Influential and Important Early American Cookbooks

Posted on 04 Sep 2014 18:37

It took near one hundred years after the first colonies were established in what was to become the United States of America, for American cooks to begin publishing cookbooks. Before this, most cookbooks came from England or somewhere else abroad, either being carried over by immigrants or sent from Europe. Even then, the first cookbook published in America was not American, but British. The Compleat Housewife, by Eliza Smith, which had first been published in London in 1727, was published in 1742 by a printer in Williamsburg, Virginia, named William Parks. After that, several other English cookbooks were published in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, such as The Frugal Housewife by Susannah Carter, in 1772, and The Art of Cookery by Richard Briggs, in 1792.

Although Parks, in publishing The Compleat Housewife, claimed to have tried to adapt some of the recipes to American tastes it was still a half century before a cookbook was published that claimed to be for American cooks. The first known cookbook (there may have been others, lost) to be written by an American, was by Amelia Simmons and was published in 1796. It was called American Cookery.

Actually, the full title, as was common in those days was American Cookery: or The Art of Dressing Viands, Fish, Poultry, and Vegetables And The Best Modes of Making Puff-Pastes, Pies, Tarts, Puddings, Custards and Preserves And All Kinds of CAKES, From the Imperial PLUMB to plain Cake. Adapted To This Country, And ALL GRADES OF LIFE.

This cookbook became very popular and was printed for many years after its initial publication. It was also widely pirated. Only 4 copies of the book are known to exist. Although the recipes were, in truth, adapted from recipes in English cookbooks, it called for American ingredients and took into account typical American practices. As such, much of what appeared in it were the first of their kind to be written in a widely read book. The Historic American Cookbook project of Michigan State University said that "The importance of this work cannot be overestimated. Its initial Publication (Hartford, 1796) was, in its own way, a second Declaration of American Independence."

The next truly American cookbook to be considered important was The Virginia Housewife by Mary Randolph, published in 1824. This was the first regional American cookbook, and after that, the idea of regional cookbooks became a theme, and many similar books followed, such as The Kentucky Housewife (Lettice Bryan, 1839); The Southern Gardener and Receipt Book (Thornton, 1840); and Every Body's Cook and Receipt Book…Designed For Buckeyes, Hoosiers, Wolverines, Corncrackers, suckers, etc.1 (Philomelia Hardin, 1842). Others were:

  • The New England Economical Housekeeper (Esther Howland, 1844)
  • The Carolina Housewife (Sarah Rutledge, 1847)
  • Table Receipts Adapted to Western Housewifery (Anna Maria Collins, 1851)

The American Frugal Housewife

Several years after the publication of The Virginia Housewife, in 1829, a woman named Lydia Maria Child published a book of New England cookery and an advice book for women. This book became not only a best seller but one of the most influential cookbooks of the time. The title was later changed to The American Frugal Housewife, for an 1833 edition, to prevent it being confused with the earlier book by the same title by Susannah Carter, from 1772.

Childs was a feminist and an abolitionist. She also had ambitions of being more than a cookbook author and was a writer of novels, history, and her own memoir. She certainly made waves with this work, but in order to actually make money, she decided to write the kind of book that actually sold well in those days. Her decision paid off, not only in monetary terms but in terms of her influence and stature. She made no bones about the fact that she was "writing for the poor, and not the rich." The book offered frugal recipes and cooking tips, as well as other money saving tips for the household. Much of the advice she gave to women, set a surprisingly modern tone! You can read more about Childs at

As much as The American Frugal Housewife was a success, her subsequent book, An Appeal in Favor of That Race of Americans Called Africans (1833) brought outrage and scandal. As a result of her outspoken condemnation of slavery and her rebuke of the male leaders of the day, the public turned their back on her, and she was forced into poverty and isolation. She re-emerged as an important figure in the abolitionist cause, but she was never again accepted as a culinary expert.

Miss Leslie's Directions for Cooking

A decade after The Virginia Housewife was published, in 1837, came one of the most popular cookbooks of the 19th century, Miss Leslie's Directions for Cooking, by Eliza Leslie, which was also published under the variant title Miss Leslie's Complete Cookery. By 1860, sixty editions of this book had been published! Miss Leslie could almost be described as an early foodie since the book is filled with opinions not only on cookery, but also on such esoteric subjects such as what part of the river is best for catching quality catfish, and where the best pork is raised. Leslie had written Domestic French Cookery in 1832, which was a translation of an earlier work by Sulpice Barué. She was the author of many other cooking books, including Seventy-Five Receipts and The Indian Meal Book. In fact, the classic Bibliography of American Cookery Books: 1742-1860, lists 72 entries for Eliza Leslie, in various editions, more than for any other author.

Miss Leslie's Directions for Cooking is considered by many culinary historians to be one of the greatest American Cookbooks ever written. A lot of the praise is due to Leslie's elegant, clear, and concise writing.

The Boston Cooking School Cook Book

One of the most popular cookbooks ever published in the United States was first written in 1884 by Mary Johnson Lincoln, the principal of the Boston Cooking School and then later revised by her student and successor, Fannie Merrit Farmer. The school began in 1878 and gave courses to women on "domestic science." Many of the graduates became successful authors. However, Farmer, after graduating in 1888, joined the faculty and eventually took over for Lincoln as head principal. Her book was reprinted for decades and sold millions of copies. It also became a standard by which future cookbooks were judged. Farmer is credited with being the first to standardize recipes with uniform measurements so that home cooks attained more reliable results. She also included information on how to fix or deal with mistakes. A casual look through some of the earlier cookbooks will show you that recipes often lacked any attempt at giving precise amounts of ingredients and the instructions were often vague and lacking in detail. It also included some Food Science information and basic cooking instruction.

The Boston Cooking School Cook Book was so important and successful that, after Farmer's death, the book was taken over by her niece who continued to update it for new editions. Even as late as 1979 a 12th edition was published by Marion Cunnigham, a student of James Beard. This late edition managed to sell 400,000 copies in the first year. It was later updated to a 13th edition (Fannie Farmer Cookbook, 13th Edition), which is still very much the same, except it includes 300 new recipes but has dropped some of the older and archaic ones. This may be too bad because some of the older techniques could be quite interesting and fun to read about. Imagine boiling coffee with beaten eggs and eggshells to separate the grounds, similar to using a raft for making consomme.

The African American Contribution to American Cookbooks

Although the cookbooks listed above, among others, are some widely recognized and quintessentially American early cookbooks, oft-ignored is the contribution to American cooking by former household slaves, and their offspring. This cooking, although it may often be thought of as Soul Food or Southern Food, spread forth well beyond its pre-war roots and had a profound influence on what was to become distinctly "American" food. After the abolition of slavery in 1865, black Southerners, both men and women, moved toward the North and West and sought jobs in private homes, restaurants, railroad dining cars, and other food businesses. As well, other black Southerners moved into large city areas and became a part of the consumption patterns of those cities. This changed demand, which in turn changed the type of foods grocers offered, as some began to market toward the desires of black Southerners.

The first American book to include cooking advice published by an African American was The House Servant's Directory, written by Robert Robert in 1827.2 However, although reprints of the book have labelled it a cookbook, it was mostly concerned with various instructions for managing and maintaining a household, including all sorts of cleaning tips and advice on problems that would seem archaic and quaint to us today, but were quite practical, if sometimes fanciful, for the time. There was even a method on how to "recover a person from intoxication," i.e. a sober-up formula. These tips included the familiar "cup of strong coffee" but also listed a glass of vinegar or warm wine as being equally good cures.

The second book that we know of, which actually was a cookbook, was A Domestic Cookbook: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen, written in 1866 by Malinda Russel.

Formerly thought to be the first, until Russel's book was discovered to have been published earlier, was a book written by a former slave from Alabama named Abby Fisher and called "What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking (Soups, Pickles, Preserves, Etc." (1881) Abby Fisher had come from Mobile Alabama and settled in San Francisco in the late 1870's. The front matter of the book informs that Mrs. Fisher was "Awarded two medals ad the San Francisco Mechanics' Institute Fair, 1880, for best pickles and sauces and best assortment of jellies and preserves." Fisher could not herself read or write, and so apparently had to dictate the book. It has quite a breadth of cookery, including breads (e.g Maryland Beat Biscuits, which I mentioned here), broiled meats, croquettes, cakes, pies, puddings, sherberts, soups (including Gumbo and chowder), pickles, and sauces. There are a number dishes labeled Creole, besides the gumbo. There is, of course, a recipe for fried chicken, as well as fricasseed chicken. And, as expected, peach cobbler.

Her book and the earlier book by Russel are the oldest cookbooks written by African Americans, but some have quibbled over this claim, citing the House Servant's Directory, by Roberts. However, again, Robert's book was not only a cookbook, and the recipes were a fairly minor part of it. Should we call a general household instruction book that includes recipes a cookbook? Perhaps not. The other two books were unmistakeably cookbooks, and both contained many recipes.

The next book, entitled Good Things to Eat as Suggested by Rufus3, was written in 1911 by Rufus Estes. Estes was a former slave from Murray County, Tennessee who, having moved to an become employed in Chicago, in 1883, had become an attendant for Pullman private cars, a job that would have included cooking for some very influential and demanding passengers. In 1897 he was put in charge of the private car of Arthur Stillwell, president of the Kansas City, Pittsburgh & Gould Railroad. He remained in that position until 1907, even after the car was given new management. He then became the head chef for the subsidiary companies of the United States Steel Corporation in Chicago. His book contained 591 recipes.

There were also some white authors who helped spread African American styles of cooking (not all of this cooking was "soul food" as we know it). In 1904, Minnie C. Fox wrote The Blue Grass Cookbook. Minnie Fox and her brother, who wrote the introduction, may well have been the first white Americans to ever acknowledge the importance, and the genius, of black cooking in the South.

What Is This About Receipts?

The word receipt was an old word for recipe, now quite archaic. It originally referred to a medicine, a recipe for preparing medicine, or to receiving the ingredients needed to make a medicine, it became extended to mean a set of instructions for making anything, including food.

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