This week America will be celebrating another Independence day and while politicians and other pundits will focus on war, providence and democracy as the markers of our national identity, I want to remind you that food has also had an important impact on our culture.
During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Americans embarked on a voyage to create their own identity. While politicians, scientists, authors and others were setting the course of American culture, home cooks, restaurant owners, tavern and boardinghouse keepers, American families and farmers were busy creating and consuming a new national Identity. Often overlooked, the food we consumed has played an abundantly important role in the formation of our national character. Thus the cookbooks they wrote, and the food they prepared and ate were all, whether consciously known or not, politically motivated and can be seen as markers of new cultural identity. Food became a celebration of nationhood, and the consumption and the choice of foods one prepared became a political act.
Prior to 1796 the most often used cookbooks in America were imprints of British favorites. Eliza Smith’s “Compleat Housewife,” and Mrs. [Hannah] Glasse’s “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy” could both be found on the kitchen shelves of literate Americans. Although these books sold well in America, even after the Revolution, they did not meet the needs of American cooks. In fact, the first few editions of these books completely ignored the new local ingredients, which were widely available to American cooks. There is, for example, no mention of corn, molasses, pumpkin, beans or any other staple of the American diet in these cookbooks. What Americans needed was a cookbook that reflected their own unique cuisine.
Amelia Simmons’ “American Cookery” answered that need. Simmons book, first published in 1796, was the first cookbook published in America written by an American author. From its first printing it became the most popular cookbook in the United States. In fact, Simmons’ book saw three editions, several plagiarized editions and at least twelve distinct imprints, which were produced through 1822. Beyond being a simple recipe book, “American Cookery” was a record of an emerging American culture.
This cookbook differs from the earlier British cookbooks in that it celebrates for the first time native ingredients, especially corn, pumpkin, and squash. Both pumpkin and other squash are highlighted in Simmons’ book. The recipes include a “crookneck or Winter Squash Pudding,” and two recipes for “Pomkin pudding.” Both of these recipes, along with using native squash, include suggestions for seasoning with molasses or maple syrup if refined sugar was not available. In Choosing molasses or even maple sugar as a substitute for refined sugar (an expensive and lucrative item in the British trade) and pumpkin and squash rather than European goods, Simmons was in effect supporting a domestic market and products, which were readily available to most cooks in the United States. Here then she shows a pride in using Native goods over those from imperial Europe. Thus the use of these goods is both practical and politically expedient. More important than her use of pumpkin and squash were her recipes for corn-based dishes.
Prior to Simmons’ book none of the cookbooks imported into the colonies or newly formed United States included corn-based recipes. Obviously all colonists and Americans would have been consuming corn and corn-based food products, but Simmons’ book was the first to collect these recipes in print. “American Cookery,” contains five recipes requiring the use of corn meal, three Indian pudding recipes, one for Johnny or Hoe cakes and one for Indian Slapjacks. Here Simmons is celebrating American dishes that the English saw as necessary evils when living in the crude colonies or America, but which they rejected at home.
Even the language used in Amelia Simmons’ text represents a unique American statement of identity. While Webster was busy arguing for a reformed national language, Amelia Simmons was adding new words to the American vocabulary. Throughout her cookbook Simmons uses a variety of new words and words that were distinctly American. Her recipes for gingerbread call for molasses, voicing a preference for the American word rather than “treacle” used by English cookbook authors like Eliza Smith and Hannah Glasse. Mary Wilson in her introduction to a 1958 reprint of Simmons’ work, points also to Simmons’ use of new American words such as “emptins” rather than emptyings, the proper word for the dregs of wine, beer or cider that were used in fermentation. Simmons’ use of this word predates its acceptance in the “Dictionary of American English,” by more than forty-three years. She also employs the words “slapjack” for a griddlecake, “Hannah Hill” for sea bass, shortening in place of butter or lard, and cookie instead of the English “little cakes” or “biscuits.” All of these words would become common in the American vernacular throughout the 19th century. In 1828, shortening, Hannah Hill and slapjack all make their first appearance in Webster’s “American Dictionary of the English Language.”
By 1805 the editors of British cookbooks were recognizing the unique identity that Americans had when it came to food. The British cookbooks slated for sale in America adapted their recipes to American ingredients, tastes and American language. The1805 edition of Glasses’ “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Simple” featured “a new edition, with modern improvements.” These improvements included recipes for pumpkin pie, molasses gingerbread, “injun and rye” a cornmeal and rye mush, and American Citron or pickled watermelon rind. These recipes are all missing from the English publication of the same title and dates. Thus in a literal fashion, American tastes had achieved independence from English cuisine.
While food has and always will play an important role in the formation of our national identity I’d also remind you that our country was born from a tradition of public dissent. Whether we were boycotting British foodstuffs, speaking against a leader we believed to be tyrannical and despotic or rioting in the streets in defiance of Parliament’s various acts and taxes, Americans have fought dearly to be able to stand up to a government that restricts our civil liberties. On the eve of this Fourth of July I’d like to quote Thomas Jefferson from the “Declaration of Independence,” “Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness), it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government.” Always remember that dissent is patriotic.