Posted on Wed, Aug. 02, 2006

Cookery books
A concise history of American comestibles, as seen in vintage volumes, promotional pamphlets and other ephemera Cookery books


Shirley Dyess of Irving says the last bit of real cooking she did was probably "some time in the Reagan administration." But she's passionate about her cookbook collection nevertheless. For her, antique cookbooks -- which she buys, sells and appraises -- are a window into the past.

Dyess, who has a booth at Arlington's Antique Sampler Mall and a Web site,, started out selling all kinds of old books, then moved into Texas books and children's books. But when she came across her first 19th-century American cookbook, she was hooked.

"I got really interested in it," she recalls. "The women who wrote them were some very colorful women."

Dyess (pronounced "dice") is hardly alone. According to culinary historian Jan Longone, she's "part of a whole group of people around the country who are more and more wanting to preserve America's culinary history."

As curator of American culinary history at the University of Michigan's Clements Library in Ann Arbor, Longone would be in a position to know.

Longone thinks the catalyst for America's increasing fascination with the food of years past was the 1976 American bicentennial, when "hundreds of charity cookbooks which had not only recipes but stories" were rescued and reprinted by churches and civic organizations.

The banner has been taken up by the backlash against corporate food that produced not only the organic- and sustainable-food movements but a heightened interest in rescuing heirloom varieties of produce and livestock and in getting back in touch with our endangered food traditions.

Athough the first cookbook printed in America appeared in 1742, it was a reprint of an English volume. Not until 1796 was a cookbook of American recipes published, in Hartford, Conn. It was written by Amelia Simmons, who called herself "an American orphan" and was the first, Dyess notes, to include a recipe for cornbread, or "Indian meal."

Its full title was 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 Plumb to Plain Cake: Adapted to This Country, and All Grades of Life.

In the next several decades, cookbooks written by and for Americans eclipsed the English influence, Longone notes in her introduction to "Feeding America," a digital archive of historical American cookbooks by the Michigan State University Library and the MSU Museum.

As American cookbooks evolved, Longone says, they reflected "what was happening in the greater world -- during Prohibition, liquor was taken out [of recipes]; during depressions, books dealt with economy; the great immigrant movement brought in all these ethnic things."

It's this aspect of Dyess' collection, which numbers between 250 and 300 books and pamphlets, that keeps her scouring estate sales, library book sales and the Internet. For her, the books are "cultural artifacts" through which "you can learn a lot about how people lived, what they bought and what their problems were."

We may think that the elevation of chefs and cookbook writers to star status is a recent phenomenon, but the most prominent cookbook writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were nationally known celebrities. They carried much more social and cultural weight, in fact, than today's Emerils, Marthas and Rachaels.

Many were far more than cookbook writers or self-promoters. As Longone eloquently writes in "Feeding America," these "talented, influential and remarkable" women were "reformers active in all the major social and cultural events of their day: abolition, child welfare, women's rights, education, suffrage, social welfare, prison reform, poverty alleviation, immigration, consumer issues, nutrition, medical reforms, labor issues, and contemporary religious and moral questions."

A number were respected cooking or "domestic-science" teachers, most notably in the Boston Cooking School, where Fannie Farmer (1857-1915) was preceded by the pioneering Mary J. Lincoln (1844-1921), and the Philadelphia Cooking School, founded by Sarah Tyson Rorer (1849-1937), known as America's earliest dietitian.

Rorer and some of her colleagues were ahead of their time in their approach to healthful eating, Dyess notes, citing "Mrs. Rorer's admonition to eat raw vegetables because they 'clean the system out.' Now we know about fiber."Rorer -- "very quotable, very opinionated" -- is one of Dyess' favorites among the heavy hitters on America's 19th-century cookbook scene. Others are Marion Harland (Mary Virginia Terhune, 1830-1922, who also wrote romance fiction under the Harland pen name); Lincoln, whose landmark Boston Cook Book applied a scientific approach to standardizing recipes; and education reformer Catharine Beecher (1800-1878), whose famous crusading family included sister Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Around the turn of the century, many of these famous cooking authorities were hired by food companies to write recipes for promotional pamphlets featuring the companies' products.

"The rumor goes," Longone says -- she has never quite been able to document it -- "that one year Jell-O printed 1 million pamphlets and hired people to go around the farms," distributing the colorful recipe pamphlets to housewives.

After blanketing the territory, Jell-O's agents "would go to the local store and say, 'I've given out 3,000 of these pamphlets, and when these women come to market on Saturday they're going to be looking for Jell-O.'" Most of the stores, she expects, would stock up.

These "advertising ephemera" have become a major subgenre in cookbook collecting. Dyess loves them for their striking artwork. Just as they hired the best-known cooking authorities, the companies hired the top illustrators of the day, including Rose O'Neill of Kewpie doll fame and romantic master Maxfield Parrish, employing elaborate color lithography that is "quite smashing," Longone notes.

Among Dyess' pamphlet treasures are a beautifully detailed 1936 booklet promoting the Davis line of canned seafood and a 1919 pamphlet for Woodcock Macaroni's long-forgotten products, illustrated with elaborately constructed macaroni salads and main dishes..

Despite the ornate presentations, the recipes in these pamphlets are not all that removed from today's convenience-food dishes, involving mostly a can of "tunny fish" or a package of macaroni and a few other ingredients. A glance through some of the other cookbooks, however, reminds us just how much work yesterday's cooks had to do to put dinner on the table if they couldn't afford to hire a cook for the household.

In Harland's 1884 Cookery for Beginners, Harland urged housewives to make their own yeast, starting with potatoes, water, hops, sugar, flour and purchased yeast. "The creamy, foamy product thus obtained," she opined, "is quite another thing from the dark, bitter stuff pedled from one kitchen door to another. ..."

Cookery for Beginners and the children's cookbooks of the period spelled out even the most basic tasks. But many others "didn't give detailed instructions," Dyess says, assuming "a lot of knowledge" on the part of the reader.

Their format was far from standardized, with recipes often given in narrative form, Dyess notes.Longone explains that "it wasn't until the Industrial Revolution produced measuring cups and spoons" of standard sizes that formal measurements were of any use in recipes; nor were oven temperatures specified until stoves became standardized.

And "receipts," Dyess points out, might account for only a third of a typical late-19th- and early-20th-century cookbook -- the remainder being advice on "what to do when the horse breaks his leg, how to treat sick children -- everything you needed to know to get by on the farm."

Mrs. M.E. Porter's 1891 New World's Fair Cook Book and Housekeeping Companion, for example, addresses "Things Every Housekeeper Should Know," including "how to preserve health; how to make plants grow, and how to make them fresh; hints for the toilet; how to receive and entertain; timely antidotes for poisons; what to name the baby; and many valuable tables useful for every-day reference."

We'd like to see Emeril tackle that.


For those interested in American cookbooks and culinary history, the Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive at the University of Michigan's Clements Library in Ann Arbor is considered the foremost resource. Online:

The Michigan State University Library and MSU Museum's "Feeding America" digital archive features an online collection of important American cookbooks from the late 18th to early 20th century. Online:

The Lilly Library at Indiana University in Bloomington houses an important collection of American, British and European cookbooks. Online:

Shirley Dyess' old- and used-book booth is at the Antique Sampler Mall, 1715 E. Lamar Blvd. in Arlington; online:

A sampler of 'receipts' from historic cookbooks

This selection of recipes culled from some of the cookbooks in Shirley Dyess' collection gives an idea of the different approaches found in older cookbooks. We've copied the wording exactly; the only change we made was to spell out abbreviations.

Some of these "receipts" are eminently adaptable to contemporary tables; others might be puzzled through to a decent result; some are not likely to be attempted by any modern cook. (We didn't attempt to provide modern nutritional analyses, either.)


One pound of sifted flour, dried in the oven for a few minutes, but not browned, a quarter of a pound butter, a heaping tablespoonful lard, a salt-spoonful salt, a pinch of soda dissolved in just enough vinegar to cover it and well worked in. Put together with ice-water, and roll out half an inch thick. Cut into squares, prick with a fork and bake light brown.

-- "Six Little Cooks, or Aunt Jane's Cooking Class," by Elizabeth Kirkland (Jansen, McClurg & Co., 1877)


This is from the first cookbook published in Texas, an 1883 church compilation by the Ladies' Association of the First Presbyterian Church of Houston called the "Texas Cookbook: A Thorough Treatise on the Art of Cookery." Original copies are extremely rare; Dyess' copy is a facsimile reproduction. Dyess suggests that the "salt junk" mentioned probably referred to preserved meat -- salt pork or salt beef.

A fellow can always get a live, tough chicken on a cruise. Martha's Vineyard chickens are the toughest. Well, you wash your chicken and cut it all up. Take some of the salt junk that you ought to have on board, and cook it for an hour in fresh water, make a paste of flour and butter -- half a pound of butter to a pound of flour. Take an iron pot and rub it all over with butter; make a piece of the paste round like the top of your hat, and clap it on the bottom of your pot and another long piece to go all around; stow away at the bottom a layer of beef; slice two big onions and three potatoes and put in a few pieces, and pepper that, then put in your chicken and more potato and onion, and ballast the whole thing that way. When you have arrived at the deck of the pot put in a tablespoonful of Worcester sauce and about the same of tomato catsup and three pints of cold water; lash on the cover of the pot, and let her cook gently for four hours. If she burns you are gone. She wants watching. If your junk is salt, you need not add salt; if quite fresh, add some. You catch some fish on next summer's cruise and try this way, using bacon for beef. The more ladies you have on board, the more onions should be used.

-- "The First Texas Cook Book - A Thorough Treatise on the Art of Cookery," reprinted by the Pemberton Press (1970)


Caramel, in contemporary cooking parlance, is sugar cooked until it melts and begins to brown. But the caramel referred to here is likely caramel syrup, made by adding a combination of butter and cream or water to the browned-sugar liquid, which by itself would harden into a candy when chilled. The company that published this pamphlet made ice cream freezers.

1 quart of cream

1/2 pound of sugar

4 ounces shelled almonds

1 teaspoon caramel

1 tablespoon vanilla

4 tablespoons sherry

Blanch and roast the almonds, then pound them in a mortar to a smooth paste. Put one-half the cream and the sugar on to boil, stir until the sugar is dissolved, then add the remaining pint of cream and the almonds; stand away to cool; when cold, add the caramel, vanilla and sherry. Freeze and pack as directed.

-- "Dainty Dishes for All the Year Round" by Mrs. S. T. Rorer (North Brothers Manufacturing. Co., 1903)


1 1/2 cups cooked Woodcock Macaroni

2 cups cooked spinach

2 tablespoons butter

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup milk

2 tablespoons butter

2 1/2 tablespoons flour

2 cups cooked ham

1 tomato

Chop the spinach, mix with the salt and butter and reheat, press into a buttered ring mould, place in pan of hot water, keep hot until service time. Make a white sauce [with the milk, butter and flour], adding yolk of egg; add the ham cut in small pieces. Remove spinach to a hot platter, surround with hot macaroni, fill center with creamed ham, garnish with tomato cut in eighths.

--"Fifty Good Ways of Serving Woodcock Macaroni" (John G. Elbs, 1919)


"In this little pamphlet," Dyess says, "Mrs. Harland is not talking about canning yourself, but using products canned by manufacturers. I must admit that this recipe sounds tasty."

Cut whole canned tomatoes into quarters and drain each piece in a colander. Make a batter of two eggs, beaten light, a cupful of milk, and a cupful of flour that has been sifted with a half-teaspoonful of baking powder and a pinch of salt. If this batter is too thin, add more flour. Dip each piece of tomato in this batter and drop into deep boiling fat. Serve as soon as done.

-- "The Story of Canning and Recipes" by Marion Harland (National Canners Association, 1920)

SUNSHINE CAKE NO. 1 (E.O.H.'s Favorite Cake)

Beat the yolks of 9 eggs until thick and lemon-tinted. Beat the whites of 12 eggs until frothy, add 1 1/2 teaspoons of cream of tartar, continue beating until stiff and dry; add gradually 1 1/2 cups fine granulated sugar, beating constantly with a large Ladd egg beater; beat the yolks again, and beat them into the sugar and beaten whites. Add 1 1/4 teaspoon of orange extract and 1 cup of pastry flour that has been sifted before measuring and 4 times afterwards. Turn into a large tube pan measuring 10 1/2 inches in diameter by 3 1/2 inches deep, and bake from 45 to 50 minutes in a moderate (300 to 350 degrees F.) oven. Remove from oven, invert on a cake cooler and let stand until cool. Remove from pan and spread with Chocolate Frosting.

-- "The Calendar of Cakes, Fillings and Frostings" by Elizabeth O. Hiller (P. F. Volland, c. 1925)

Amy Culbertson, 817-390-7421 [email protected]

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