, I’d like to give you a “heads up” on a Cook Book Give-Away I will be posting on May 4th. It is a cookbook I think you will find most interesting.

    I’ve been asked to review a recently published cookbook and the publisher was kind enough to “donate” a book for me to give for free! I can’t say much more about it until May 4th:)

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