The art of cooking has been and is associated with women throughout history. Think of the 1950’s housewife making dinner for her husband, Julia Child teaching us all how to cook on her television program, and bloggers giving us the perfect recipes. There are certainly more males in the kitchen now, my boyfriend is a much better chef and I so prefer it when he cooks, but what’s incredibly exciting about recipe writing and cookbooks is that for the most part, throughout our American history, it was the one place where we could constantly find the voices of women on the page.
The first cookbook published by an American in the United States is from 1796 by Amelia Simmons called 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. Try saying that five times fast. But in all seriousness, this cookbook is one of the first published recipes for pumpkin pie, or what she calls Pompkin Pudding and she’s the first to suggest serving cranberry with turkey, creating part of our American legacy in these foods we still eat. The Library of Congress declared this book one of the 80 books that shaped America as it gave women a guide to both the extravagance of British cooking, with an 18 egg cake, and the simplicity of American life, adding the cranberry to the turkey, with the integration of these two types of recipes, selling well for over 30 years. These recipes and the recipes of all female cookbooks throughout the years give way to our ideas of America and our American culture.
Just think of the recipes that Julia Child gave us in 1961 with Mastering the Art of French Cooking, she brought in the ideas of butter into our food, and the of using few but high-quality ingredients. After World War Two, Americans wanted quick, convenient food, which gave way to the advent of fast food and processed foods, she pushed Americans to return to the real ingredients taking upscale cuisine out of the restaurant and onto the kitchen table. Americans knew about French food before Child, but she made all of the recipes accessible to the middle class. She even introduced Americans to foods that seem so common today like artichokes, in the 1960’s you had to find them at specialty stores. Her cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking was revolutionary because it was one of the first books to features step-by-step instructions, with precise measurements and her own details about making each dish. She herself was called a de-facto feminist, she wanted to empower other women in the kitchen, we see this in the last sentence of her Foreword, “Above all, have a good time.”
Women creating these recipe books and the decisions of what they wanted to make shaped the American palette. Julia Child’s book has sold 1.5 million copies, that’s millions of Americans influenced by these dishes, food becomes the culture around the dinner table, at Thanksgiving, at parties, and a way to talk to your children and friends. Food brings people together and the Americans creating these dishes developed new languages through food shaping our American experience.
The most successful cookbook in America, Joy of Cooking, was first published in 1936 is by Irma S. Rombauer and has sold 18 million copies. The title gives us a similar feel to the notions of Child who wanted us to enjoy the cooking experience. Rombauer came to cooking to cope with the loss of her husband, Edgar Rombauer, a lawyer from St. Louis who struggled with depression and committed suicide in 1930, widowing Irma at 52. Her children encouraged her to compile her recipes and get cooking to help her grapple with her mourning. She paid the publisher to get her book out there and since, it’s been the book of American cooking. What made her so successful was her tone of the book, like Child, there’s a more personal spin to the language, she talks to erudites and ignorant cooks alike through a friendly, unintimidating tone. She creates recipes in the “action method,” where instructions are written out like a story where there’s a beginning, middle and an end with ingredients listed at the point where you need them, instead of a list at the top of the page.
Cookbooks are also something that we pass down. How did you get your first cookbook? Who gave it to you? Who gave you the Joy of Cooking and whose collection was it from? Where do your favorite recipes come from? Often they’re the transcribed memories of an older aunt, a grandmother, or perhaps your own mother. They’re the foods you grew up with, the times you cooked with your family and friends in the kitchen, and the tastes of a culture that shaped you as you grew up. This is the feminist voice coming through in our collective memory as a nation.
These best sellers give us a voice that’s distinctly female, a voice that wants us to cook to give us a little bit of happiness in our kitchens, and to call attention to our lives as women. The cookbook gives us insight in the making of an American culture, foods passed down from the colonies that we still eat just as we pass down recipe books and recipes from our own cultural consciousness. There’s a categorical look at the lives of women in these pieces of paper passed down from our past, the domestic lives, the social lives, and the loves lived within the cuisine of our nation. Where did that recipe come from that you’re making for dinner tonight?