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Of Pearl Ash, Emptins, And Tree Sweetnin’
America’s First Native Cookbook
August/september 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 5
Cranberry sauce. Johnnycake. Pumpkin pie. Indian pudding. Though all these uniquely American concoctions had been bubbling and browning in American kitchens for 150 years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, not a single recipe for any of them had ever appeared in print. In fact, there was no truly American recipe in any cookbook until 1796, the year of Washington’s retirement, when Amelia Simmons of Connecticut published American Cookery , the first book of native American recipes written by an American. It was printed at the author’s own expense in Hartford, where she is thought to have lived (virtually nothing is known about her life), and was sold at Isaac Beers’s bookstore, according to an ad in The Connecticut Journal of June 8,1796. In addition to introducing recipes for pumpkin pudding (now called pie), for American cranberries, and for corn-meal dishes, American Cookery also presented the first recipes for soft gingerbread and for pickled watermelon rind, patriotically dubbed “American Citron.”
On American Cookery ’s title page, its author introduces herself as “Amelia Simmons, An American Orphan.” She dedicates her forty-seven-page volume to the “improvement of the rising generation of Females in America,” stating meekly in the last paragraph of her preface: “The candor [freedom from prejudice] of the American Ladies is solicitously intreated by the Authoress, as she is circumscribed in her knowledge, this being an original work in this country.”
Among her cookbook’s claims to originality is its surprisingly early use of a rudimentary baking powder, pearl ash (the chemical potassium carbonate, commonly called potash), to provide the carbon dioxide needed to make baked goods rise. Potash had been used since ancient times in glass, soap, and other products. But neither pearl ash nor the other chemical leaveners which were eventually developed into baking powders are usually thought to have been used in cooking before 1830. The English cookbooks Simmons probably had access to do not mention pearl ash. Simmons, and presumably other American cooks, therefore, seem to have been well ahead of their time with recipes like this, one of four in American Cookery calling for pearl ash:
Cookies. One pound sugar boiled slowly in half pint water, scum well and cool, add two teaspoons pearl ash dissolved in milk, then two and half pounds flour, rub in 4 ounces butter and two large spoons finely powdered coriander seed, wet with above; make rolls half an inch thick and cut to the shape you please; bake fifteen or twenty minutes in a slack oven, good three weeks .
Pearl ash, which tends to leave a bitter residue, was eventually discarded in the process of perfecting baking powders. But bitterness, somewhat tempered by such assertive spices as coriander, evidently could not discourage Yankee ingenuity in the kitchen.
Another feature of this recipe that distinguishes it from similar ones in English cookbooks is the word “cookies,” a uniquely American borrowing from the Dutch koekje , meaning “little cake.” The English referred to these simply as “cakes.”
For most baking, American Cookery , like English cook-books of the day, used such ancient leaveners as eggs and air whipped in by the cook, spirits, or homemade liquid yeast. Simmons’ yeast, a mixture of hops and the dregs of beer or cider casks, was known as “emptins” (emptings), an exclusively American term for a similar substance the English called “ale yeast.”
Half the native American recipes first appearing in print in American Cookery contained what we know as corn meal, easily the most valuable gift the Indians gave the first starving settlers, who named it “Indian meal.” It would not have occurred to them to call it “corn,” which in England and in most of Europe is a general term for any cereal grain. This is perhaps the oldest of Simmons’ corn-meal recipes:
Johny Cake or Hoe Cake. Scald 1 pint of milk and put to 3 pints of indian meal, and half pint of flour—bake before the fire. Or scald with milk two thirds of the indian meal, or wet two thirds with boiling water, add salt, molasses and shortning and work up with cold water stiff, and bake as above .
This flexible recipe hearkens back to the days when most American kitchens were without ovens and settlers were grateful for either milk or molasses to vary their Indian meal. Tucked in among American Cookery ’s English-style plum cake and other rich cakes, which Americans also enjoyed in Simmons’ day, Johnnycake recipes suggest that Indian meal remained an important food long after wheat and rye flour were relatively commonplace.