♦ Hunting for Bidwell House Recipes: Using Colonial Era Cookbooks ♦

By Donald Welsch

Recently, the museum hosted a lecture, tasting and tour on the colonial foodways at the Bidwell House. Foodways refers to the procurement, preparation and preservation of food, and part of our research included a search for recipes, journals, diaries and manuscripts that could contain information on Bidwell foodways. We were looking for answers to the questions: What was cooked? How was the food prepared and preserved? What food was grown, and what was purchased?

Unfortunately, no records were found—there is little written evidence of domestic life at the Bidwell House in the 18th century. So to understand what and how food was prepared, we turned to reproductions of English and American cookbooks that were likely to have been available to the mistresses of the Bidwell colonial home. Although we may never know exactly how household management was done, we have discovered some interesting facts about the cookbooks that were available to colonial homemakers. Our research relied on our reading of the original cookbooks in reproduction, as well as the academic research available on the subject. What follows are the highlights of what our exploration of early American cookbooks revealed.

We learned first that American cookbooks emerged from English books brought to the colonies. Original cookbooks were probably all English. Perhaps the three most popular volumes were:

  • Gervase Marham’s English Huswife was originally written in 1615 as a guide to housewives. It included household management ideas, herbal remedies as well as recipes. It was, however, meant as a model for the ideal homemaker rather than a handbook for everyday living.
  • Hannah Glasse’s Art of Cookery first published in 1747. It was considered very English in style but was the most creative and ingenious cookbook of its time.
  • Elizabeth Raffald’s Exper-ienced English Housewife, was a blending of household manual and book. It was first published about 1782.

English authors saw an opportunity to profit from colonial cooking and issued American editions of their original publications. Susannah Carter first published her cookbook, Frugal Housewife, in England in 1742. It was designed to be used by middleclass women rather than by servant cooks. She reissued the book, in 1772, with accommodations for American homemakers. A local Boston printer, Paul Revere, did the illustrations and printing. Hannah Glasse reissued her cookbook in 1805, adding a special section at the back that was designed for American homemakers. Finally, Elizabeth Raffald adapted her work for the colonial market in 1801 with little fanfare.

In addition to the English cookbooks, colonial homemakers probably gathered recipes and instruction through word of mouth and observation of family members and servants. Also, many cooks may have brought manuscripts or collections of recipes from England, to which they added over time. We also know that many homemakers used their cookbooks as family journals. Records of household wisdom, local recipes and social information can be found in the margins and bindings of many commercial cookbooks.

The first distinctly American cookbooks were published beginning in the 1790’s. Most were based on or adopted from English works. Perhaps the three most popular volumes were:

  • Amelia Simmons, American Cookery, was published in Albany in 1796. She based much of the format and adopted many of the generic recipes from Susannah Carter’s book. It is considered the first true American work because all the recipes have been adjusted for colonial ingredients and cooking facilities. Based on her recipes she must have been a creative and talented cook. Her use of local spices and knowledge of cooking techniques is wonderful.
  • Lucy Emerson, New England Cookbook, published in 1808 was edited to focus on the needs of New England homemakers. Eliza Smith had already published a cookbook in 1742 that focused on the ingredients and cooking styles of Virginia and the southern colonies. Miss Emerson’s book was quite popular. It was, however, heavily based upon and borrowed from the Simmons book. Its real contribution is the addition of New England coastal cooking and recipes.
  • Maria Childs wrote the most enduring of the period’s cookbooks, in 1829. Titled American Frugal Housewife, it was the most complete “Americanized” cookbook of the period. So complete, in fact, that Sturbridge Village adopted the recipes and published their own excellent historical version of the cookbook. The volume compares the preparation of most of Child’s recipes using colonial hearth techniques with modern kitchen methods.

The recipes found in American cookbooks were adapted for local ingredients. The original English recipes were based on the ingredients that were available to English cooks. Many of these ingredients, such as spices and herbs, were imported from other countries. Early colonial pantries were limited to local grown or hunted and gathered ingredients. Remote settlements relied upon what they could grow on their own family farms. The native people of a region introduced many new ingredients to the colonial households. Prep-aration of more sophisticated recipes became possible only when American merchants imported the needed spices and preserved foods.

The recipes found in American cookbooks also had to be adapted for the available kitchen equipment. English versions of the recipes often assumed that the cook had access to complete hearth kitchen facilities with all the latest equipment. American colonial kitchens, such as the Bidwell House, were often more modest and not equipped with specialized equipment. As more equipment was imported from England local artisans copied these items and made them available to colonial homemakers.

From our review of the literature it seems cooking was an interesting and exciting pursuit in the 18th century Bidwell House. Old recipes and cooking techniques combined with new ingredients and kitchen equipment helped to create a new way of cooking. During the time when the new American colonies were seeking a means to separate from England, colonial foodways were undergoing a sort of revolution of their own.