Wednesday, September 5, 2012


Long before there was “Fannie Farmer” or Julia Child, there was clear-cut culinary help for the struggling Colonial house wife provided by “an American Orphan” with the pen name of Amelia Simmons. She may have lived and cooked in southern New England, or perhaps somewhere in the Hudson River Valley; her exact biography remains wrapped in mystery more than two hundred years after the appearance of her landmark book touched pioneer life in the infant nation.
            As an aficionado of cookbooks born of a lifetime in my home kitchen (and even a smattering of teaching the art) I discovered Amelia while visiting a “living history” village known as “Old Sturbridge” in northern Massachusetts more than 30 years ago where a rare “facsimile” copy of what is known to be
“America’s first cookbook” found its way into my shopping bag.  I have loved it ever since.
            Published in Hartford, in 1796 by Hudson & Goodwin (a mere twenty years after the Declaration of Independence), Ms. Simmons book managed for the first time to bridge the gap between the old English way of cooking food, and a new American approach featuring such New World products as cornmeal, turkey, cranberries and the use of “pearlash” – the precursor of what would become “baking soda” – as an alternative to yeast in everyday bread baking.
            At a time when orphans faced a real struggle to find a place in the society of the day, Amelia felt that excelling in the culinary arts would help such fellow-travelers to better their prospects. She wrote that in addition to helping “The Lady of fashion and fortune” in their “General and universal knowledge” it would be of particular benefit to those females who “by the loss of their parents or other unfortunate circumstances, are reduced to the necessity of going into families in the line of domestics”, or in perfecting themselves “as good wives, and useful members of society”.
            From instructions on how to shop the markets for the best fish, fowl, “viands”, fruit and vegetables, to baking superior muffins, tarts, slapjacks, Sunderland pudding and pound cake, Amelia hints at such “secrets” as how to make use of a “full moon” in harvesting and keeping the garden, and heating the oven with dry wood for rendering the best soft cakes. She introduces the world to such cornmeal wonders as “Johnny cake”, “hoe cakes” and “Indian pudding”, while extolling the virtues of “syllabubs”, “frumenty” and “pompkin pie”.
            Perhaps the most entertaining nuances of culinary decorum in Amelia’s detailed overview of the perfect kitchen are found in her two-page discourse on how to “dress a turtle”: “take great care not to break the gall, but to cut it off from the liver and throw it away. . . put the guts into another vessel, open them with a small penknife end to end, wash them clean, and draw them through a woolen cloth in warm water to clear away the slime . . . “.  Her step-by-step instructions for preparing a “calf’s head” for making “forced meat-balls” are equally evocative!
            In really getting the most from a first read of “American Cookery”, it helps if the reviewer has a comfortable familiarity with the typeset used in the 1750 – 1800 period. The small letter “s” has two distinctly-different forms, depending on its exact location within a word; and the rules for proper application are exacting and seem complex for the casual language student. It can be the standard, or short “s” of modern English grammar, or it can be the long version appearing as an “f”, even in the same word such as drefs rather than “dress”.  Since I love the English language and all the lexicology that goes with its thousand-year history, I actually enjoy the opportunity to revisit a publishing antiquity.
            I believe that only four copies of the original printing of “American Cookery” survive today, and I am grateful to the creators of Living History places such as “Old Sturbridge Village” (*) for preserving not only a reconstruction of colonial times, but an archive of early American publications such as Amelia Simmons’ seminal work.

            (*) Al Cooper promises a future article on this subject.

Photo Caption:
After the War of Independence, citizens of Colonial America looked for ways to differentiate themselves from King George III’s ‘England. Although Amelia Simmons’ “American Cookery”, in numerous printings was popular for more than 30 years, it probably profited her little thanks to questionable copyright protection.
Al Cooper photo

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