The Mysterious Corruption of America's First Cookbook


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Imagine yourself living in 1796, somewhere in the Hudson River Valley. You're a young woman, an orphan. Lacking family connections, you've become a servant, primarily a cook, with skills built on the Dutch traditions of your region. Though you've never had the means to become fully literate, you've found the willpower to do what no other American has ever done: write a cookbook. In a further act of raw determination, you've arranged for the cookbook to be printed, a process that, in an era before author proofs, requires great faith in the accuracy and honesty of both the transcriber and the printing house.

So how do you feel when the first edition appears with an unauthorized, 13-page market guide, monopolizing the first third of your short book? What's more, your recipes are peppered with mistakes—now they call for baking 12 hours rather than six, for nine pounds of flour instead of 18. What do you do?

The guide's jewel is a single, thunderous declaration: "We proceed to ROOTS and VEGETABLES— and the best cook cannot alter their first quality, they must be good, or the cook will be disappointed."

Amelia Simmons exploded. In a preface to the second edition of American Cookery (published the same year as the first), she wrote with barely-restrained fury about the market guide, which purported to give directions for "procuring the best VIANDS, FISH, &c." The guide, Simmons insisted, had been included without her consent; it dealt with a matter with which "the Authoress does not pretend to be acquainted, much less to give direction to others." She viewed advice on how to choose fruit and vegetables as "an affront upon the good sense of all classes of citizens," who already knew from long experience "how to distinguish between good and bad." Such changes could only stem from "the ignorance ... or evil intention of the transcriber for the press."

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.


Feeding America

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.

At times the transcriber was harmlessly, endearingly eccentric. We can all agree with her that apple orchards are a good thing. We can see how the "intrusions of boys" into orchards could be annoying, if not quite the national scourge ("too common in America") she implies. And her solution—allowing only boys who plant and graft trees to have access to fruit, while excluding the lazy and slothful—has its own logic. But her idea that the industrious-boy-planted orchards would represent enough savings to the young nation as to "extinguish the public debt"? The only thing to do with that is enjoy it.

The guide's jewel is a single, thunderous declaration: "We proceed to ROOTS and VEGETABLES— and the best cook cannot alter their first quality, they must be good, or the cook will be disappointed" (emphasis in original). Here the transcriber recommends large Madeira onions for economy, and small ones for flavor; she describes four varieties of cabbage, seven of peas, and nine different beans. Here, as elsewhere, the transcriber was not infallible, dismissing garlic as "better adapted to the uses of medicine than cookery." (She did admit that the French liked it.) But it's her guide that lets us see that although American food has always had its cheats, things like milk allowed to warm by the fire in an uncovered pail and then sold "warm from the cow," the best of the country's food has always been fresh and local, grown and chosen and cooked with care.

It's a bit painful to lavish praise on the transcriber, considering Simmons's anger at her changes. But, as Hess noted, Simmons herself stole an entire section on "Syllabubs and Cream" word for word from Susannah Carter's 1772 The Frugal Housewife. Such "borrowings," the editors of Feeding America point out, would in turn plague future editions of American Cookery, reaching a peak when the 1819 Domestic Cookery plagiarized everything but the title. This was the wild and wooly era of American cookbook publication.

Whatever the ethics behind it, the first American cookbook was the work of three authors—Simmons, Susannah Carter, and the anonymous transcriber. It's proud, precise, certain, and eccentric. It shows intense respect for the country's best ingredients; there's also a fair amount of theft. American food would be many things: pluralist, contradictory, stolen, blended, borrowed. At its best, it would never be tidy.