Amelia Simmons: An American Orphan

DR. JOHNSON said, or at any rate the saying is attributed to him, that there is no more interesting and instructive reading than that contained in the pages of a dictionary; and only the other day, I read with the liveliest interest wonderful little anecdotes and excellent pltilosophy culled by Mr. E. V. Lucas from the unpromising pages of a Chinese Biographical Dictionary, — a volume in which one would hardly expect to find the Short Story in perfect form, and wisdom in a nut-shell.

Now I happen to possess an old book, or rather pamphlet, whose contents have served to pass away many an idle moment, and I am minded to see whether others will agree with me in saying and maintaining that there is good reading in a Cook Book. Notan ordinary Cook Book, by any means. Its title, which occupies no less than nineteen neatly spaced lines, printed in various large and ornamental letters, is as follows, —


or, the Art of Dressing
Viands, Fish. Poultry and Vegetables,
and the best modes of making
Puff-pastes, Pies, Tarts, Puddings,
and all kinds of

From the Imperial Plumb to plain Cake,
Adapted to this Country
And all grades of life.


The Second Edition
Published according to Act of Congress

Printed by Charles R. & George Webster
at their printing office and Book Shop
in the White House
Corner of State and Pearl Streets


In the Preface the “ Authoress ” remarks: “ As this treatise is calculated for the improvement of the rising generation of Females in America, the Lady of Fashion and Fortune will not be displeased if many hints are suggested for the more general and universal knowledge of those females in this country", who, by the loss of their parents, or other unfortunate circumstances, are reduced to the necessity of going into families in the line of domestics, or taking refuge with their friends or relations, and doing those things which are really essential to the perfecting them as good wives, and useful members to society.” Now, which of you, O hard-hearted Ladies of Fashion and Fortune, would be cruel enough to object to any poor female perfecting herself in such essential arts ? And yet it is evident that poor Amelia Simmons had many difficulties to encounter. Listen to this: “ The orphan, tho’ left to the care of virtuous guardians, will find it essentially necessary to have an opinion and determination of her own.” There’s modernism for you. We seem to recognize the embryo Suffragette; but Amelia modifies this over-bold statement almost immediately. “ The world, and the fashion thereof, is so variable, that old people cannot accommodate themselves to the various changes and fashions which daily occur; they will adhere to the fashions of their day, and will not surrender their attachment to the good old way — while the young and gay conform readily to the taste of the times and fancy of the hour. By having an opinion and determination, I would not be understood to mean an obstinate perseverance in trifles, which borders on obstinacy — by no means, but only an adherence to those rules and maxims which have stood the test of ages, and will forever establish the Female character, a virtuous character — altho’ they conform to the ruling taste of the age in cookery, dress, manners, etc.” It is very cheering to know that our Orphan was only going to have an opinion on such settled maxims as those which have stood the test of ages; and that, to her mind, a virtuous female may still conform to the ordinary ways of cooking, dressing, and behaving, customary in the times.

But indeed our Amelia feels that she must be very circumspect. “It must ever remain a check upon the poor solitary Orphan, that while those females that have parents, or brothers, or riches (mark her worldly wisdom) to defend their indiscretions, that the Orphan must depend solely upon character. How immensely important, therefore, that every action, every word, every thought, be regulated by the strictest purity, and that every movement meet the approbation of the good and wise.” This excellent homily is the preface of a cook book, I pray you to remember, gentle reader.

It is gratifying to discover from the preface to the second edition that the Orphan’s exertions were not un-appreciated. “The Authoress of the American Cook Book, feels herself under peculiar obligations, publicly to acknowledge the kind patronage of so many reputable characters, in her attempts, to improve the minds of her own sex, and others in a line of business, which is not only necessary; but applies from day to day.” Note the individuality of the punctuation — it is all her own. How extremely gratifying it must be to an Authoress to feel that she possesses “ the patronage of many reputable characters! ” I wonder if there were any of the Ladies of Fortune and Fashion amongst them. Amelia successful is decidedly not so humble and pathetic as Amelia trembling on the brink of Publicity. She hopes that “ This second edition will appear, in a great measure, free from those egregious blunders, and inaccuracies, which attended the first; which were occasioned either by the ignorance, or evil intention of the Transcriber for the Press.” What a wicked world it was for a poor Orphan to find herself in where such things were possible! Will you believe it ? this naughty Transcriber, without her knowledge, filled no less than seventeen pages of the first edition with rules and directions for choosing meats, fowls, fish and vegetables; which vulgar occupation our refined Authoress “ does not consider in any way connected with that branch which she has undertaken, which is, simply to point out the most eligible method of preparing these various articles for the table when procured.” In this opinion we must own that she falls somewhat short of the dictum of the immortal Mrs. Glass, whose concise instructions were worded thus: “ First catch your hare, then cook it.” But let us not criticise this great Work too severely; in fact the Authoress, as she is fond of calling herself, finally makes an appeal calculated to melt a heart of stone, and almost worthy of the Admirable Whur himself.

“ Undoubtedly objections will be made and exceptions taken to many things in this work. In every instance where this may be the case, she has only to request, that they would remember, that it is the performance of, and effected under all those disadvantages, which usually attend, an Orphan.”

I wish I knew when my treasure was written, but it is undated. It must have been after the reign of Queen Anne (1702—14) I think, for it contains a recipe for “ Marlborough Pudding;” the s is always the long old-fashioned one; plum is spelled with a final b; flour is variously written, sometimes with ou, sometimes flower; steak becomes stake, and cranberries masquerade as cramberries, — could this have been the original form ? — and in cooking them we are told to “add spices till grateful, sweeten, and roll in Paste No. 9.” The sixty-four pages which the pamphlet contains are brown with age, but the paper is still strong and of good texture. My copy was given to me by a friend who found it in her attic, where it had doubtless lain for years, and the whole style of the work forms an amusing contrast to the Twentieth Century Cook Book, or Mrs. Rorer’s latest compendiums, with their minute lists of the chemical properties of all kinds of foods, and their clear and logical directions for cooking, as well as the absolute precision as regards quantities and heat which we now consider necessary in order to obtain a desired result.

In Amelia’s time the American family must have been large, as a rule, for the quantities are heroic. What would a modern housekeeper think of starting a pie with six chickens ? or of a mince pie that contains four pounds of boiled beef, six pounds of apples, one pound of suet, two pounds of sugar, two pounds of raisins (that makes fifteen pounds in all), and to these are added one quart of wine or rich cyder, and—a nutmeg ? It is with distinct relief that after this one reads, “ as people differ in their tastes, they may alter to their wishes.”

Here is the Orphan’s recipe for “ Plain Cake.” “ Nine pounds of flour, 3 pounds of sugar, 3 pounds of butter, 1 pint emptins, 3 pints milk, 9 eggs, 1 ounce of spice, 1 gill of rose water, 1 gill of wine.”

That is all. Imagine yourself surrounded by these articles, carefully weighed and measured, and there left, without further directions, to evolve a cake from chaos. And what, oh, what, are emptins ? I was in despair till I discovered a little foot-note on the very last page which tells us how to make them, or it.

“ Take a handful of hops, and about three quarts of water, let it boil about 15 minutes, then make a thickening as you do for starch [the italics are mine, I don’t make a thickening for starch, and I do not know what the Orphan means], which add when hot. Strain the liquor, when cold put a little emptins to work it [this sounds cabalistic]; it will keep in bottles well corked five or six weeks.”

On the whole I do not think that I shall begin by trying that Plain Cake; but here is another, simply fascinating. It is called “ Election Cake.” If some of my readers will try it and let me know the result, I shall be truly grateful. This cake will need a fairly large cake-tin, and a good oven. It begins with, —

“ Thirty quarts flour, 10 pound butter, 14 pound sugar, 12 pound raisins, 3 doz. eggs, 1 pint wine [this seems a small quantity], 1 quart brandy, 4 ounces cinnamon, 4 ounces fine colander seed, 3 ounces ground alspice, one quart yeast. When it has rise [sic] light, work in every ingredient except the plumbs, which work in when going into the oven.”

Now, here are directions, but they appear to involve an entry into the oven on the cook’s part; she is not however to do this idly, she is to “ work in the plumbs when going into the oven.” I do wish some one would try it.

Let us turn now to “ How to preserve Plumbs.” “ Take your plumbs before they have stones in them, which you may know by putting a pin through them, then codle them in many waters till they are as green as grass, peel them and codie them again; you must take two weight of them in sugar, a pint of water, then put them in [in what, or in where? and how many plums?]. Set them on the fire to boil slowly till they are clear, skiming [sic] them often, and they will be very green; put them up in glasses and keep them for use.”

This is fascinating. I can imagine no more agreeable pastime than taking my plumbs and codling them in many waters till they are as green as grass, if I but knew what it meant.

Here is another recipe equally appealing to the imagination. “ To preserve Plumbs and Cherries six months or a year, retaining all that bloom and agreeable flavor, during the whole of that period, of which they are possessed when taken from the tree.

“ Take any quantity of plumbs or cherries a little while before they are ripe, with the stems on; take them directly from the tree, when perfectly dry, and with the greatest care, so that they are not in the least bruised — put them with great care into a large stone jug, which must be dry, fill it full, and immediately make it proof against air and water, then sink it to the bottom of a living spring of water, there let it remain for a year if you like, and when opened they will exhibit every beauty and charm, both as to the appearance and taste, as they did when taken from the tree.”

The idea of sinking a large stone jug filled with cherries to the bottom of a “ living spring ” is poetic and fascinating in the extreme; but the Orphan neglects this time to give any directions for the simple operation she mentions when she says, “ immediately make it proof against air and water,” and uncertainty on that point might prove fatal to the success of the preserve.

Nothing, however, except the want of physical strength and the present prices of eggs and butter, prevents me from trying to make “ Puff Paste No. 2.”

“ Rub six pound of butter to fourteen pound of flour, eight whites of eggs, add cold water, make a stiff paste.” I am sure that sounds quite simple, only there is a great deal of preliminary rubbing necessary— one might however obtain the services of a masseuse. I fear after all that No. 1 must content me: it requires only two pounds of butter, two of flour, and a few eggs, and Amelia says slightingly of it, “ This is good for any small things.”

None of us need by to preserve damsons, for they must be put up in “ snuff bottles;” but any way it does n’t sound at all pleasant. The grapes are sour. I will spare you three whole pages of directions as to how to dress a Turtle, and finally present to you, O Gentle Reader, the gem of the collection, a recipe, so far as I know, perfectly unique.

“ How to dress a beef-stake, Sufficient for two Gentlemen, with a fire made of two newspapers.”

“ Let the beef be cut in slices, and laid in a pewter platter, pour on water just sufficient to cover them, salt and pepper well, cover with another platter inverted; then place your dish upon a stool bottom upwards [after careful consideration I am almost sure that the Orphan means the stool, not the dish, to be placed bottom upwards], the legs of such length as to raise the platter three inches from the board; cut your newspapers into small strips, light with a candle, and apply them gradually, so as to keep a live fire under the whole dish, till the whole are expended, when the stake will be done; butter may then be applied, so as to render it grateful.”

Indeed, dear Amelia, no butter is needed to render me grateful for your admirable Work. It must have been a valuable companion to those Females who were reduced to the necessity of going into families “ in the line of domestics,” and I fervently hope that the two Gentlemen for whose benefit you evolved this original method of cooking a BeefStake appreciated your genius as it deserves.