History's Just Desserts

Exploring American History through Desserts and Their Makers


Surveying American History Through Cookbooks

Being a blogger has some perks.  I was recently offered cookbooks from the collection of American Antiquarian Cookbooks published by Andrews McMeel Publishing.  Reproduced in high-quality facsimile and in e-book format from originals held by the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts, the cookbooks are beautiful.  The collection spans American history across time, space, race, religion, cultural movements, and more.

The first American cookbook, American Cookery by Amelia Simmons, published in 1796 – a time when citizens of the United States were defining their new nation – is here, of course.  So is the Confederate Receipt Book, produced seven decades after Amelia Simmons’s work, at a time when the limits of the founding generation’s compromises were all too painfully obvious.  The 1881 Canoe and Camp Cookery brings us to the late 1800s when leaders like Theodore Roosevelt were insisting on a vision of the American nation that rested on vigorous white men.

Roosevelt and many other, though not all, Americans favored territorial expansion, and this collection tells the story of that development.  The first regional cookbook, The Virginia Housewife by Mary Randolph (1824) reminds us that American history, from European settlement to cultural phenomenon like regional cookbooks, does not always begin in New England (sorry, family).  Published a few decades later, Mrs. Owen’s Illinois Cook Book highlights that Americans were moving across the continent and that the growing national economy’s reach had limits that shaped home cooking.  The story of territorial expansion reaches the Pacific with the 1875 California Recipe Book.

Race, ethnicity, and religion, so important to the American story, have their place in the collection too.  There’s Robert Roberts’s The House Servant’s Directory – the first book by an African American with recipes in it – and La Cuisine Creole by Lafcadio Hearn, who embraces the “cosmopolitan” nature of New Orleans.  The city and its food, he explains, “[blend] the characteristics of the American, French, Spanish, Italian, West Indian and Mexican.”  The United States’s religious history shows up here with Esther Levy’s Jewish Cookery Book (1871), and Mary Mann’s Christianity in the Kitchen (1858).  Levy’s work is what the name says: a book of recipes for cooking Jewish – both Sephardic and Ashkenazic – foods.  Mann’s book is something different.

Christianity in the Kitchen is not a book of Christian foods, but a book about how to avoid “unchristian” foods.  Mann sought to discourage “excessive drinking of injurious beverages,” “excessive eating” in general, and, moreover, the eating – whether excessive or not – of “unhealthful foods.”  “Compounds,” she explained, “like wedding cakes, suet plum-puddings, and rich turtle soups are masses of indigestible material, which should never find their way to any Christian table.”  (I feel I’m on safe ground saying that my non-Christian friends generally do not want suet plum-pudding or turtle soup, rich or light, on their tables either.)  Mary Mann – wife of Horace, the educational reformer – wanted to promote the good health that she believed was “one of the indispensable conditions of morality and beneficence.”  Her cookbook, that is, belonged to the Manns’ and many other Americans’ fervent efforts to better people and better the world.  Along with everything else, eating came in for nineteenth-century reformers’ attention, and reform cookbooks are a real strength of the collection.

So, would I like any of these cookbooks to review?  Would I indeed!  I did not choose one of the various reformer cookbooks, though as someone whose first scholarly work is on philanthropy and reform maybe I should have.  I chose more as a cook.  I opted for two greats, Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife, and Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats.  You know my first love in the kitchen is baking so I’ll next be exploring what we can learn about our history from Eliza Leslie. And, yeah, what we can bake from her Seventy-Five Receipts.