English Cooking in America: On Phantom Manuscript Cookbooks, Africa, and Other Sundry Thoughts

Stained pages, adorned with notes written in various inks, that’s what some culinary historian will find if ever any of my dozen so-called manuscript cookbooks ends up in a cardboard box at a yard sale. The lucky buyer will never know that the first of the lot began because my hunger for recipes loomed larger than my wallet, which lay a bit flat in my pocket. When it came to these notebooks plump with dreams, for that’s essentially what a cookbook is, I was first what Karen Hess called a “collector,” although I soon graduated to “accretive” as the years went by.

Too poor to buy cookbooks, I spent many hours in graduate school copying dozens of recipes from the massive cookbook collection on the fifth floor of the Virginia Tech library.

My manuscript cookbooks resemble many of those treasured by libraries and special collections the world over, for they record a bit of the grassroots aspect of day-to-day cooking. They read to me today as a history of my culinary fascinations and obsessions. Many of the recipes ended up as staples in my meager kitchen repertoire, one of my favorites to this a form of kheema, an Indian dish of ground meat festooned with green peas and curry.

Often, but not always, believed to be a truer portrait of the kitchen than a printed cookbook, manuscript cookbooks reflect the types of dishes a cook in earlier times might turn to in the case of company, visiting relatives, and cranky or ill children. Manuscript cookbooks carry with them an aura of being more believable as primary sources, unsullied by the tang of filthy lucre and relentless kowtowing to wealthy patrons or patronesses.

That’s what many researchers would like to think. But there’s another side to manuscript cookbooks, one that belies the myth of their usefulness to historians.

I’m going to discuss English cooking and cookbooks, manuscript and printed. And given that most English women – possibly as many as 95 percent – entered the seventeenth century as illiterates, the story of the English cookbook and American cuisine is indeed a fascinating one, one that this mere blog post cannot possibly cover in any great depth. So raising some questions is the best I can do for the moment.

Alas, when it comes to Virginia cuisine in the seventeenth-century, there’s a real dearth of these familial cookbooks, not because cooks (read: housewives) didn’t use them, but because the strains of everyday life – fire, damp, gnawing dogs, playful children – likely overcame the fragile paper and weak ink. One point I would like to make is that English cooking still forms the backbone of what is considered traditional American cuisine. And, hands down, in the case of English and American manuscript cookbooks, including those of the manuscript persuasion, recipes for sweets and preserves overtake those for regular fare.

Chef-turned-culinary-historian Stephen Schmidt remarks in his essay, “What Manuscript Cookbooks Can Tell Us that Printed Cookbooks Do Not”:  “American cookery began as a dialect of English cookery and was still pervaded by English influences through the antebellum period.” Karen Hess basically wrote the same thing.

What is clear from these statements is that while certain immigrant groups influenced American cooking, the backbone is still rooted in the English kitchen.

For example, take the African influence. Many of the soul food dishes considered to be based on African ingredients actually derive from English cooking methods: pies, cakes, pickles and preserves, breaded fried meats such as chicken or pork or beef, soups thickened with nuts – an old medieval way of using nuts, by the way. As for smoked meats, one glance at the history of English smoked hams and bacon makes it clear that smoked meat was nothing new to the English in the New World. Take a look at Cato’s recipe for smoked ham in De Agricultura:

“After buying legs of pork, cut off the feet. One-half peck ground Roman salt per ham. Spread the salt in the base of a vat or jar, then place a ham with the skin facing downwards. Cover completely with salt. After standing in salt for five days, take all hams out with the salt. Put those that were above below, and so rearrange and replace. After a total of 12 days take out the hams, clean off the salt and hang in the fresh air for two days. On the third day take down, rub all over with oil, hang in smoke for two days…take down, rub all over with a mixture of oil and vinegar and hang in the meat store. Neither moths nor worms will attack it.”

And African-based ingredients – black-eyed peas, watermelon, rice, okra, sesame seeds, peanuts (actually native to the Americas) – really do not play a very large role in American cooking overall, contrary to popular lore, just in a few dishes such as Hoppin’ John, gumbo, benne wafers, and peanut chicken, among others. Much of what is considered “soul food” today appeared only after the end of the Civil War. As for Jessica Harris’s claim that slave cooks were responsible for introducing greens – such as collard greens – into the diets of their masters*, a glance at John Evelyn’s Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets (1699) dispels the notion that the English eschewed greens.  In fact, English people ate smoked pork and greens for centuries prior to their migration to the New World. So too the concept of pottages made with various greens, some precooked and stirred into simmering soups and other liquids. Consider, too, Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book, dating to 1604, a few years before the first Jamestown colonists set sail from Blackwall, near London. Her recipe for “Chicken with Spinach Sauce,” p. 190, testifies to the cooking of meat with greens, and editor Hilary Spurling reminds us that Gervase Markham recommended “thick sippets with the juyce of sorrel and sugar” for roast chicken.

I firmly believe that it’s time to go back to the roots of American cuisine – don’t laugh, there is one – and give credit to the English. In their story lies elements of appropriation and oppression, yes, but there lies also the way in which much of cuisine transfers and transforms through time and space from one culture to another.

And in the meantime, I dream of finding a manuscript cookbook somewhere with ties to early Virginia colonists.

*”Foods were being grilled and vegetables were being added to what in Europe had been mainly a protein and carbohydrate diet. One historian goes as far as to credit the slaves with adding greens and green vegetables to the slaveholder’s diet and thereby saving countless numbers from nutritional deficiencies.” Iron Pots and Wooden Spoons (1989, p. xvii)

For more information related to my comments, see Adrian Miller‘s stellar Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine One Plate at a Time (UNC Press, 2013)

© 2015 C. Bertelsen

Queens delight
The photo links to full-text version from 1671.
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