Simmons was a proud woman; on the title page, she'd identified herself as "An American Orphan." It was this background, she declared, that qualified her to write American Cookery in the first place—growing up an orphan caused a woman to "have an opinion and determination of her own." Lacking "parents, or brothers, or riches, to defend their indiscretions" meant depending "solely upon character," and disdaining trifles in favor of the "good old way." Simmons didn't have family, or much money. What she had were skills acquired during long years of working in other people's homes, of turning their rich roasts and layering their syllabubs.
Simmons's writing is sure and confident, her recipes frank and straightforward. The one for roast beef is typical, specifying a brisk fire and leaving the meat rare (that being both "healthiest and the taste of this age"). She included frugal formulas for preserving fruit to last the year, and a doubly-frugal recipe for a "Foot Pie" that could be kept for weeks, allowing "hot pies through the winter" after the contents were refreshed with wine and spices. But more important than any recipe was Simmons's choice to make her book genuinely American; up to that time, American cooks had relied upon books written by Englishwomen. Now they could reference recipes using local ingredients like pumpkins and "cramberries." Simmons helped to introduce "cookie" and "slaw" to the English language (Karen Hess used both as evidence that she wrote in a region with Dutch heritage). She earned her glory.
Still, there's no denying it: The unauthorized, rage-inducing market guide is the best part of American Cookery. Whoever the transcriber was, she was responsible for making the first recipe on the first page of the first American cookbook one for bacon smoked with corncobs—a fantastic choice. She decided that the same page would distinguish between stall-fed and grass-fed meats (she preferred stall-fed beef, and grass-fed mutton). The transcriber was also a fine writer, her language a detailed, quirky, compelling delight. Because of her, we know that "veal bro't to market in panniers, or in carriages, is to be preferred to that bro't in bags, and flouncing on a sweaty horse." We know that salmon trout "are best when caught under a fall or cataract" (her description reads poignantly today, evoking a countryside filled with falls). We know that "bloated" fish were seasoned with salt and pepper before being dried in a chimney or the sun, which sounds dodgy but is nevertheless fun to think about.
The market guide also helps to instill some healthy wariness in those inclined, as I am, to glorify the fresh, local foods of America's past. The country's waters were replete with fish? Yes—but when choosing one in market, the transcriber warns, you must also beware that "deceits are used to give them a freshness of appearance, such as peppering the gills, wetting the fins and tails, and even painting the gills, or wetting with animal blood." Fresh milk is wonderful? Of course. But bad cheese can be disguised with saltpeter on the outside, or by coloring with hemlock, "cocumberries," or (surprisingly) saffron. America has never lacked for culinary cheats, and the transcriber's blend of loving observation and near-cynicism reminds us that—whatever Simmons thought—many Americans could not have told the difference between good and bad.