A Reality Checklist about Romanticizing Kitchens Past

Farm museum GSM
Model farmstead, Great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee (Credit: C. Bertelsen)

Every year during the holiday season, many media sources provide lists of cookbooks, primarily to jump-start the gift-giving proclivities of their readers.

This year I’m getting a head start. Only thing is, my list is different. Most of the books I’m suggesting are free – they’re all vintage. And not as “vintage” seems to be defined nowadays, as anything dating to the 1950s. So here’s my list, a baker’s dozen, which I encourage you to look at, as many links go directly to an online, free, source. Note that Amelia Simmons’s book from 1796 was the first truly American cookbook. For help in understanding some of the more archaic words, you might find this glossary to be helpful.

1. M. Towson’s Penn Family Recipes (1702)

2Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery (1749 or earlier)

3. Eliza Smith’s The Compleat Housewife (1739)

4. Elizabeth Raffald’s The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769)

5. Susannah Carter’s The Frugal Colonial Housewife or Complete Woman Cook (1772)

6. Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery (1796)

7. Maria Eliza Ketelby Rundell’s A New System of Domestic Cookery (1807)

8. Priscilla Homespun’s The Universal Receipt Book (1818)

9. Nelly Custis Lewis’s Housekeeping Book (1830)

10. Sarah Josepha Hale’s The Good Housekeeper (1841)

11. Mary L. Edgeworth’s The Southern Gardener and Receipt Book (3rd ed., 1860)

12. Marian Harland’s The Complete Cookbook (1903)

13. Minnie Fox’s The Blue Grass Cook Book (1904)

Why read these old cookbooks, the ones you sometimes can barely read for the weird “s”, the brief and confusing recipes? After all, there are so many new, and sometimes wonderful, cookbooks published. Believe me, these books will grab you by your collar and jerk you upright, like an angry grandmother catching you with your muddy finger in the cookie batter.

When you romanticize the past – and many of us do that in these stressful days, for good reason, thinking that life was kinder, gentler, and slower – you might be neglecting to see the challenges of daily living that faced people then, too.

Here’s why I think people ought to consider reading some of these so-called vintage cookbooks: They aptly illustrate what it takes to carry out the back-wrenching work of cooking like your great-great grandmother did. We’ll assume for our purposes here that she lived on the frontier and did not have servants or slaves. But as the years went by, the new young bride acquired help: her daughters and daughters-in-law provided labor similar to that of servants and slaves.

This was their reality: Once the fields were harvested, the paramount task facing the family was preserving and processing the bounty. “We began shredding pumpkins for drying” and “For the first time, we were able to dry apples, for which we gave happy thanks.” (See Fries, below.)

So first let’s look at the reality of cooking in the past on the American frontier, sometime just before the Revolutionary War began in 1775. Suppose you’ve just pulled up to a clearing in a rickety wagon, the woods a promising source of fuel, a burbling stream nearby, its water so clear you can see the fish darting among the rocks. Idyllic, yes, but to survive, you need to:

1) have a source of fuel. Cutting down trees and chopping the wood, drying it, and then carrying it into the house took a lot of energy. As an example, I offer my experience in baking three small sugar pumpkins for two hours to reap the harvest of about three cups of puree. And I used even more energy boiling down that puree into something thicker and well-suited for a pie.

2) know how to build a fire and manage it well, in order to boil, bake, and fry your meals without burning scarce food.

3) plant and plan your garden and your orchard with care, taking into consideration pests like insects, but also two- and four-footed pests like squirrels, rabbits, groundhogs, and deer. Birds, too.

4) have a source of water, so someone had to either go to the creek/river/pond/lake – or the well if you had one, and then hauling heavy full buckets into the house.

5) build several outbuildings – a meat house for smoking meat, a barn for your animals, a hen house for your chickens, a spring house to keep things cool, an ice house to store ice, and a granary. You need to keep these areas cleaned, in addition to your usual daily tasks of feeding the animals, weeding the garden in summer, and preventing rotting of potatoes, apples, and other “fresh” produce in your stone cellar or “apple house.”

6) be a crack shot with rifle, so you can put venison, rabbit, and squirrel in the pot, along with pheasant.

7) pound corn in your hominy block (large wooden mortar and pestle), if there’s no water-powered grist mill within reach.

8) know what greens to pick, “from the yard.”

9) be a veterinarian and physician to heal your livestock and your family. Feeding pigs and cows to ensure their health and the future meat and milk is a very important task.

10) be well-versed in food preservation: smoking meat and making fruit preserves and brandies and ketchups. Drying fruit. Drying herbs from the garden and meadow.

I could go on, but will spare you. For now.

So here’s a period recipe, just for fun and edification. Note how much time it took from start to finish:

Amelia’s Simmons’s Orange or Lemon Tart

Take 6 large lemons, rub them well in salt, put them into salt and water and let rest 2 days, change them daily in fresh water, 14 days, then cut slices and mince as fine as you can and boil them 2 or 3 hours till tender, then take 6 pippins, pare, quarter and core them, boil in 1 pint fair water till the pippins break, then put the half of the pippins, with all the liquor to the orange or lemon, and add one pound sugar, boil all together one quarter of an hour, put into a gallipot and squeeze thereto a fresh orange, one spoon of which, with a spoon of the pulp of the pippin, laid into a thin royal paste, laid into small shallow pans or saucers, brushed with melted butter, and some superfine sugar sifted thereon, with a gentle baking, will be very good.

N.B. pastry pans, or saucers, must be buttered lightly before the paste is laid on. If glass or China be used, have only a top crust, you can garnish with cut paste, like a lemon pudding or serve on paste No. 7.

Processed foods have been with us for a long, long time. Out of necessity, something it is vitally important to keep in mind amidst all the discussion of fresh, natural, real, authentic.


Fries, Adelaide, ed. Records of the Moravians in North Carolina (Vol. I, 1968, taken from settlers’ diaries), p. 112 and 280.

Phipps, Frances. Colonial Kitchens, their Furnishings, and their Gardens (1972).

Note that due to a sudden onslaught of other writing obligations, I will be posting far less on “Gherkins & Tomatoes” for a few months. I hope you all have a wonderful autumn!

Barn Glen Alton
Barn at Glen Alton, Virginia (Credit: C. Bertelsen)

© 2014 C. Bertelsen

8 thoughts on “A Reality Checklist about Romanticizing Kitchens Past

  1. Thanks for all of the great links to wonderful stories. Interesting perspective. Most of that so-called hard living (and producing and consuming great food) continues in many regions of the world, including rural Greece. It’s a matter of necessity, rather than priorities.

  2. Out here in Mendocino County, California, we have something called the “Not-So-Simple-Living Fair” for the back-to-landers… a fascinating mix of people who have been living that lifestyle for decades, and those just getting into it. When people talk about “the simple life” I tell them to get a 9-to-5 job! Way simpler than the arduous and complex tasks of growing, protecting, picking, processing, and preparing your own food.

    … says the guy who spent nearly all day roasting, peeling, seeding, chopping, and packing chili peppers in brine, to make fermented pepper sauce. And is about to spend all day picking apples, trying to get them off the trees before the wind comes…

  3. Just thought I’d add several very non-romantic points:
    Number 4…first you gotta DIG that well…by HAND…aka people with shovels and lots of elbow grease;
    Number 7…if no mill is nearby, you not only gotta pound your corn into cornmeal, but also your wheat into flour;
    And Amelia’s lovely receipt (recipe)…where ya gettin’ those oranges and/or lemons? Yep, they were imported, so ya gotta buy them at your local mercantile…which is just a short (?) walk to the nearest town…buy ’em along with the sugar and salt…which you’ll also need in order to preserve your meat for the winter…and don’t forget to bring your coins to pay for it all…but if you don’t have any (and most people didn’t), then maybe a bushel of squash or a tub of lard or a jug or two of cider (hard only, no such thing as sweet aka non-alcoholic) or whatever else you can spare…!
    Of course, I could go on, but…I won’t!

  4. Loved this, Cindy. I’m familiar with most of the cookbooks, but there are some I will have to check out! Also, sometimes after having help from daughters and other young women, the older woman had to cope without that additional help when they left the house. This was true of Martha Ballard.

Comments are closed.