Encyclopedia Womannica

Tastemakers: Amelia Simmons

Episode Summary

Amelia Simmons (c. 1796) authored the first known cookbook written by an American.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard. Theme music by Andi Kristins.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s Tastemaker wrote the first cookbook by an American to be published in the United States. Not only was this wildly popular book an important work in its own time, but today it provides incredible insight into early American food and culinary practices, and the time period when American identity was first being forged. Let’s talk about “the mother of American cookbooks” Amelia Simmons.

Very little is known about Amelia’s life. In fact, our knowledge of her today is as much a story of historical reclamation and deduction as it is a biography of a life. What we do know of her personal history has been gleaned and deduced from her only work, the famous cookbook “American Cookery,” published by Amelia in 1796.

Based on the preface to “American Cookery,” it’s believed that Amelia was an orphan of very modest means, had little education, and likely worked as a cook in a private home for at least some period of her life. Based on her use of many different kinds of herbs, wine, and advanced European roasting techniques in her cookbook, it’s clear that Amelia was very talented and skilled in the kitchen. There is also an unverified claim that Amelia may have been illiterate based on an inserted sheet of corrections in a later printing of the cookbook that suggested she dictated the recipes to someone else to write.

Historians believe that Amelia likely lived in either Hartford, Connecticut, where the first edition of American Cookery was published, or in Albany or the Hudson Valley area of New York. Food historian Karen Hess notes that multiple subsequent editions came from publishing houses in the Hudson Valley and Albany areas. She also points out that during late Colonial Times, Albany was the center of the potash industry, an ingredient that’s interestingly included in a number of Amelia’s recipes. That suggests a personal connection to the area.

Amelia also uses some Dutch words common to the Hudson Valley area. For example, American Cookery is the first work to use the dutch word “koekje” to describe what most early Americans would have called a “small cake” after the British. Amelia, however, spelled the word “cooky,” giving us the word Americans still use today for this common baked good.

“Cookie” is not the only staple term of American vernacular that first appears in American Cookery. In fact, Amelia’s use of colonial language is one of the book’s most interesting and historically valuable aspects. American Cookery is the first book to use the term “shortening” for a butter and lard mix, and it seems like Amelia may have actually coined the term “slapjacks.”

The recipes included in American Cookery give us a good sense of the kinds of foods eaten during this period, and the way that cooking was approached. Unlike British cookbooks from the era, most of Amelia’s recipes are centered around the use of cornmeal, a distinctly American ingredient at the time and a staple of lower and middle class diets. Along with her recipe for so-called “Indian slapjacks”, which were made with cornmeal, Amelia includes recipes for Hoe Cakes and other cornmeal-based baked goods that we still eat today.

With regard to how food was prepared in early America, Amelia’s recipes suggest that food was made in much larger quantities than we generally make today. One of her most famous recipes, the Election Cake, required 30 quarts of flour, while another of her cakes needed 2 pounds of butter and 15 eggs. These were not desserts made for your average family of four.

Amelia’s Election Cake is also a good example of her awareness of the growth of a distinct American national identity. This was one of a number of recipes in American Cookery that were given patriotic names, providing early American women with a new way to show their patriotism and national identity from inside the domestic sphere.

One of Amelia’s innovations in American Cookery that made its way back to Europe was her revolutionary use of a leavening agent, in this case pearl ash produced from potash, to make breads and cakes rise. In her recipes, this new method replaced the traditional use of yeast or the time-consuming practice of beating air into the dough to achieve the same result. Her use of pearl ash was the precursor to modern baking powders.

Amelia also introduced a beer fermented with molasses that became a popular means for treating scurvy on long sea voyages. 

American Cookery was an immense success, so popular that it continued to be reprinted for 35 years. Not only was it the first cookbook written by an American for Americans, but it was the first cookbook to utilize popular and easily accessible American ingredients in traditional recipes. Priced at just two shillings and three pence (the equivalent about $1.25 today), it was incredibly affordable. Though we can’t know for sure, based on her preface to the second edition, it seems likely that Amelia achieved monetary success from her work. 

As always, we’re taking a break for the weekend. Tune in on Monday for the story of another Tastemaker. We’ll be talking about a unique artist, who wrote one of the most famous cookbooks of all time.

This week of Encyclopedia Womannica is brought to you by Verishop, an e-commerce destination for everyday luxury, where the tastemakers of today can get everything they need to cook, clean, dress and live. Go to Verishop.com/Encyclopedia that's V-E-R-I-S-H-O-P.COM/encyclopedia for 15% off your first order

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!