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Cooking by the Book: Amelia Simmons to Martha Stewart

By Kerri Provost

January 18, 2013

“Take out the brains and boil the head, feet, and lights in salted water,” if you wish to prepare calf’s head in the style of Catharine Esther Beecher, the author of Miss Beecher’s Domestic-Receipt Book, published in the mid-19th century.

What are the lights? Lungs.

These types of ingredients, presented without much euphemism, seem to have vanished from the mainstream American culture of convenience we see today, where pig has become “pork” so that we can mentally distance ourselves from the source of our food. A look at the cookbooks currently on display in the Connecticut Historical Society, however, shows that New England cooking had been more honest during the early years of the United States.

The new small exhibit is the result of a collaboration involving the Connecticut Historical Society, fourteen students from Central Connecticut State University, seven students from the Hartford Art School at the University of Hartford, and two instructors. The students in Dr. Briann Greenfield‘s Public History class were in charge of putting together the historical aspect of the exhibit, while those in Professor Natacha Poggio’s Design Problem Solving class created visual representations of several recipes from 1796-1982, including one for how “To Make the Best Bacon” and another for “Egg Nog Pie.” On hand are postcards of these prints, which include the full recipes. Get ready to add saltpeter, Cobs, and Rose Water to your shopping list.

As fun as the prints are, what steals the show is a rare cookbook — it is one of only four known remaining copies of this first edition. Published in 1796, Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery was the first American cookbook published in the United States. Oh, and it was published here in Hartford. No big deal.

During the opening reception for CHS members, Dr. Greenfield explained that Simmons’ book showed how European, mainly English, recipes were adapted using ingredients found in North America, such as cornmeal. Today, it seems few venture beyond chicken, turkey, pig, cow, and fish, but in her time, recipes called for pigeon and peacock.

In her talk Dr. Greenfield explained that “cookbooks represent an ideal, not a reality,” using the oeuvre of Martha Stewart as a prime example.

These books, she said, also reflect changes to social values over time. Beecher’s book followed the theme of “household economy” which Greenfield called “an important social value” for the “emerging middle class.” Despite an extravagant recipe that would be prepared for special guests, she pushed for temperance in eating.

Fannie Farmer, publishing The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book in 1896, showed a move toward what Dr. Greenfield called “scientific cookery.” This method emphasized proportions and level measurements. There is a 1910 scale in the exhibit, providing a visual for the type of tools used around the same era. Farmer’s approach included a chapter on cooking for the ill. Today, if we try to cure with food, we usually go for the chicken noodle or matzoh ball soup. She suggested a frappe made from clam water.

While cookbooks have given women a chance to be creative, Dr. Greenfield asserted that they could also be a source of oppression if the aim of the guide is to teach women how to cook, exclusively to please others.

To coincide with this exhibit, the Connecticut Historical Society will be using Kickstarter to fund the creation of a community cookbook. Part of the display includes community cookbooks, two of which were published in Hartford during 1933, and 1942.

In April, they will be hosting a “Community Cook-off” with prizes awarded in the following categories:

I didn’t know you could do that with Jell-O™

Things I wish my Aunt had never served

What’s in that casserole, anyway?

Recipes off the Family Tree

The Cooking by the Book: Amelia Simmons to Martha Stewart exhibit will be displayed at the Connecticut Historical Society through April 13, 2013.

Reprinted with permission of Kerri Provost, author of the blog RealHartford. To view other stories on this topic, search RealHartford at http://www.realhartford.org/.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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