United Tastes: The Making of the First American Cookbook

The Library of Congress has designated American Cookery (1796) by Amelia Simmons one of the eighty-eight “Books That Shaped America.” Its recognition as “the first American cookbook” has attracted an enthusiastic modern audience of historians, food journalists, and general readers, yet until now American Cookery has not received the sustained scholarly attention it deserves. United Tastes fills this gap by providing a detailed examination of the social circumstances and culinary tradition that produced this American classic.

Situating American Cookery within the post-Revolutionary effort to develop a distinct national identity, Stavely and Fitzgerald demonstrate the book’s significance in cultural as well as culinary terms. Ultimately the separation between these categories dissolves as the authors show that the formation of “taste,” in matters of food as well as other material expressions, was essential to building a consensus on what it was to be American. United Tastes explores multiple histories—of cookbooks, printing, material and literary culture, and region—to illuminate the meaning and affirm the importance of America’s first cookbook.

Reviews


"United Tastes pulls together a wide variety of diverse sources and makes extensive contributions to the study of food. It is one of the best researched and documented works written about any American culinary topic."
--Andrew F. Smith, Editor-in-Chief, The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America

From the Introduction


Up and down the Connecticut and Hudson River Valleys, and as far west as the new settlements in Ohio, American Cookery made its way between 1796 and 1831. In small towns and newly settled farming regions, the presence of this inexpensive collection of moderately refined, mainly British recipes, interspersed with a few American favorites, heralded the establishment of a Connecticut-inspired social structure. It was this social structure that the book was published to promote, the one deemed by those who composed and published it to be the most fitting model for an emerging national identity. For those behind the project, the ideal for the new nation’s social identity—what it meant to be American—resided in the golden mean between rustic and ritzy.

From Chapter 7


A complex, carefully constructed, and precisely managed world of preparation lay behind every splendidly arrayed table of the eighteenth century. American Cookery’s many recipes for extending the life of fruits and vegetables—for preserving quinces, strawberries, cherries, “plumbs,” currants, and mulberries; drying peaches and apples; pickling melons, barberries, and cucumbers; and keeping green peas until Christmas—reflect these realities. The cook or housewife who had filled her snuff bottles with boiled damsons (they would keep twelve months if the bottles had been stoppered tight), had put up her raspberry preserves in glasses, or had doled out her fine, clear currant jelly in china cups covered with brandy-soaked papers, essentially had an arsenal of gentility in her cold room. She need only repair to her pantry to put on polite airs when circumstances demanded.

From Chapter 8


. . . the Massachusetts Federalists, for all their benevolent intentions, could not get beyond a fairly blatant condescension. Participation from below was to be accompanied by ritual enactment of subordination. In contrast, the Federalists of Connecticut and its hinterlands put forward a minimally educated representative of the lower orders speaking in her own voice. Although this voice was for the most part deferential, some of what it had to say might have grated harshly on the ears of those who provided it with a public platform. But provide such a voice with a public platform the Connecticut Federalists nevertheless did. Over the long haul, in a society where the cat of popular assertiveness had once and for all been let out of the bag, the Connecticut group, opting for deflecting potentially rebellious impulses into safe channels, had devised the shrewder strategy for holding onto position, privilege, and power.

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