Culture Writes the Cookbook, Not the Victor

“For too long, cookbooks were considered merely utilitarian and deeply gendered, written mostly by women to teach mostly female readers how to keep house, feed their family, and perhaps even nourish their marriage. But as we look back, especially at books that have stood the test of time and continued to evolve alongside whatever culture they sought to represent, we can understand these iconic cookbooks and their often female authors as possessing more power than they were once given credit for.”

—Dr. Suzanne Cope, “How Iconic Cookbooks Reflect the Politics of the World Around Them”



Three years ago I spent three amazing NEH-funded weeks in Providence, Rhode Island, studying historical cookbooks, Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book, and how to read between the lines for the largely anonymous existence of early American women in the archives.

Unfortunately, the messages I received in middle and high school were loud and clear: Battles, exploration, and conquests = historical. Recipes, “women’s work,” and the diverse cultures we pay homage to in food = not historical. That internalized polarity, of course, was inaccurate, but it took me a long time to unlearn the message. What we as a culture record as noteworthy and worthwhile reflects what and who we think are important and representative of American culture. Cookbooks, of course, are no different.

American Cookery, first published in 1776 by Amelia Simmons, showcases how little we still know about America’s first published cookbook author. Thanks to the title page of Simmons’ cookbook, we know she was an “American Orphan,” but much of her life is a big fat question mark. The little we do know is thanks in large part to the late Karen Hess, an anti-establishment, self-taught food historian who advocated for the use of primary documents in the study of American culinary traditions. While Hess railed against Americans’ “ravaged palates” and beloved celebrity chefs James Beard, Julia Child, and Alice Waters, among others, Hess also insisted America’s culinary history be treated with the same respect, seriousness, and attention devoted to wars and Presidents. As noted Lowcountry cookbook author John Martin Taylor said in Hess’ obituary in 2007, “She always believed that history was written in our daily lives, not just in battles won and court cases, which was how traditional historians had always written things.”

Thanks to Hess, we know the person Simmons hired to prepare her manuscript made some big mistakes in the first edition and added information the author did not authorize, such as a 17-page guide on how to select the best produce and meat. The Rice Pudding No. 2 recipe, for instance, only needed a half pound of butter versus a pound and only eight eggs and not the unwieldy 14 eggs. Mistakes like these were hard to correct in subsequent editions because the errors in earlier copies continued to circulate.

But even the first “American” cookbook had problems with attribution and representation. Simmons cribbed almost all of Susannah Carter’s British recipes from The Frugal Housewife for creams and syllabubs, a sweet and creamy 17th-century English libation The Dude from The Big Lebowski might enjoy during the holidays. Likely some of the recipes Simmons shared, which made the cookbook uniquely American by using indigenous ingredients such as cornmeal, beans, and pumpkin, came from Native Americans. And let us not forget the critical role servants and enslaved people played in American cooking. Robert Roberts was the first African American to be published in America by a major publisher in 1881. His instructional The House Servant’s Directory, or A Monitor for Private Families: Comprising Hints on the Arrangement and Performance of Servants’ Work was not, by any means, representative of the rich history of African American cooking. Roberts’ writing instead reflects on how to manage New England households, which is no small task.

Essentially, the humble cookbook contains so much more than recipes and deserves so much more respect as both a cultural and academic artifact. Cookbooks, and the women who typically author them, have often held key insights into our past as a people—what we value and appreciate in a meal, how to survive when the pantry is sparse, what to serve in times of bounty and famine, and how to bring people together and leave them full. In a cookbook’s pages, we see histories and cultures clash, commingle, and often turn into something new. Investigating who instructs us in this necessary act of caregiving (for we all have to eat) is essential to exploring our humanity.