Before Cooking was a Spectator Sports…
There is nothing easier than finding a dependable recipe these days, however obscure the cuisine. Our trusted friend Google is there to wade through millions of web pages and bring up whatever we ask for. And if you are lucky, you will even find a video of someone preparing the same dish.
But so was not the case, just two or three short decades ago. So what about a time when you are new to a place and are expected to feed your family with whatever you could carry with you from thousands of miles away? And as that cannot last for long, you are compelled to use locally available food stuff. But you know next to nothing about the local stuff, nor is there anyone to consult.
That was the case of the women who emigrated from Europe to the America, the new continent, in the 17th and 18th centuries. Very often, they had to depend on cookery books carried over from the homeland. Even the first English cook books published in America were reprints of the British ones, with hardly any modifications. But as can be expected, these books failed to deal with the special needs of the American housewife.
It is under these circumstances that Amelia Simmons published her cook book, ‘The First American Cookbook’ in 1796, the first to be authored by an American. The book recorded for the first time changes that had occurred in cooking as well as in other spheres of life as it unfolded in America. The American housewife had to deal with ingredients that were unknown to her British counterparts and we can see that this fact was a major influence in the writing of this book.
The First American Cookbook had other claims to fame apart from being the first one on the market… it was the first cookbook to document a novel method of leavening the dough. So far, the required lightness in baked items was achieved by beating in air with eggs. And sometimes bakers had to resort to yeast even for cakes. Pearlash, the refined form of potash, was commonly used in America around this time in gingerbread and cookie dough. And Amelia Simmons includes four recipes using pearlash in her cookbook. And detailed discussions in a London magazine in 1799, about the merits of pearlash in cooking, indicates that this was still a novelty in Britain.
It is noteworthy that Amelia Simmons uses a number of words that are purely American. ‘Molasses’ instead of ‘treacle’, ‘shortning’ in place of the British ‘shortening’, ‘slapjack’ for a cake fried on a griddle, and are examples. These words were in circulation in America, but were recognized by dictionaries much later.
Also, the book uses, for the first time, words borrowed from Dutch. Indeed, I was really surprised to know that our common words like ‘cookie’ and ‘slaw’ had their origin in the Dutch language!
And, Amelia Simmons was the first one to set down a recipe for what we call a traditional Pumpkin Pie today, and I’m eternally grateful to her for that! I’m sure someone else would have stepped up with a recipe for a Pumpkin Pie, if she hadn’t, but it is nice to have that recipe in the first cookbook authored by an American!
In addition to recipes for numerous dishes, the book also contains direction on how to select and prepare ingredients. There is a whole lot of insights into the contemporary life that can be gained from this book. And some of the usages of language might strike us as archaic, but considering the time it was written, it is relevant to a surprising degree even today.
The full title of the book is, ‘American Cookery or the Art of Dressing Viands, Fish, Poultry and Vegetables, and the Best Modes of Making Pastes, Puffs, Pies, Tarts, Puddings, Custards and Preserves, and all Kinds of Cakes, from the Imperial Plumb to Plain Cake, adapted to This Country and All Grades of Life’. The book is published as a facsimile copy of the original and can be purchased online.