Today, just about everyone owns a cookbook. New cookbooks offer instructions on preparing foods and innovative ideas that reflect the latest trends in the culinary arts. But hang on to your old cookbooks, which provide valuable insights into past food traditions, thus offering us a way to examine the roots of our current eating and cooking habits and traditions.
Cookbooks have been one means of preserving recipes (commonly known as “receipts” prior to the 20th century) and passing along instructions on food preparation.
Cookbooks were evident in colonial America. A reprint of an English edition of The Complete Housewife by Eliza Smith appeared in 1742 in Williamsburg, Virginia. In 1796, Amelia Simmons published American Cookery, the first truly American cookbook.
Throughout the early decades of the new American nation, more cookbooks emerged as women sought to record and preserve recipes of their region. Thus, numerous books like Lydia Maria Child’s The Frugal Housewife (1830) [later known as The American Frugal Housewife], Lettice Bryan’s Kentucky Housewife (1839), Angelina Collins’ Mrs. Collins’ Table Receipts Adapted to Western Housewifery (1851), and others found their way into America’s kitchens.
At the time, specific measurements and directions were not common. Cookbooks gave imprecise directions, such as “add a pinch of salt,” “mix as for a rich pastry,” or “bake until done,” which assumed that the cook knew exactly the proper amount and method. It was not until Fannie Farmer, the Boston Cooking School, and the advent of college “Home Economics” courses for young women in the late 19th century that a uniform system of weights and measure was established.
The nation’s centennial in 1876 gave rise to a greater awareness of state and local history. In addition to the publication of numerous community and state histories, churches and ladies society groups began to compile cookbooks that captured the food traditions and favorite recipes of families and communities alike. At the same time, women’s magazines like Ladies Home Journal (1883) and Good Housekeeping (1885) carried articles on cooking, cooking utensils, entertaining, and general household advice.
Large waves of immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries also produced specialized literature in cooking. These new immigrants sought to preserve their culinary traditions for their children, adapt their cooking to their new homeland, and share their food traditions with American households.
One of the classic and best-known American cookbooks has been The Joy of Cooking. Written and self-published in 1931 and now in its eighth edition, Joy of Cooking offers an insight into the history of the American kitchen and cuisine from the Depression Era to the 21st century. With sales exceeding 18 million copies since the 1930s, this single cookbook has served as a key reference book for generations of cooks around the world.
Today’s popular media also offer numerous opportunities to explore the past and present of food. Bookstores offer a wealth of cookbooks that focus on specific foods, cooking methods, ethnic and regional cuisines, beer and wine making, food preparation and preservation methods, growing organically, among other topics. Several television networks broadcast a variety of shows with well-known chefs and personalities and which expose viewers to world foods and culture. All of this demonstrates our growing fascination with food and the role that it plays in our daily lives and culture.
Coming in this section:
- Cookbooks and their authors with an emphasis on their recipes or areas of specialty.
- Manuscript cookbooks – handwritten cookbooks
- Charity and social group cookbooks
- Appliance cookbooks
Written by David G. Vanderstel and Sheryl D. Vanderstel