History's Just Desserts

Exploring American History through Desserts and Their Makers

Spanish recipes in the 19th c. U.S. — A Tribute to Penelope Casas


Last week I wrote a little about Mrs. Goodfellow’s cooking school – the first in the United States – and about her generally well-to-do students.  Today I was going to write about what Malinda Russell — author of the first known African American cookbook, published in 1866 — tells us about how she learned to cook.  But I read yesterday (I’m on vacation, I’m behind, forgive me) that one of my favorite cookbook authors, Penelope Casas, died recently and instead I would like to offer a tribute to her instead.

The daughter of Greek immigrants, Casas wrote seven cookbooks about Spanish food after having fallen in love with Spanish food and a Spanish man when she studied abroad in college.  Starting with her 1982 book, The Foods and Wines of Spain, she did much to make Spanish cuisine familiar to Americans.  We now have other great authorities on Spanish food, like DC’s own Jose Andres, but it’s to Casas, I usually turn when I want to make a recipe from Spain.

Long before Casas, however, Anglo-Americans had a passing acquaintance with Spanish food.  Mary Randolph was one of the most influential cookbook authors in the 1800s.  (She influenced the cooking of, among others, Malinda Russell.)  Her Virginia Housewife: Or, Methodical Cook was first published in 1824, went through nineteen editions before the Civil War, and is still in print.  Mrs. Randolph’s cookbook has been called the first truly American cookbook because it showcases American, particularly Southern, ingredients such as local fruits and vegetables, oysters and catfish, Virginia’s distinctive ham, and, of course, corn meal.

But Mrs. Randolph includes more than quintessentially American foods.  Or perhaps a better way to put it is that she shows that American food is quintessentially cosmopolitan.   She offers recipes that trace their origins to France and Italy, the East Indies and the West, Scandinavia, and, yes, Spain.  Cooks could choose to make Ropa Vieja (a dish of tomatoes and leftover meats), an Olla (or meat stew), Spanish fritters (walnut-sized yeasted fried dough served with wine and sugar or molasses), and more thanks to Mrs. Randolph.

So, Mrs. Casas, you may not have been the first to publish Spanish recipes in the United States, but you are the best.  Like Mrs. Randolph’s, your impact on our meals and our lives will endure.

3 thoughts on “Spanish recipes in the 19th c. U.S. — A Tribute to Penelope Casas

  1. Pingback: Acknowledging, and Slighting, “The Virginia Housewife” | History's Just Desserts

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