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Of Pearl Ash, Emptins, And Tree Sweetnin’
America’s First Native Cookbook
August/september 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 5
Simmons’ “Johny Cake” may have originally been called “Journey Cake,” though one food historian has noted that corn-meal cakes are much too crumbly to travel well in a pocket. Another suggestion is that the term “Johny Cake” comes from “Shawnee Cake”—which also seems a bit unlikely, since it is hard to imagine the exceedingly hostile Shawnee calmly teaching English settlers to pat corn meal into flat loaves. “Hoe Cake,” perhaps so called because it was baked on a paddle of green wood, or because it was cooked in ashes and raked out with a hoe, is a more plausible label.
Another corn-meal dish that was just as adaptable to whatever the cook had on hand was “A Nice Indian Pudding.” The basic ingredients were milk and meal, but the deluxe version, intended for oven baking, adds eggs, raisins, butter, spice, and sugar. To cook the simplest version of Indian pudding, Simmons directs, “put into a strong cloth, brass or bell metal [bronze] vessel, stone or earthen pot, secure from wet and boil 12 hours. ” This steam cooking was common both to English puddings and to a bread the Indians made by combining meal with water and sweetening.
Pumpkin, another gift from the Indians, was also used in puddings almost as soon as colonial cooks had the basic ingredients to make them. Eighteenth-century puddings had crusts and differed from today’s pies in name only, as this first recipe for America’s favorite Thanksgiving dessert shows:
Pompkin No. 1. One quart stewed and strained [pumpkin], 3 pints cream, 9 beaten eggs, sugar, mace, nutmeg and ginger, laid into paste [pastry] No. 7 or 3, and with a dough spur, cross and chequer it, and baked in dishes three quarters of an hour .
No. 2. One quart milk, 1 pint pompkin, 4 eggs, Molasses, allspice and ginger in a crust, bake 1 hour .
The molasses in No. 2 may well be a tipoff that it was developed first, in the days when West Indian sugar was so expensive that most colonists used molasses, its cheap by-product. Plain or fancy, pie or pudding, “pompkin” done up as Simmons suggests was an improvement over stewed pumpkin, which early colonists in New England served so often it was called New England Standing Dish. One taste helps to explain why Simmons didn’t include it.
Though American Cookery gives no recipe for cranberry sauce, it is evidently the first cookbook to recommend it as an accompaniment for turkey. Simmons does give a cranberry tart recipe—“Cranberries Stewed, strained and sweetened, put into paste No. 9 and baked gently.” This is the only tart recipe in American Cookery that doesn’t specify sugar, a reminder that early Americans, like the Indians, mixed “tree sweetnin’ ” (maple syrup) or “bee sweetnin’ ” with their cranberries.
One of the more picturesque recipes Simmons gives, “Syllabub from the Cow,” begins, “Sweeten a quart of cyder with double refined sugar, grate nutmeg into it, then milk your cow into your liquor.…” As the name suggests, milk direct from the cow was valued as much for its bubbling foam as for its absolute freshness. This frothy drink—or dessert—was one of several recipes Simmons borrowed from “Of Syllabubs, Creams and Flummery” in The Frugal Colonial Housewife , by Susannah Carter, the most popular of several eighteenth-century British cookbooks that were renamed and reprinted in America. Like the others, Carter’s included no recipes developed by the colonists.
A merican Cookery ’s adaptations of Carter recipes reveal what the eighteenth-century American larder did—and did not—contain. In recipes for meat pie, for instance, Simmons used fewer and less exotic ingredients than Carter, but as the two examples below illustrate, their recipes are basically similar:
Simmons’ Minced Pie. Four pound boiled beef, chopped fine, and salted; six pound of raw apple chopped also, one pound beef suet, one quart of wine or rich sweet cyder, one ounce mace, and cinnamon, a nutmeg, two pounds raisins, bake in paste No. 3, three fourths of an hour .
Carter’s Minced Pie. Shred a pound of neats [ox, bullock, cow, or heifer] tongue parboiled with two pounds of beef suet, five pippins [apples] and a green lemon [lime?] peel; season it with an ounce of spice, a little salt, a pound of sugar, two pounds of currants, half a pint of sack, a little orange-flower water, the juice of three or four lemons, a quarter of a pound of citron, lemon and orange peel. Mix together, and fill the pies .