1796 saw the publication of the first and second editions of the first American cookbook, American Cookery by Amelia Simmons, which cost two shillings and threepence, or about $1.75 today.
It strayed from other cookbooks published in America by incorporating local ingredients, like cornmeal, molasses, pumpkin and pearl ash as a leavening agent (a precursor to baking powder), and adapting to American cooking habits. Included in the book were recipes for Indian Slapjack, Johny Cake, Squash Pudding, and Pompkin Pudding, or what we know as the traditional filling for a pumpkin pie.
All previously published cookbooks strictly followed English recipes made with traditional English ingredients.
This revolutionary cookbook created quite a stir, but for all the bad reasons.
Details in the first few pages of American Cookery have helped historians decipher a couple of theories for who Simmons was:
- Some believe Simmons identified herself as an American orphan in the title page of the cookbook and then proceeded to describe the hardships affecting that sector of the population.
- Others believe she was a single and illiterate woman that was working for a family as a cook.
Having insufficient education, Simmons entrusted someone to get her collection of recipes published, and this is where things got problematic.
The first version was riddled with errors that were not written by Simmons. Instead, it is believed that whoever she entrusted maliciously altered her cookbook to discredit her.
The first version included a lengthy section explaining how to pick produce, which, although it seems okay to include in today’s cookbooks, may have insulted readers in the late 1700s. Several recipes were also incorrectly printed.
In the second version Simmons included a disclaimer fixing the misprinted recipes and explaining the erroneous edits were not hers but those of the person she entrusted the publication to, and that she was made aware of them after the first version was published.
After American Cookery was published, Simmons disappeared again, leaving historians to wonder about the true identity of Simmons. And we’ll probably never know who she was, as her trail seems to begin and end with this cookbook.
Interesting fact: In American Cookery Simmons used certain Dutch words, which historians have used to locate her in New York’s Hudson River Valley, including slaw for salad and cookey for cookie, which the British used to call small cakes.
First American Cookbook. American Treasures of the Library of Congress. Retrieved 20 July 2012.
“Simmons, Amelia.” Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook Project. Retrieved 20 July 2012.