The Bookmongers Book Review: What Makes an American Cookbook?

I hate to cook book cookbook

This is a question I find myself asking frequently, since I own a cookbook store with thousands of new and antiquarian titles. I’m amazed to see how much more closely the recipes in cookbooks published around 1900 resemble what we eat today than books from the mid-20th century. Recipes for dandelion and nasturtium salads, sardines on toast, roast wild duck, fried chicken and country pork sausages appeared in cookbooks like The White House Cookbook (1890), The Bohemian Epicure (1907) and De Gouy’s The Salad Book (1900).

For those of us who have lived in the United States through the modern era, the foods of our childhoods defined what was quintessentially “American.” That may mean the Depression-era “white foods” that Eleanor Roosevelt encouraged women to cook. The cuisine in the Roosevelt White House was widely considered the worst in the history of the presidency. Designed for both nutrition and economy, these meals were notable for their blandness: chicken liver, cold mutton and gelatin-heavy “salads,” for example. To add insult to injury, many of the cookbooks of the era were aimed at wartime kitchens and larders, and with rationing, those were considered quite meager. Recipes for meat without joints (offal, in other words), thin soups, preserves, white breads and anything with vitamins were considered proper eating at the time.

For those who grew up mid-century, there were similarly awful TV dinners, frozen meals and canned spaghetti. This era was defined by a desire for simplicity and time-saving; a lot of cookbooks from this time had titles like Be Your Own Guest or Quick Dishes in a Hurry or even Peg Bracken’s iconic I Hate to Cook Book (“This book is for those of us who want to fold our big dishwater hands around a dry martini instead of a wet flounder, come the end of a long day.”). There’s something quintessentially American about the mid century need to prove that women could have it all: spend only a few minutes in the kitchen yet produce a delectable meal for an entire crowd.

I grew up in the 1970s, and my mother’s cooking was influenced by the popular cookbooks of that era: The Tassajara Recipe Book, Moosewood Cookbook, Anna Thomas’s The Vegetarian Epicure. I grew up eating zucchini boats, thick-as-a-brick brown bread and a lot of bulgur wheat. These cookbooks reflected a reactionary stance to the cookbooks of the frozen-food age (as excellently chronicled in Jonathan Kauffman’s recently published Hippie Food), and were an important step in moving toward the organic, local and sustainable foods that are increasingly popular today.

But to get to the root of American cookbooks, we need to go back nearly 300 years, to the first American cookbook. American Cookery by Amelia Simmons was published in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1796. Simmons stated that her recipes were “adapted to this country,” as colonists had little choice after the American Revolution but to make do with what they had in America. The recipe for johnnycake is the first known to use cornmeal, and American maize (corn) is substituted for English oats wherever they appear. A precursor of baking powder, pearlash, was innovated as a common leavening agent in dough in Colonial households. And the first known recipe for turkey, an import from Latin America, appears here.

As time went on, American cookbooks began to focus on differences in regional cooking, particularly in the South. African American slaves and later poorly paid cooks, often illiterate, taught white women of the house how to cook their favorite recipes. Those women then wrote cookbooks of “favorite southern recipes,” almost always without crediting the cooks who had provided the recipes. Considered by many to be the first authentically American cookbook, Virginia Housewife by Mary Randolph was published in 1824. These recipes originated in Southern kitchens, many for the first time: curry of catfish, chicken pudding, gumbo, okra soup, Apoquiniminc cakes. Randolph also included local iterations of international recipes from the West Indies, Spain, France and New England, which reflected the influence of many cuisines on southern cooking. The ice cream section is particularly delightful, with recipes including black walnut, quince, citron, almond and pear. The book was such a success that it was republished nearly 20 times before the Civil War.

So many of my favorite 19th- and early-20th-century cookbooks include ingredients now endangered or extinct: Tahoe trout, prairie chicken, terrapin, canvasback duck. But we continue to evolve our idea of what constitutes “American” food through cookbooks, and that’s just as it should be.

Read Celia Sack’s review of Alice Water’s Coming to My Senses.