Gathering Recipes From Social Cookbooks

Polished versions of boxes of 'receipts,' these cookbooks put the past on the table.

| March/April 2009

Bleu Cheese Chutney Spread

A tasty treat, Bleu Cheese Chutney Spread goes well with crackers.

Lori Dunn
Oldest and Most Recognized Cookbooks 

Gather a group of women together and, eventually, they’ll publish a cookbook. “Social cookbooks” are a cultural phenomenon going back generations, a more polished version of our ancestors’ hand-written journals or boxes of “receipts.”

The earliest printed British cookbooks that found success in America were John Partridge’s A Treasury of Hidden Secrets (1653) and The Accomplisht Cook by Robert May (1660). The first American cookbook was published in 1796 by Amelia Simmons, about whom very little is known, other than the supposition by researchers and food historians that she was unmarried, uneducated and possibly illiterate. Nonetheless, her American Cookery was revised and reprinted for 35 years – a testament to the author’s knowledge and skill in preparing food.

Early colonists brought family recipes with them, so most dishes did not include common foods such as pumpkin, cornmeal or molasses. Simmons’s cookbook incorporated these readily available ingredients, as well as introducing the use of pearl ash (potassium carbonate; salts of tartar) as a leavening agent. Additionally, the recipes were formulated for cooking in the fireplace, which was the primary cooking source of the times.

Because domestics were considered to be illiterate, recipe ingredients and directions were read aloud by the lady of the house, while overseeing the servants’ preparations. Thus, cookbooks were predominantly used by only the wealthy.

Eventually, cookbooks were created that catered to the middle class. By the 1850s, recipes were adjusted for use with cookstoves. During the 1860s, women turned to Godey’s Lady’s Book (national circulation 150,000) for information of all types, including cooking. The first all-electric kitchen was introduced at the World Fair in Chicago in 1893, and cookbooks evolved again. Throughout the development of cooking references, recipes expanded from simple lists of ingredients to detailed instructions including measurements, temperatures and other critical details. Fannie Farmer was the driving force behind standardized measurements because most American recipes described measurements in such ways as “a teacup of milk” or “a piece of butter the size of an egg.” 

Gathering together the best

Church groups, literary and art groups, social clubs, grange women and women’s auxiliaries have long produced collections of favorite recipes, usually for fund-raising and gift-giving, but mostly to preserve the traditions of family fare for future generations. Most of these charming cookbooks aren’t available in bookstores or on Internet sites, but a search through thrift stores, used book stores and yard sales can unearth these treasure troves of delicious dishes and delightful insight into the women who compiled them.

juanita guernsey
6/6/2011 9:31:56 AM

I completely enjoyed this article by Grit. What a pleasant way to start my day, recalling old "receipts" as my grandma Proper used to call them. You brought back some nice memories and since I'm writing my memoirs, some of these things will HAVE to go into that collection. My mom had an old cookbook and how-to clean everything from the barn to the house and keep the flies of screen doors, etc. I recall being absolutely amazed by the teacup of this and a handful of that or a pinch. I wondered how their recipes ever turned out good. But then, we never owned a set of measuring spoons or cups until I joined 4-H and had to have them for cooking demonstrations. My mom was hard pressed to obtain these articles for me and didn't understand the "need" for them. After all she cooked for a family of 6 just using a scoop for measuring flour and sugar and regular teaspoons from the dinner table to measure salt, etc. A lot she just did my "taste". I couldn't make cornbread after leaving home because I didn't have access to that beloved scoop that dad taught me to use. Ha Ha. Had to relearn using measuring cups and spoons.

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