Amelia Simmons’ 1796 “American Cookery” was the first cookbook by an American to be published in the United States. Its 47 pages (in the first edition) contained fine recipes for roasts — stuffed goose, stuffed leg of veal, roast lamb — stews and all manner of pies. But the cakes expressed best what this first cookbook had to say about its country. It was a place that acknowledged its British heritage, to be sure, but was ultimately a new kind of place, with a new kind of cuisine, and a new kind of citizen cook.
The recipe for “Queen’s Cake” was pure social aspiration, in the British mode, with its butter whipped to a cream, pound of sugar, pound and a quarter of flour, 10 eggs, glass of wine, half-teacup of delicate-flavored rosewater, and spices. And “Plumb Cake” offered the striving housewife a huge 21-egg showstopper, full of expensive dried and candied fruit, nuts, spices, wine and cream.
Then — mere pages away — sat johnnycake, federal pan cake, buckwheat cake and Indian slapjack, made of familiar ingredients like cornmeal, flour, milk, water and a bit of fat, and prepared “before the fire” or on a hot griddle. They symbolized the plain, but well-run and bountiful, American home. A dialogue on how to balance the sumptuous with the simple in American life had begun.
“American Cookery” sold well for more than 30 years, mainly in New England, New York, and the Midwest, before falling into oblivion, then being rediscovered in the 1950s. Since then, it has attracted an enthusiastic audience, from historians to home cooks. The Library of Congress recently designated “American Cookery” one of the 88 “Books That Shaped America.”
The collection of recipes, which appeared in numerous legitimate and plagiarized editions, is as much a cultural phenomenon as a cooking book. In the early years of the republic, Americans were engaged in a lively debate over their identity; with freedom from Britain and the establishment of a republican government came a need to assert a distinctly American way of life. In the words of 20th-century scholar Mary Tolford Wilson, this slight cookbook can be read as “another declaration of American independence.”
The book accomplished this feat in two particularly important ways. First, it was part of a broader initiative, led by social and political elites in Connecticut, that advanced a particular brand of Yankee culture and commerce as a model for American life and good taste; these moderates preferred to encourage a kind of restrained gentility that would, in time, become the parlor rectitude of Victorian America. At the same time, its author spoke directly to ordinary American women coping with everyday challenges and frustrations.
Behind every splendidly arrayed table lay the precise management of all the fruits and vegetables, meats and poultry, preserves and jellies, and cakes and pies that sustained the home and family — and “American Cookery” gave cooks and housewives tips for everyday cooking as well as occasions when the aim was to express greater gentility.
Simmons explained how to keep peas green until Christmas and how to dry peaches. She introduced culinary innovations like the use of the American chemical leavener pearlash, a precursor of baking soda. And she substituted American food terms for British ones — treacle became molasses, and cookies replaced small cakes or biscuits.
“American Cookery” also carried emotional appeal, striking a chord with women living in sometimes-trying circumstances. Outside of this one book, there is little evidence of Amelia Simmons’s existence. The title page simply refers to her as “An American Orphan.”
Whatever Simmons's backstory might have been, “American Cookery” offers tantalizing hints of the struggles she faced. Although brief, the prefaces of the first two editions and an errata page are written in a distinctive (and often complaining) voice. She warns that any such young female orphan, “tho’ left to the care of virtuous guardians, will find it essentially necessary to have an opinion and determination of her own.” For a female in such circumstances, the only course is “an adherence to those rules and maxims which have stood the test of ages, and will forever establish the female character, a virtuous character.”
“American Cookery” offered U.S. readers the best in matters of food and dining as well as a tale of the tribulations facing less fortunate — including, it seems, the “American Orphan” Amelia Simmons herself.
Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald have written three books about New England food history; their latest is “United Tastes: The Making of the First American Cookbook.” This essay is part of What It Means to Be American, a project of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and Arizona State University, produced by Zócalo Public Square.