Stephen Schmidt’s Keynote Address to the Manuscript Cookbook Conference
Fales Library, New York University, May 12-13, 2016
I am extremely honored to stand before this distinguished group of librarians, scholars, and writers as your keynote speaker, a role I have never previously fulfilled and so, as people do these days, looked up online, where I learned that my job is to inspire you about the subject at hand and exhort you to sally forth into the future, proudly flying the banner of manuscript cookbooks. Please relax. I’m not going to do quite that. But I do want to share my enthusiasm for these documents so that perhaps, on those rainy, weary, discouraged days that we all have now and then, you will recall the spirit of my words and take heart—and so perhaps will I.
The difficulties of these books for librarians were summed up for me about a year ago, when I queried a small historical site about its ten manuscript cookbooks, and was told by the director that in her ten years on the job I was the first person ever to inquire about these documents, much less ask to see any of them. If the site’s cataloging of its manuscript cookbooks was less than optimum, and it was, who could blame the director for not improving it? Possibly better cataloging might have created more interest in those ten books but likely not. Manuscript cookbooks are difficult for scholars and writers too. I have many times meant to study this, that, or the other manuscript cookbook and then, somehow, lost my will to do so, even if the cookbook was available online. Manuscript cookbooks are always a challenge to decipher. Printed cookbooks are so much easier to work with.
Still, there are excellent reasons for libraries to keep acquiring these documents and to catalog them as thoroughly and clearly as possible, and there are excellent reasons for researchers and writers to make use of them. These reasons are many, but I am going to focus on only one—one that is on my mind because it is the political silly season, or as some are calling it this year, our run up to the Apocalypse. Just as politicians sentimentalize our history, the popular media, whether food or general, invoke a sampler history of American food and cooking, a child’s embroidery of factoids framed in lazy, wishful thinking. That American food and cooking should even be granted a history by the popular media seems at first thought something of a wonder, given the scant attention paid by the media to social history generally. But there is a reason: the history of American food and cooking is useful to many powerful industries, including the media. Food and cooking are not only marketed by quality, social status, and price, as clothing, furniture, and indeed most things are, but also by political ideology, moral values, and, crucially, health and life. And because deep matters like these enter the sales pitch, appeals to the past, when food and cooking were better or worse, more virtuous or less so, healthier or more harmful, are inevitably invoked. Most of these appeals are bound to be sampler histories, no matter what we librarians, scholars, and writers do. But that shouldn’t stop us from battling the fakelore, as Andy Smith has so aptly called it, especially in this digital age, when thoughtful culinary historians, many of whom are sitting in this room, find it possible to publish serious culinary history, for which print media find so little space. And manuscript cookbooks are indispensable to our project.
Years ago, Nach Waxman of Kitchen Arts and Letters, the wonderful food-book shop on New York’s Upper East Side, told me that people routinely came to his store seeking books about the “inventors” of common comestibles, as though, as he said by way of example, there were a historical Duke De Muffin. Yes, ridiculous, but the New York Times not very long ago published essentially the same sort of twaddle regarding the supposed inventor of red velvet cake—and, by the way, failed to publish my cogent, brief, thoroughly respectful letter arguing differently. I hate engaging in such controversies, but I often do because the kind of culinary history that people seem to be most interested in reading—and therefore the kind that is most often published—is the so-called history of some favorite thing that we all eat, like chocolate cake, which generally includes the shocking revelation of “how far back” the thing in question goes or “how surprisingly recent” the thing is. As long as an “inventor” does not enter the scene, this approach does not strike me as intrinsically illegitimate, speaking, I admit, as someone who has written such pieces and who will stoop to justify myself.
Still, I am more interested in culinary history that looks at food and cooking from the other end of the telescope, not from the present working back but from the past moving forward. The culinary history that interests me is what people cooked and ate at a given time and how they served this food in their meals and entertainments. This story is always partly a matter of available materials and technologies, of course, but, in the case of more privileged members of society, it usually has more to do with what we call tastes or fashions, which, in turn, tend to be governed by complicated, unlikely belief systems whose emotional appeal is rarely wholly articulated and may not even be wholly conscious—like today’s bizarre, disturbing idea of “clean food.” If we are speaking of American culinary history through the end of the Civil War, which is the focus of the Manuscript Cookbooks Survey, the project I write for, this story is inevitably mostly about the middling and upper-classes, not the other half—or, more accurately, the other three quarters. This is because only the relatively privileged quarter of antebellum America had the resources to indulge in varied and sophisticated cooking, to live by what we would call a cuisine rather than a mere diet, which for the working people of the time revolved largely around brown bread or cornbread, salt meat, potatoes, apples, whatever vegetables were in season, and molasses.
Printed cookbooks have much to add to this story. I do not believe, as some seem to, that printed cookbooks are largely fantasies written for profit—that few actually cooked the recipes but mostly just read them. There is plenty of evidence that people did cook from printed cookbooks, among this evidence the manuscript cookbooks, which copy scads of printed recipes, often verbatim. But people did not cook all of the recipes in printed cookbooks, and among those that they did cook they cooked some far more often than others. A cookbook editor known for publishing bestsellers once made a remark to me that has stuck in my mind ever since. The trick to a successful cookbook, she said, is one—just one—recipe that absolutely everyone wants to make. Tens of thousands of people will buy the book on the strength of that one recipe. True, she was oversimplifying, but she was simplifying to make an incontestable point. It is a small subset of recipes in a successful printed cookbook that hits the Zeitgeist on the noggin and makes a cookbook fly off the shelves. The rest is filler. I would add, and I think the editor would agree, that the recipes have to be voiced in a way that stirs some spirit of the time, and that in some cookbooks the voice as much as the recipes carries the day.
The same, or something of the same, is no doubt true of all highly successful printed cookbooks since the seventeenth century. If culinary historians could find those magic recipes, we would know the taste of the age. But of course we can’t find them. We just see page after page of recipes, many of them barely decipherable, indeed, in some instances barely believable, especially the further back the cookbook goes. And to add to our frustration, many of the recipes in the bestselling cookbooks always turn out to be very similar to those found in contemporaneous obscure cookbooks, if not precisely the same, since prior to 1900 cookbook authors all copied from one another. We lash out at that damnable best-selling eighteenth-century fraud Hannah Glasse, two thirds of whose recipes have been proven—proven!—to have been copied from her rivals. But everyone in the day knew that Glasse copied, including no less of an authority than Samuel Johnson, who opined, in direct reference to Glasse, that all cookbooks were “chiefly done by transcription”—and then went on to declare that this being the case, he could himself write mighty fine cookbook himself if he chose to. The leading lights of the Anglo-American eighteenth century, including virtually every one of our nation’s founders, did not have Hannah Glasse on their kitchen shelves because they fancied her book was packed with original recipes. They bought her cookbook because it had the particular recipes they wanted and because she wrote those recipes in a way that spoke to them.
This crucial information is lost to us now, but manuscript cookbooks help us to retrieve it—or at least the more interesting ones do, the ones whose recipes appear to have been selected with some deliberation and then actually used, or so we infer from corrections, cross-outs, and comments like “good” or “made for R’s dinner.” The manuscript cookbooks of a given time always focus on a particular set of recipes, and thus they tell us which of the many recipes seen in print were actually most admired and most cooked in that time. Manuscript cookbooks also reveal the variations to which these recipes were subject in the hands of flesh-and-blood cooks, and if we are lucky, they may even provide clues about the specific meals and entertainments for which these cooks prepared these dishes. In short, manuscript cookbooks unlock the secrets of the true taste of the age, at least among the upper-middling and upper classes, whence most of these books originated.
Thus, manuscript cookbooks are extremely helpful in unraveling the samplers of old American cooking stitched for us by the popular media, particularly at sentimental times like Thanksgiving or Christmas or July Fourth—the Yankee New England sampler, the southern hospitality sampler, the Pilgrim sampler, the patriotic colonial sampler, the Victorian tea party sampler, the pioneer prairie sampler, the seasonal/local, farm-to-table Vermont farmhouse sampler, the old Boston, or old Charleston, or old Santa Fe sampler. Turkey and ham, both stock items in many samplers, actually do show up in many antebellum manuscript cookbooks because they were standard company dinner dishes, often served together. But many other sampler favorites, like clam chowder or Indian pudding are relatively rare, and instead we find dishes that we no longer know and that do not sound particularly old-timey American to our ears: beef à la mode, beef daube, mutton haricot, stewed duck, chicken pie, stewed rockfish, pickled oysters, scalloped oysters, macaroni with butter and cheese, rusk, milk biscuit, lemon pudding, sweet potato pudding, raspberry ice cream, blancmange, almond macaroons, meringue kisses, and mince pie. Most of these, to be sure, were company dishes because, by and large, women copied into their notebooks the fancy dishes that they did not know how to make, not the plain dishes that they did. Still, these dishes are far more exemplative of antebellum American taste than the dishes rostered by the samplers, and they give a different impression of old American cooking, one that is more European and less plain.
In years past, sampler histories invariably included the pie-baking granny, a complicated figure insofar as pie was reviled by the nineteenth-century upper classes and makes rather few appearances in antebellum manuscript cookbooks except as the particular gentry favorite, mince pie. Today’s samplers, however, tend to stitch granny and her pies in faint threads far in the background, while filling in the foreground with more heroic tropes revolving around butchering, and fermenting, and curing, and all manner of grains, vegetables, and fruits grown from sadly lost “heirloom” seeds. According to these tropes, American cooking was a farm-to-table paradise of healthful eating until it was hijacked by big agribusiness and big processed food, with its evil arsenal of refined carbohydrates, sugar, fat, and salt. The New York Times located this hearty, healthy age of American food and cooking very far back in time, in a little squib appearing in its July 23, 2011 edition:
The standard American Diet, also referred to as the Western pattern diet, looked a lot different a few hundred years ago. People mostly consumed fruits, vegetables, wild grains and seeds, fish and occasionally meat. Today many Americans gorge on sugars, refined flour and processed food.
Most people, though, seem to think this great age was almost within living memory—our grandmother’s generation, according to one well-known writer.
But the old manuscript cookbooks tell us that James Beard, whom I generally regard as the least possible reliable source of anything historical, had it right when he wrote in American Cookery (1972):
We have been one of the most dessert-minded of all countries except England. “What shall we have for dessert?” has been the cry of hostesses and family heads for generations.
As academic culinary historian Madeline Shanahan has pointed out, a repeated feature of English-language manuscript cookbooks is a disproportionate emphasis on sweet dishes, cakes, and breads. Many manuscript books, indeed, have no recipes of any other kind. Examining the sweets-laden manuscript cookbook of a well-to-do eighteenth-century Pennsylvania family, one writer concluded that this family actually consumed more sugar and refined wheat flour than the average American does today. This may be an over-interpretation. To succeed, sweet dishes and baked things require recipes, while most savory dishes can be winged—a fact corroborated by printed cookbooks, which already gave precise formulas for pastry doughs, puddings, custards, creams, and cakes by the mid-seventeenth century but waited to do the same for meats and the like until the nineteenth century. Furthermore, many sweets were reserved for company entertainments, so cooks did not make them often and tended to forget how. Still, the manuscript cookbooks are certainly telling us that women highly valued this branch of the repertory, and likely more highly than other branches, and other sources tell us the same. In 1832, the acid-tongued British visitor Frances Trollope observed of her American neighbors, “They are ‘extravagantly fond,’ to use their own phrase, of puddings, pies, and all kinds of ‘sweets,’ particularly the ladies; but are by no means such connoisseurs in soups and ragouts as the gastronomes of Europe.” Cookbook author Catharine Beecher noted the same imbalance in American women’s cooking skills a few decades later. Antebellum American manuscript cookbooks suggest that gorging on carbohydrates is a long-standing American predilection. The difference now is that this predilection has spread throughout our society and is indulged in staggering proportions due to the cheapness of the materials and the cleverness with which they are processed and marketed.
In November 1993, Gourmet magazine published a column by the late Laurie Colwin that included a recipe for a cobbler-like cranberry dessert topped with a cakelike crust called Nantucket Cranberry Pie. Colwin had gotten the recipe from the mother of a friend, who could no longer remember where she found it. Colwin was extremely fond of the dessert and wanted to know more about it. Colwin wrote, “In an effort to find the true roots of this cake I looked in The Yankee Cook Book by Imogene Wolcott, a classic tome that contains just about everything anyone needs to know about traditional New England fare.” But Colwin did not find the recipe in this book—or anywhere else that she looked. The very next issue of Gourmet explained why. The inventor of Nantucket Cranberry Pie had written into the magazine’s “Sugar and Spice” column and had supplied the original recipe, which was almost identical to Colwin’s. The inventor turned out to be Mrs. Jean Jahnke, of Abington, Massachusetts, who wrote, “In the 1950s I was a home economist for the National Cranberry Association. My boss and I came up with this recipe for those who don’t like to make pie crusts. It is still a favorite of mine.”
Colwin made two erroneous assumptions, first, that because the dessert was named “Nantucket” it actually had something to do with Nantucket, and, second, because it was named “Nantucket” and looked old-timey, it was rooted in traditional New England cuisine. Colwin really should have known better about the name, because everyone—including her own editors at Gourmet—names recipes after resonant places for the purpose of selling them. But her second error is more understandable—and more interesting. There is, I submit, no such thing as “traditional New England fare” because there is no such thing as New England cuisine. There are a few dishes perhaps that are, or were, more popular in New England than in other places, although I’m doubtful that cranberry desserts were ever among them. Cranberry pies and tarts, for example, were made throughout the antebellum North, that is, everywhere that was reasonably near to where cranberries were grown.
Regional American cooking is not exactly a hoax, but it has been way overblown by various food-related industries for their own profit. Food publishers came up with the notion, of course. They were already at it in the 1850s, when one enterprising outfit put forth The Great Western Cook Book, which primarily featured highfalutin dishes more typical of a New York City townhouse than a pioneer cabin but which rescued the theme by inserting a few recipes with cornball “western” titles like Soup—Rough and Ready, Steamboat Sauce, and Sausages—Hoosier Fashion. Still, regional American food publishing did not become a big business until the twentieth century, and the earliest of its mega-selling practitioners were the nieces of famed cookbook author Fannie Farmer, who inherited the rights to Farmer’s fabulously popular cookbook after their aunt’s death.
We see the actual, flesh-and-blood Fannie Farmer quite clearly in the first two editions of The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, the 1896 and 1906 editions, both of which Farmer personally prepared. Each chapter of these editions opens with the simple, plain, practical recipes then favored by the middle and upper classes throughout the country for family occasions. The rear of the chapters is totally different. Here we find recipes for the fancy Frenchified dishes that were popular for company in the Gilded Age, which Farmer assiduously collected from friends and colleagues and recreated from meals she enjoyed at tony restaurants in Boston, New York, and elsewhere. This particular combination of recipe styles was perfectly in sync with the time, and the way in which Farmer presented these recipes was equally on target. Every ingredient was specified down to the one-eighth teaspoon, and the fancy stuff was cleverly adapted to make it doable by an ordinary housewife, perhaps aided by a hired helper.
In the years following Farmer’s death, in 1915, the lower and middle reaches of the American middle class greatly expanded in size and economic clout, and it was these people, with their generally non-posh tastes, that a mass-market cookbook needed to reach. Both Farmer’s cookbook and Farmer herself needed a makeover, and the nieces, in tandem with the publisher, Little Brown, provided it. They gradually replaced the Frenchified dishes with homier fare, and capitalizing on the name “Boston” in the book’s title, they slyly repositioned the entire cookbook. To Farmer and her original audience, “Boston” had signaled big-city sophistication, which Farmer’s high-flown French recipes had corroborated. The nieces turned “Boston” into a metonym for old-timey Yankee New England, a place not of pretentious French cooking, which was unfamiliar and off-putting to the book’s new target audience, but of simple, plain, inexpensive “home cooking,” whose repertory was mostly “everyday” but did include some fancy dishes suitable for bridge luncheons or company suppers. This repositioning was a complicated process, worked out over a number of editions, but since we have been talking about cobbler-like desserts, we’ll focus on the handiwork of Farmer’s nieces in this department. The actual Farmer outlined a dessert called Steamed Apple Pudding, a mass of apples steamed under a biscuit crust and then turned out on a plate and served with a sauce. This dessert is seen in virtually every cookbook of every section of the country in the late nineteenth century, sometimes, in the North, under the name apple slump—a term that would never have passed the lips of the genteel Fannie Farmer. Apparently the title “Steamed Apple Pudding” did not sound New England enough to the nieces, nor even “apple slump,” so in the 1940s edition of the cookbook, they rechristened the recipe Cape Cod Apple Pudding—and also introduced a new sauce to accompany desserts of this ilk, called Yankee Sauce. Then, following the Cape Cod Apple Pudding, the nieces unveiled yet another supposed New England fruit dessert, Cape Cod Blueberry Grunt, which is basically a slump with blueberries. For some years now, food writers have been desperately seeking the old New England origin of this weird, rather unappetizing dessert term, never considering that, just perhaps, Fannie Farmer’s nieces dreamt it up. I don’t know if they did, but certainly Fannie Farmer did not use it. She would rather have slit her wrists than defile her cookbook with a grunt.
There are only three or four New England recipe titles in the first two editions of The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, while there are at least a dozen recipes named for southern places, and perhaps a hundred recipes titled in some variety of French. As far as I can tell, the only explicit reference to New England foodways in the first two editions appears at the head of the pastry chapter, where Farmer apologizes for the New England love of pie, which Farmer, like all food sophisticates of her day, absolutely loathed and pointedly excluded from every one of her dozens of lunch and dinner menus. Yet today the existence of a New England cuisine is virtually taken for granted, and the modern mother and codifier of this cuisine is invariably said to be Fannie Farmer. Surely this acolyte of the gilded cuisine of the Gilded Age, this Martha Stewart sort of figure, is spinning in her grave to have been transformed into some countrified New England granny.
This is not the place to speculate why so-called “regional American cooking” has so captivated the American imagination over the last century or so. But we do need to consider why this notion has bamboozled even highly intelligent, thoughtful persons like Laurie Colwin, who should have been able to descry the fantasy of a work like The Yankee Cook Book from page one. The reason, of course, is that we all live in a bubble of our time. If enough people believe that regional cooking, even New England regional cooking, actually exists, it begins to exist because books and articles about it will be published, restaurants will feature it, food manufacturers will produce its products, and boosters will call tourists to come on down and sample it. If you look up Nantucket cranberry pie online, you will find multiple listings for it in connection with the so-called Pioneer Woman, who is a flesh-and-blood human performing an imaginary life in a mythic place created by TV. The actual Nantucket and the actual West of the pioneers are quite far apart on the map, but their mythic counterparts occupy precisely the same marketing space.
Antebellum American manuscript cookbooks are brilliant at cutting through the regional fairytales and associated folderol. The cookbooks show us that antebellum cooking was much the same throughout the country, including the South, even if southern cooking did take a distinctive and in some ways wonderful turn later in the nineteenth century. They show us that most of this cooking was still English and that even those dishes that can arguably be classified as American inventions were largely based on English precedents: the multicultural tapestry that American cooking is today happened later. It did not matter much who your people originally were—English, German, Dutch, French, or whatever—or whether you were Protestant of some stripe, or Catholic, or even Jewish. There is, for example, an astonishing antebellum manuscript cookbook at the Wilson Library of the University of North Carolina that was written by the daughter of an Orthodox Jew. The book does have four culturally Jewish recipes, and it does steer clear of pork and avoid mixing meat and milk, but the vast majority of its recipes are the same as those found in any other manuscript cookbook of the day compiled anywhere in the country. In short, antebellum American manuscript cookbooks describe an American cooking that seems in sync with antebellum American social history generally. The antebellum culture of the relatively privileged was surprisingly unified, primarily by strenuous assimilation but also by the new phenomena of train and steamboat travel and the spread of magazines and other national publications, a process that would accelerate after the Civil War.
You don’t have to be interested in culinary history—indeed you don’t even have to believe that culinary history per se is worthy of serious interest—to be drawn in by the meta-narrative that the old American manuscript cookbooks tell. But to access this narrative, culinary historians must be willing see through the contemporary myth of our so-called food revolution, which tells us that today’s American cooking, in its more serious, process-free reaches, is far superior to any American cooking that has come before. In fact, the truth is more complicated. As someone who has taught thousands of cooking classes, I can tell you that American home cooking is extinct—except among a small coterie of hobbyists, who practice it mostly on weekends and more often for company than family. Our food revolution is largely about restaurant cooking, the excesses of which bear pondering as they smack uncomfortably of a sort of Gilded Age dementia. What, really, is one to make of a ball of celery root cooked and served in a pig’s bladder, a much ballyhooed notion of a currently hotter-than-hot New York restaurant? And is it really enjoyable to be handed a slip of paper with the message “please shut up,” and then to be stunned by bright white light as white-clad waiters serve all white food with fingers poised over lips demanding that you eat in silence? The New York Times correspondent who had this experience seems to have had a swell time, judging from his recent laudatory review of the restaurant that provided it. But I suspect that this was partly because someone else was paying the hundreds of dollars it costs to eat there.
A repeated theme in culinary history is that the food and cooking of one’s particular time are infinitely better than that of a previous time—and perhaps also infinitely worse, the crazy paradox of our food thinking today. At least in the popular imagination, the cooking of the past is never merely different—a product of a particular human group at a particular time and therefore inevitably doomed to extinction along with the humans who produced it. When our time has passed, our Chicken Marbella and our chocolate lava cakes (both of which are perhaps already passé) as well as our pork belly buns and our mega burgers and our pedigreed vegetable plates—indeed all our food and cooking—will seem as strange and unknowable to our descendants as any we now see in the cookbooks of our forebears, and all of the contradictory ideologies that undergirded our ways with food, whether French, or fusion, or farm-to-table, or like grandmother used to make, or just add water and mix, will seem decrepit, if not foolish. We can hope that the culinary historians of that future will try to see our food and cooking with minds unclouded by whatever myths prevail in their day. Perhaps we can even hope that they will study our paper and digital recipe boxes.