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Vintage cookbooks reveal secrets of America’s past

At Thanksgiving and all year, historians and cooks are finding new inspiration in records of yesterday’s kitchens.

From the cover of “Science in the Kitchen,” published in 1893.

Michigan State University

From the cover of “Science in the Kitchen,” published in 1893.

In 1796, a self-described orphan named Amelia Simmons published a slim cookbook “calculated for the improvement of the rising generation of Females in America.” Now considered the first American cookbook, “American Cookery” took British cooking methods and applied them to the ingredients of the New World, including cornmeal and squash.

But the book is striking for another reason, too: Simmons’s pumpkin pudding baked in a crust is the ancestor of the classic Thanksgiving pie. And her recipe for roast turkey—a North American bird—suggested stuffing the bird with bread and herbs, and then serving it with cranberry sauce. It was the first time the combination, now so central to this holiday, had been suggested in print.

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This week, millions of Americans will gather around tables groaning with similar bounty. At the same time, “American Cookery” itself is staging a comeback. This fall, the Worcester-based American Antiquarian Society has teamed up with Andrews McMeel Publishing to reissue facsimile editions of 100 historic American cookbooks in print and e-book editions. The line kicked off with Simmons’ no-nonsense manual, and moves on to titles like “What to Do With the Cold Mutton” and “Fifteen Cent Dinners For Families of Six.”

The return of these volumes represents more than just new life for your mutton leftovers. It’s the latest evidence of a rediscovery of American cookbooks among both historians and chefs. Scholars in fields like culinary history and food studies are working alongside a thriving community of food professionals and amateurs, all of whom find cookbooks an invaluable window into daily life in yesterday’s kitchens. “As cultural documents they’re extraordinary,” historian and law professor Sandra Sherman, who has written frequently about cookbooks, explained. “We learn about the 18th century by reading Jane Austen, and we learn about the 18th century by reading cookbooks.” As researchers pay more attention to these grease-spattered guidebooks, they’re unveiling a surprisingly lively, emotional, and even political world.

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It wasn’t so long agothat many serious scholars turned their noses up at cookbooks. When the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, which focuses on women’s history, received a trove of 1,500 volumes in 1960, some feminists on staff accepted the gift only begrudgingly, protesting that they wanted nothing to do with such stereotypically feminine ephemera. “It wasn’t seen as a historic resource,” the curator of books and printed materials at the Schlesinger Library, Marylène Altieri, explained. “It was, ‘What do we want to do with that? We want to get out of the kitchen.’”

At the time, the way cookbooks offer historians a rare glimpse into both aspiration and daily practice was only just becoming clear. Consider how Martha Stewart, say, offers both practical advice and fantasies of a more glamorous life. Similarly, old cookbooks hint at how American families actually lived—the tools they had available, the ingredients they favored—and what they valued, be it frugality or fanciness.

Research into culinary history began to take off in the 1980s, and the last decade or so has brought a wave of new research into cookbooks. Now, the Schlesinger Library, along with Michigan State University, the University of Michigan, New York University, and others, house serious and growing collections. Specialized projects including Feeding America, an effort to digitize a trove of historic American cookbooks, have made many old texts widely available. These resources are being used by scholars interested in what happens when cultures urbanize, why we believe certain foods are good or bad for us, agricultural history, attitudes toward colonialism, how the poor eat compared to the rich, and beyond.

‘If all of a sudden a lot of cookbooks have this new nostalgic bent, that suggests people were seeking comfort in old-fashioned things. They were using food as a way to escape.’

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Helen Zoe Veit, a historian at Michigan State University, says that in the early 2000s, when she began working on her dissertation on American eating habits during World War I, she was a little embarrassed about it. “I thought it was kind of crazy to be working on culinary history,” she said. “It seemed to me potentially flaky, or a light topic.”

Michigan State University

The title page of “The American Woman’s Home” by Catharine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, published in 1869.

She’s no longer worried. Veit is now working on a book on children’s food and editing a forthcoming series called “American Food in History,” which incorporates selections from historic cookbooks. The first volume, to be published next year, focuses on the Civil War era—and the cookbooks of that period showed her something unexpected. It’s hard for us to imagine how technologically advanced the military tactics of the Civil War felt to mid-19th-century Americans, she says; the sudden profusion of recipes with titles like “Old Times Johnny Cake” indicates an otherwise nearly undetectable anxiety. “If all of a sudden a lot of cookbooks have this new nostalgic bent,” she said, “that suggests people were seeking comfort in old-fashioned things. They were using food as a way to escape, as a coping mechanism, or just a form of comfort.”

If cookbooks give historians insight into cultural moods, they also help trace conversations and public arguments, especially those conducted by women, who traditionally had few such outlets. Many 19th-century cookbooks interspersed recipes with household hints and civic appeals; Massachusetts reformer Lydia Maria Child’s 1829 “Frugal Housewife” advised, “There is no subject so much connected with individual happiness and national prosperity as the education of daughters.” Some entire books were explicitly works of activism. Jan Longone, a pioneering cookbook collector whose stash forms the basis of a culinary archive at the University of Michigan, curated a 2008 exhibit of 19th- and 20th-century “charity cookbooks” that women produced to raise funds for causes including suffrage, education, temperance, and a huge variety of local causes.

These books provide a map to the movements championed by women’s groups. Beyond that, they offer glimpses at the language and logic with which women made political appeals to one another. Early suffrage cookbooks, for example, took pains to reassure women that promoting suffrage didn’t mean abandoning femininity. An 1891 holiday cookbook published in Illinois included recipes and menus interspersed with gentle wishes “that you may enjoy the good things made from the foregoing recipes and that the sentiments found herein will convince you that the ballot would broaden your usefulness and be a protection and safeguard.” Over the years, the tone of the suffrage cookbooks became more aggressive. A 1909 suffrage cookbook from Washington was dedicated “to the first woman who realized that half of the human race were not getting a square deal.”

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Of course, culinary historians have also turned a critical eye to ingredients, recipes, and eating habits, including the traditional Thanksgiving meal. This includes the menu at the “first Thanksgiving” in 1621, which looked quite different from the meal we enjoy today; according to researchers, it may have included lobster, but nothing made with wheat or sugar, unavailable at that time in the Colonies. As Veit put it, “People weren’t having apple pies, that’s for sure.” Our modern conception of Thanksgiving as a national family feast day would not be born for two more centuries. In the 19th century, prominent magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale lobbied to make Thanksgiving an official “Union Festival of America”; Abraham Lincoln declared it a national holiday in 1863.

From the start, as 19th-century recipes make clear, the holiday was an exercise in paying homage to simpler, supposedly more authentic times. Thanksgiving is about “trying to recapture something that was lost,” said Mark Kurlansky, a journalist who has written books about the history of cod, salt, and a 1940s WPA project focused on American eating habits. “By design it’s a nostalgia thing. It’s the one day of the year when we eat really American food and cook it ourselves.”

In a sense, the new interest in vintage cookbooks arises from that same nostalgic spirit—tantalizingly, they promise to help rescue what we fear we’ve lost. But they also offer us more. For historians, they’re a snapshot of past domestic and political habits and perspectives. And for some cooks, they’re simply collections of tried-and-true recipes.

Scott Herritt, a Boston chef, spent $10,000 on vintage cookbooks while researching the menu for Kitchen, his new South End restaurant that reproduces old-timey recipes like lobster thermidor; he even includes each recipe’s year on the menu. “The old book, the smell of it, the thought of it used to be in someone’s kitchen, or that someone in 1747 chose to go out and buy this book and that they took that on themselves—for me, that’s part of what cooking’s about,” Herritt said. His Thanksgiving menu, an homage to the idealized 1621 feast, will include venison, duck, wild turkey, cod, and squash. Amelia Simmons would approve.

Ruth Graham is a writer in New Hampshire.
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