Cover art from Andrews McMeel Publishing’s 2012 printing
Written by Amelia Simmons, American Cookery is considered to be the first truly American cookbook. It was published around 1796, 20 years after independence. At this time, America was still beginning to define herself not only in politics, but also in values, culture and food. Notably, this is around the time when George Washington gave his Farewell Address as he was leaving his office as the President. In this speech Washington urged America to stay out of foreign affairs and focus internally on defining America herself. When this cookbook was published, it stood out because unlike the British cookbooks filling the shelves, Amelia Simmons’ cookbook utilized ingredients that were common in American cooking. The recipes themselves offer many firsts, including the first to introduce alternative leavening agents to wheat, such as alkali or potash. Some other firsts include recipes for turkey, substituting corn for English oats, and pumpkin pudding baked in a crust, a precursor for the pumpkin pie that we all know and love today.
Clues towards Simmons’ history can only be found in the cover, title, and preface of American Cookery. While originally believed to have lived in New England based on her book originally being published in Hartford and her New England recipes, further publications from the Hudson River Valley point more towards her being raised there instead. In American Cookery, Simmons labeled herself as “An American Orphan,” and combined with passages from the book’s preface, is thought to have worked in domestic labor, where she would have acquired her trade. However, some scholars, such as Andrew Smith, the editor of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, believe that Amelia Simmons never existed and that name was really only a pen name since there was no evidence other than the cookbook of her life.
Another important aspect of this cookbook worth noting is the preface to the book that describes how the American orphan with proper knowledge, hard work, and a good character can succeed in life and as a proper person working in the line of domestics. In contrast, Britain followed the ideas of an aristocracy, in that who one was and what they could be depended on the family he or she was born into. It is this American way of thinking, that anyone can succeed no matter what parentage he or she has, that made her cookbook stand apart from the British cookbooks available and become the first American cookbook.
“A First American Cookbook (Imagination).” American Treasures of the Library of Congress. Lib. of Cong., 29 July 2010. Web. 30 Nov. 2015. <https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/tri054.html>.
“New Nation, New Cuisine: The First Cookbook to Tackle ‘American Food.'” The Salt. NPR, 3 July 2015. Web. 30 Nov. 2015. <http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/07/03/419522847/new-nation-new-cuisine-the-first-cookbook-to-tackle-american-food>.
Recipes from American Cookery