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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.
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 .
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 .…
But it is in the brief section on apples, which calls to mind the fruitful wanderings of New Englander John Chapman, alias Johnny Appleseed (see December, 1979, AMERICAN HERITAGE ), that American Cookery could be accused of ascribing too many virtues to a single food. Here Simmons shows not only enthusiasm for fruit trees, but also a concern with problems not limited to eighteenth-century America:
There is not a single family but might set a tree in some otherwise useless spot, which might serve the two-fold use of shade and fruit; on which 12 or 14 kinds of fruit trees might easily be engrafted and essentially preserve the orchard from the intrusions of boys, &c. which is too common in America. If the boy who thus planted a tree, and guarded and protected it in a useless corner, and carefully engrafted different fruits, was to be indulged free access into orchards, whilst the neglectful boy was prohibited—how many millions of fruit trees would spring into growth—and what a saving to the union. The net saving would in time extinguish the public debt, and enrich our cookery.
Amelia Simmons’ cookbook stayed in print until the 1830’s, going through four editions and at least one plagiarized version. After 1796 English publishers began to include recipes from it in later editions of their own cookbooks, along with references to “the American manner of cooking” and “cooking in the American mode.” Amelia Simmons had helped the new nation establish its own cuisine.