The First American Cookbook: Sample Recipes from American Cookery (1796)

Image via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

On the off chance Lin-Manuel Miran­da is cast­ing around for source mate­r­i­al for his next Amer­i­can his­to­ry-based block­buster musi­cal, may we sug­gest Amer­i­can Cook­ery by “poor soli­tary orphan” Amelia Sim­mons?

First pub­lished in 1796, at 47 pages (near­ly three of them are ded­i­cat­ed to dress­ing a tur­tle), it’s a far quick­er read than the fate­ful Ron Cher­now Hamil­ton biog­ra­phy Miran­da impul­sive­ly select­ed for a vaca­tion beach read.

Slen­der as it is, there’s no short­age of meaty mate­r­i­al:

Calves Head dressed Tur­tle Fash­ion

Soup of Lamb’s Head and Pluck

Fowl Smoth­ered in Oys­ters

Tongue Pie

Foot Pie

Mod­ern chefs may find some of the first Amer­i­can cook­book’s meth­ods and mea­sure­ments take some get­ting used to.

We like to cook, but we’re not sure we pos­sess the where­with­al to tack­le a Crook­neck or Win­ter Squash Pud­ding.

We’ve nev­er been called upon to “per­fume” our “whipt cream” with “musk or amber gum tied in a rag.”

And we wouldn’t know a whortle­ber­ry if it bit us in the whit­pot.

The book’s full title is an indi­ca­tion of its mys­te­ri­ous author’s ambi­tions for the new country’s culi­nary future:

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 plum to plain cake: Adapt­ed to this coun­try, and all grades of life.

As Kei­th Stave­ly and Kath­leen Fitzger­ald write in an essay for What It Means to Be an Amer­i­can, a “nation­al con­ver­sa­tion host­ed by the Smith­son­ian and Ari­zona State Uni­ver­si­ty,” Amer­i­can Cook­ery man­aged to strad­dle the refined tastes of Fed­er­al­ist elites and the Jef­fer­so­ni­ans who believed “rus­tic sim­plic­i­ty would inoc­u­late their fledg­ling coun­try against the cor­rupt­ing influ­ence of the lux­u­ry to which Britain had suc­cumbed”:

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.

(Hamil­ton fans will please note that the cake for the 1780 Schuyler-Hamil­ton wed­ding leaned more toward the for­mer than any­thing in the john­ny­cake / slap­jack vein…)

Amer­i­can Cook­ery is one of nine 18th-cen­tu­ry titles to make the Library of Con­gress’ list of 100 Books That Shaped Amer­i­ca:

This cor­ner­stone in Amer­i­can cook­ery is the first cook­book of Amer­i­can author­ship to be print­ed in the Unit­ed States. Numer­ous recipes adapt­ing tra­di­tion­al dish­es by sub­sti­tut­ing native Amer­i­can ingre­di­ents, such as corn, squash and pump­kin, are print­ed here for the first time. Sim­mons’ “Pomp­kin Pud­ding,” baked in a crust, is the basis for the clas­sic Amer­i­can pump­kin pie. Recipes for cake-like gin­ger­bread are the first known to rec­om­mend the use of pearl ash, the fore­run­ner of bak­ing pow­der.

Stu­dents of Women’s His­to­ry will find much to chew on in the sec­ond edi­tion of Amer­i­can Cook­ery as well, though they may find a few spoon­fuls of pearl ash dis­solved in water nec­es­sary to set­tle upset stom­achs after read­ing Sim­mons’ intro­duc­tion.

Stave­ly and Fitzger­ald observe how “she thanks the fash­ion­able ladies,” or “respectable char­ac­ters,” as she calls them, who have patron­ized her work, before return­ing to her main theme: the “egre­gious blun­ders” of the first edi­tion, “which were occa­sioned either by the igno­rance, or evil inten­tion of the tran­scriber for the press.”

Ulti­mate­ly, all of her prob­lems stem from her unfor­tu­nate con­di­tion; she is with­out “an edu­ca­tion suf­fi­cient to pre­pare the work for the press.” In an attempt to side­step any crit­i­cism that the sec­ond edi­tion might come in for, she writes: “remem­ber, that it is the per­for­mance of, and effect­ed under all those dis­ad­van­tages, which usu­al­ly attend, an Orphan.”

Read the sec­ond edi­tion of Amer­i­can Cook­ery here. (If the archa­ic font trou­bles your eyes, a plain­er ver­sion is here.) A fac­sim­i­le edi­tion of Amer­i­can Cook­ery can be pur­chased online.

Lis­ten to a Lib­riVox audio record­ing of Amer­i­can Cook­ery here.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

An Archive of 3,000 Vin­tage Cook­books Lets You Trav­el Back Through Culi­nary Time

His­toric Mex­i­can Recipes Are Now Avail­able as Free Dig­i­tal Cook­books: Get Start­ed With Dessert

Recipes from the Kitchen of Geor­gia O’Keeffe

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. She most recent­ly appeared as a French Cana­di­an bear who trav­els to New York City in search of food and mean­ing in Greg Kotis’ short film, L’Ourse.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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Comments (4)
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  • Brian says:

    That recipe says “Win­ter Squash,” not “Win­ter Squab.”
    You’re con­fused by the old-timey type­face.

  • jane says:

    thank you. where are the fact check­ers?

  • Leisur says:

    The recipe is quite clear­ly print­ed as “Win­ter Squash,” not “Win­ter Squab,” and the title of the book is “Amer­i­can Cooke” (i.e., “Amer­i­can Cook,” in mod­ern spelling), NOT “Amer­i­can Cook­ery.”

  • Robert F Brown says:

    the “ry” were obscured by a blem­ish in the orig­i­nal’s cov­er. If you look close­ly, you can see the dam­age to the paper.

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