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Of Pearl Ash, Emptins, And Tree Sweetnin’
America’s First Native Cookbook
August/september 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 5
Typically, Simmons has omitted currants, citron, orange, lemon, and lime peel, and orange-flower water (she often listed rose water as a flavoring instead). And as in nearly all recipes calling for wine, American Cookery does not name the variety. English cookbooks invariably do, often mentioning sack, which never appears in Simmons’ cookbook. In addition to wine, Simmons uses “cyder,” both hard and sweet, and beer. She even gives directions for brewing a spruce beer, but she omits all recipes for making the fruit wines and cordials so common in English cookbooks.
Simmons simply copied some recipes verbatim from The Frugal Colonial Housewife , as in these rigorous directions on how to dress a turtle: “Fill a boiler or kettle, with a quantity of water sufficient to scald the callapach and callapee [back and belly], the fins &c. and about 9 o’clock hang up your Turtle by the hind fins, cut off the head and save the blood.…” The suspended amphibian, the green sea turtle, once plentiful as far north as Massachusetts, weighed between sixty and five hundred pounds. In Simmons’ day it was popular not only at New York barbecues but also in England and in Europe, where it had been known since Columbus’ voyages. Nearly all British eighteenth-century cookbooks offered a turtle recipe, and in a culinary twist of fate, Simmons, in American Cookery , copied an English recipe for preparing this native American food.
Despite nearly two centuries on a new continent—with some new foods and with many ingredients unavailable- early American cooking remained essentially English, as American Cookery shows. But our first cookbook was more than a recipe collection. Its advice to housewives of the day, well spiced with Yankee common sense, gives a lively picture of marketing and gardening in the new nation.
Under “How to Choose Flesh,” Simmons warns against buying veal “bro’t in bags, flouncing on a sweaty horse,” reminding her readers that it should come to market in panniers (provisions baskets) or in a carriage. Dairy products could also be harmed by the heat of a horse, so Simmons advises buying butter only from “honest, neat, and trusty dairy people,” who would transport it “in the night or cool rainy morning, covered with a clean cloth wet in cold water. ” Simmons reminds her readers that “new pine tubs are ruinous to butter”—a necessary caveat in pine-clad New England.
When it came to downright dishonesty, purveyors of cheese and fish must have been among the worst, judging from American Cookery ’s advice to consumers. Of cheese, Simmons writes, “deceits are used by salt-petering the out side, or coloring with hemlock, cocumberries [from the East Indian cocum tree], or saffron, infused into the milk. The taste of either supersedes every possible evasion.” Probably it isn’t coincidence that Simmons’ warning against dishonest fish vendors appears in her list of saltwater fish, rather than among the freshwater varieties. By the time ocean fish reached her in Hartford, some forty miles inland, many sellers of fish were doubtless so eager “to give them a freshness of appearance” that they resorted to “wetting fins and tails, and even painting the gills or wetting with animal blood,” calling down the wrath of the woman who may have been the nation’s first consumer advocate.
Turning to the kitchen garden, American Cookery shows an intense interest in potato growing. In 1796 this native South American food was a relatively new diet staple in Europe and the British Isles, and still suspect in some parts of France. Simmons recommends Irish potatoes, which she was probably well acquainted with, since a Scotch-Irish immigrant had brought them to Londonderry, New Hampshire, in 1719. Simmons praises the Irish for “managing … to keep up the excellency of that root,” adding that “if no one treats on the subject [of growing Irish potatoes], it may appear in the next edition.”
Simmons also favors parsley and describes her own method for growing it in a barrel in her cellar through the winter:
Parsley. … In September I dig my roots, procure an old thin stave dry cask, bore holes an inch diameter in every stave, 6 inches asunder round the cask, and up to the top—take first a half bushel of rich garden mold and put into the cask, then run the roots through the staves, leaving the branches outside, press the earth tight about the root within, and thus continue on thro’ the respective stones, till the cask is full; it being filled, run an iron bar thro’ the center of the dirt in the cask, and fill with water, let stand on the south and east side of a building till frosty night, then remove it (by flinging a rope round the cask) into the cellar; where, during the winter, I clip with my scissors the fresh parsley, which my neighbors or myself have occasion for .…