A Second Declaration of Independence: "American Cookery" and the Commencement of American Cuisine

In 1798, Amelia Simmons wrote : "American Cookery, or the art of dressing viands, fish, poultry, and vegetables, and the best modes of making pastes, puffs, pies, tarts, puddings, custards, and preserves, and all kinds of cakes, from the imperial plum to plain cake: Adapted to this country, and all grades of life."

"American Cookery" was not the first cookbook ever published in the United States but it was the first American cookbook written by an American, for Americans, in America. Simmons, an orphan who provided for herself as a domestic servant, commented in the introduction that unlike "those females who have parents, or brothers, or riches, to defend their indiscretions, that the orphan must depend solely upon character." Simmons' experience as an orphan speaks to the ideology behind the founding of the United States. Not orphaned by death or abandonment, the colonies had gained their independence after a bloody war with Mother England. These colonies would now have to provide for themselves by creating a new nation, as Simmons had to teach herself how to cook in order to survive. While obviously the history of the founding of the United States is far more complicated and far less romantic-- involving economic manipulation by the richest and most powerful, the continued disenfranchisement of women and the enslavement of black Americans and Africans, and the murder of indigenous populations-- the idea of America as an independent nation, still vulnerable after its birth like an orphaned child, but hard working and wanting to support itself remains steadfast in the American imagination. The biographical circumstances of Simmons, author of the first American cookbook, feed into and bolster the narrative. Simmons' book, then, is not only significant to the culinary history of America, but to the intellectual, social, and cultural history of the United States.

Apart from the authorship and place of publication, what made this book American? Prior to the publication of "American Cookery," American colonists and later, American citizens, used British cookbooks, many of which included recipes with meats, grains, and vegetables available in England. Simmons' book employed the use of American products, specifically corn, cranberries, turkey, squash and potatoes, which were indigenous to the New World. Although white Americans had learned to use corn from the earliest days of settlement, this book offers the first printed recipes using cornmeal - three for "A Nice Indian Pudding," and one each for "Johnny Cake or Hoe Cake" and "Indian Slapjacks." Writers at the Feeding America, the Historic American History Cookbook Project point out that "Simmons also suggested using corncobs to smoke bacon and the pairing of cranberry sauce with turkey." In this cookbook, Amelia Simmons defines the edible flora and fauna available in America during the period, which includes a mixture of the indigenous species and the livestock brought over by European settlers. Next she details how to prepare the meat; how to bake pies, custards, and cakes; and ends with a section on how to prepare vegetables, mostly for preservation. She also included directions for beer brewing and the creation of syllabub (an English sweet dish made by curdling milk with alcohol and is most traditionally made by the milkmaid milking the cow directly into a jug of cider).

Amelia Simmons, by writing the first American cookbook, defined American cookery. As authors like Richard Hooker (Food and Drink in America) and David Kamp (The United States of Arugula), have stated, "American Cookery" began a long tradition of defining American cuisine and culture. If we are to accept that "American Cookery" defined not only American cuisine but American identity in 1798, what do recently published cookbooks say about America today?