In a recent antiquarian bookseller's catalogue, the 1885 edition of Lafcadio Hearn's "La Cuisine Creole" was offered for $1,000. Recognition of the high cost and relative scarcity of fine old cookbooks -- just think how many of them must have been swallowed up in hearth fires -- has inspired publishers to bring out facsimiles or new editions of some of America's most fascinating culinary texts.
In recent years, thanks to the burgeoning interest in America's unique gastronomic heritage, there are now enough titles in print to enable a cook to piece together the history of American cookery from volumes in home libraries. Cooking from the recipes, however, requires a certain sense of adventure and a willingness to deal with measurements or instruction that may seem vague or completely outdated.
Surely the best place to begin a study of America's gastronomic heritage is with "Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery" (Columbia University Press, 136 South Broadway, Irvington, NY. 10533, $20.95, postpaid.). In this work of exemplary scholarship, culinary historian Karen Hess has transcribed a lengthy manuscript cookbook formerly owned by our first president's wife. According to Hess, the recipes in the collection offer a sampling of 16th- and 17th-century English cuisine, a cuisine that more than any other influenced the early development of American cooking.
It is likely that George Washington ate a good many of the dishes described in "Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery," and by a pleasant coincidence, he also tasted the fare at the home of our next cookbook author, Harriott Pinckney Horry, when he stopped at her plantation home in the South Carolina lowlands in 1786.
There is no record of precisely what Washington ate, but Horry's handwritten recipe book, edited by historian Richard J. Hooker and recently published under the title "A Colonial Plantation Cookbook" (University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, SC 29208; $15.95, postpaid.), gives us a very good idea of the household's prize dishes. Perhaps Washington dined on a chicken or rabbit "frigasee" stewed in wine with oysters and mushrooms, or possibly he was offered some shrimp pickled in vinegar and seasoned with mace and cloves. For dessert there might have been "cocoa nut puffs," or an apple pudding and to drink, some spruce beer.
For the colonists, political independence apparently did not mean culinary independence; indeed, the "Englishness" of American cuisine still remains highly visible in 1796 when the first cookbook to be written by an American author appears.
Written by Amelia Simmons and published in Hartford, Conn., this small collection of recipes titled "American Cookery" (Dover Publications, 180 Varick Street, NY 10014; $5 postpaid) contains among the first recipes for the new world foods that the colonists had learned to take into their diets -- such items as "cramberry-sauce," Indian pudding and "Johny" cakes. (There is also a recipe for apple pie, but anyone who tells you "It's as American as apple pie" isn't up on his apple-pie history; English cookbooks dating back to the Middle Ages included recipes for apple pies and tarts.)
America's first distinctively regional cookbook is "The Virginia Housewife" (University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, SC 29208; $15.95, postpaid.), a delightful collection of recipes written by Mary Randolph and first published in 1824. According to reprint editor Karen Hess, it was the most influential cookbook of the 19th century.
In "The Virginia Housewife" there is still an abundance of English recipes that can be traced back to Elizabethan times -- such favorites as "macaroones," Shrewsbury cakes, pickled oysters and almond pudding. But intertwined are the recipes and ingredients that had already begun to give Virginia cookery its regional signature: the okra, eggplant, field peas and yams much loved by the slaves from Africa, and the concern with smoking and drying meats (although these methods are actually English in origin).
Of special interest to ice cream lovers, Randolph provides recipes for over a dozen varieties, including "cocoa-nut," quince, peach, and oyster. Yes, Matilda, there is an oyster ice cream: "Make a rich oyster soup, strain it from the oysters, and freeze it," instructs Randolph.
In 1903, one of America's most famous cookbooks was published. It promised to be "the way to a man's heart," and eventually became the first gift one gave to a new bride. "The Settlement Cookbook" (Scribner's $12.95) was compiled by Mrs. Simon Kander, a cooking teacher at the Milwaukee Settlement House who helped immigrants become adjusted to their new way of life.
The recipes were contributed both by local cooks and chefs, and they present a marvelous document of midwestern cookery at the turn of the century.
Perhaps what made "The Settlement Cookbook" so successful was the fact that it contained recipes to appeal to every taste and mood. There was Stewed Mutton and Hash for a simple meal, Spaghetti Italienne and Shrimp a la Creole when you were feeling exotic, and Coffee Kuchen and Schnecken when you had a yen for some of the fine baked goods introduced by German settlers in the area. There were even matzo balls and kugel for those who were celebrating Passover, and Old English Fruit Cake for those who were celebrating Christmas. A NICE INDIAN PUDDING (4 servings)
This light and custardy pudding is adapted from "American Cookery."
2 1/2 cups milk
1/4 cup finely ground yellow corn meal
2 tablespoons butter
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Generous 1/2 teaspoon ginger or nutmeg or allspice
2 (or more) tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup raisins
Whipped cream or ice cream for serving (optional)
Scald the milk. Whisk in the corn meal and salt. Stir frequently over low heat until mixture thickens slightly. Stir in butter, remove from heat and set aside to cool with a piece of waxed paper on top to prevent a skin from forming.
When mixture is slightly warmer than room temperature, add remaining ingredients. Check seasonings. Bake uncovered in a 1-quart ovenproof casserole or individual ramekins at 325 degrees until custard is set, about 60 to 80 minutes. Serve warm with a dollop of ice cream or whipped cream on top, if desired. BOILED DRESSING (Makes about 3 cups)
This salad dressing, adapted from "The Settlement Cookbook," is delicious on shredded cabbage as well as green salad.
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons sugar, or less to taste
1/2 teaspoon celery salt
1/2 teaspoon mustard
Speck of cayenne pepper
1 whole egg or the yolks of 2 eggs
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup vinegar
1 tablespoon butter
1 cup whipping cream, whipped stiff
Mix the first six ingredients. Then stir the egg in well. Add the water, vinegar and butter and cook in the top of a double boiler, stirring almost continuously, until well thickened. Set aside to cool to room temperature. When ready to serve, fold in the whipped cream.