The First American Cookbook
This just made it to position no. 1 on my wish list! The First American Cookbook: A Facsimile of “American Cookery” 1796 by Amelia Simmons.
American Cookery was the first ever cookbook written for Americans by an American with American ingredients. Up to that point, it was most common that cookbooks were written by men in Europe and simply reprinted in America. Variations of recipes using local ingredients were the common cuisine. But it is interesting to note that these are the earliest written recipes for staples such as pumpkin pie and corn bread (“Johnny Cakes”). And also shows the mixing of dialects which is characteristic of modern day American English we see in the book that Amelia uses the term “cookey” (cookie) which is derrived from a dutch word, the brittish would have called it a “small cake.”
The most revolutionary part of this cookbook was it’s use of “pearlash” in its baking recipes. Baking Soda is an american invention and in colonial times it was at is simplest form, ash from burnt wood, known as pearl ash. Used to give baked goods a fluffy airy texture, much as it is today.
Here is Amelia’s recipe for Johnny Cake, a food that I can’t imagine living without!
Johnny Cake, or Hoe Cake.
Scald 1 pint of milk and put to 3 pints of indian meal, and half pint of flower–bake before the fire. Or scald with milk two thirds of the indian meal, or wet two thirds with boiling water, add salt, molasses and shortening, work up with cold water pretty stiff, and bake as above.
While little is known about the original author of this book, it is interesting what the author herself reveals about her living conditions. Amelia Simmons gives herself the title “An Orphan” on the first page. According to Feeding America a project by the University of Michigan which archives historic cookbooks and documents their importance, it is likely that Amelia became a servant early in life because she had been orphaned. She probably was uneducated and illiterate, and it is unlikely she was ever married. She published the book in 1796 with the help of a scribe, who took liberties with many of the recipes and instructions which Amelia didn’t realize until years later (at which point she released a corrected edition). The book was also openly plagiarized, released even under the same name by different authors. While it’s likely that Amelia made some money from the release of her book, and it’s incredibly widespread popularity, its impossible to tell how much she made, or if it was enough to liberate her from her position of servitude.
While ingredients such as genuine pearl ash and rose-water may be difficult to find in your grocer’s baking aisle today, wouldn’t it be interesting to prepare meals from this cookbook and get a genuine taste of what colonial life was like?