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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

"Historians as well as general readers may, and should, disregard everything previously written about American Cookery and its shadowy author. This is the breakthrough more generally, the kind of interdisciplinary and overdue analysis that too many previous culinary historians have failed to manage. It is as if Stavely and Fitzgerald have planted a banner that proclaims a new culinary and cultural historiography."

--Petits Propos Culinaires, November, 2018

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". . . scholarly readers will be grateful for Stavely and Fitzgerald's expert readings of individual recipes and [American Cookery's] culinary contents. . . . In bringing the study of foodways to bear on the complex relationship between class and taste in postrevolutionary America, Stavely and Fitzgerald make an original contribution to the literature on postrevolutionary culture and society. . . . United Tastes is a satisfying meal."

--Journal of American History, September, 2018

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"This book is a fascinating model for ways that historians might incorporate cookbooks into their work. Stavely and Fitzgerald show that for those working on regional histories, taking the time to understand a cookbook can open many doors into the past. . . . readers will find themselves eagerly positing which cookbooks they want to give the United Tastes treatment to."

--New England Quarterly,  December, 2018

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"Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald have not only written an extraordinary history of Amelia Simmons’s Hartford-published American Cookery, they’ve also written one of the best books about Connecticut history in a generation."

--Walter W. Woodward, Connecticut State Historian

"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

"United Tastes examines the climate that shaped the writing of American Cookery, folding that story into a larger narrative of a fledgling country struggling to find its identity. . . . [The] approach is both detailed and fascinating. Focus is given to both cooks and cookbooks of the day and to the colorful stories surrounding Simmons. Schools with gastronomy programs or course offerings related to the history of food will find this an invaluable addition to their libraries. . . . Highly recommended."

--Choice, October, 2018

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"United Tastes: The Making of the First American Cookbook is a storied history of not only the classic cookbook 'American Cookery' (first published in 1796), but also the culinary traditions that formed part of the post-Revolutionary American effort to create a unique national identity. A thorough study of both cultural and culinary American traditions written with scholarly precision, yet accessible to readers of all backgrounds, United Tastes is an excellent contribution to public and college library American History collections. Highly recommended."

--Midwest Book Review: Wisconsin Book Watch, December 2017

"[The authors'] research contextualizes the cookbook in ways readers will find exemplary . . . there can be no doubt that this book will inspire . . . its audiences to read – or re-read – the first American cookbook."

--SHARP News, August, 2018

Complete Review

". . . a carefully-researched and richly-documented bibliographic banquet . . ."

--Peter Drummey, Stephen T. Riley Librarian, Massachusetts Historical Society

"[The authors] show how cookbooks can establish cultural positions. . . . Stavely and Fitzgerald use [American Cookery] to understand not only American cookery, but America itself."

--Claudia Kousoulas, ChoW Line, March, 2018

Complete Review

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.