American Cookbooks: History 101 (I)


(The following comments stem from a talk I gave to a group interested in the Peacock-Harper Culinary History collection at Virginia Tech.)

A long time ago, while standing on the corner on a dusty street in Puebla, Mexico, I  experienced an epiphany. As I watched the housewives in rebozos (shawls) and young secretaries teetering on the cobblestones in their spike heels — like a thunderbolt the thought hit me: everything we do ultimately ties in with our need to eat.

Everything boils down to food.

Just that alone means there should be no strangers among us.

Even if we don’t actually physically eat with the people who write (and wrote) the cookbooks we use (or at least page through), by the very act of reading the pages, we connect. Seeking “Eureka” moments and new ideas for food or simply an understanding of various familiar foods, we learn many things with cookbooks.

A brief, incomplete definition: “Cookbook“:  A collection of recipes, instructions, and information about the preparation and serving of foods. At its best, a cookbook is also a chronicle and treasury of the fine art of cooking, an art whose masterpieces – created only to be consumed – would otherwise be lost. Cookbooks have been written in almost every literate society. As Joseph Conrad said so it so well in a preface to a cookbook written by his wife, Jessie: The purpose of a cookbook “can conceivably be no other than to increase the happiness of mankind.”

Three reasons exist for the explosion in academic cookbook collections:

1)    Society’s increasing interest/obsession with food, alongside the loss of cooking skills in the general public

2)    Growing market for vintage cookbooks (nostalgia for the past)

3)    Academia’s scholarly interest in food

Big trends appear in Food Network, politics of eating, organics, health. These topics reflect our collective preoccupations and our hidden hungers. And our hidden fears. By looking at these sorts of trends in our own times, we gain insight into the similar concerns and trends of earlier times.

Food studies = cultural, symbolic, and ideological meanings of our food. Finally we’re waking up to the richness there. Because people traditionally associated women with food, academia (mostly male until not too long ago) has been slow in embracing culinary history as a viable field.

But it’s a field that’s booming now. “The justification for the creation of food studies as an academic discipline rests on the assumption that food’s contribution to history and culture are vast and complex.”

It should be. It’s a basic need.

From Hannah Woolley's Queen-Like Closet

The first English cookbook written by a woman was Hannah Woolley’s The Queen-like Closet; or Rich Cabinet, published in England in 1670.

In contrast, as far as we know, men wrote earlier cookbooks, reflecting usually upper-class eating habits. And the same holds true for the first cookbooks written by women. Poor people had little access to certain foods and generally ate the same thing day after day. We gain insight into peasant eating habits through archaeology, too.

An English woman, Hannah Glasse, published a book in the 18th century that became the most widely used cookbook on either side of the Atlantic, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (London, 1784). That means that for the first 150 or so years of our history, in America, there were no printed cookbooks entirely American in nature.

Then in 1742 came Eliza Smith’s The Compleat Housewife, a reprint of an English work. English author, Susannah Carter, contributed The Frugal Housewife or Complete Woman Cook (1772).

A woman who called herself an American orphan, Amelia Simmons, published the first actual American cookbook in 1796 in Hartford, Connecticut. American Cookery enjoyed great popularity, being reprinted and revised seventeen times over the next thirty-five years. Written for the primary cooking source at the time, the fireplace/hearth, the book was an American original. Why? The first listed ingredient was cornmeal. American Cookery also included an American recipe for gingerbread (which contrasted with the European recipe, which was generally used at that time). Simmons’s book, unlike so many others, targeted the working-class woman.

To be continued on April 30, 2009…

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

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