Where would we be without our colonial mothers? While their fathers, husbands, sons, and brothers were working in the fields, shops, and ships, women were toiling away at household tasks, raising children, working in the family businesses, and most importantly – Cooking. As we gather together to give thanks at one of our most beloved holidays of the year, let’s celebrate how generations of mothers, daughters, sisters, grandmothers, aunts, and cousins have contributed to an enduring symbol of American culture – the Thanksgiving dinner table.
To appreciate the Thanksgiving holiday, we have to look at the dedication and tensity of Sarah Josepha Hale. Hale was a widowed magazine editor who made it her duty to petition five US presidents over 17 years to establish a national day of Thanksgiving. Ultimately,it was Abraham Lincoln who supported and established Thanksgiving as s unifying holiday to heal woulds caused by the American Civil War. There are two fantastic picture books to share with the little ones in your family – Thank You, Sarah by Laurie Halse Anderson and Sarah Gives Thanks: How Thanksgiving Became a National Holiday by Mike Allegra.
What were our colonial ancestors serving up at the Thanksgiving dinner table? English women had access to the Food Network equivalent of mass produced and printed cookbook titles in the mid 1550s. An early cookbook from this period entitled Proper Newe Booke of Cokerye was printed in 1545, and was so successful it continued to be reprinted for another century. Putting the cookbook concept into perspective, William Shakespeare was born in April 1564, twenty years after cookbooks were being printed for ladies and domestic staff throughout England. The bard could just have easily achieved fame if he had dedicated his life to cookbooks instead of dramatic plays and sonnets.
Here are some tried and true recipes which have appeared on dinner plates of our colonial ancestors. Some have appeared in books and magazines after American Independence, but the instructions, ingredients, and ingenuity are apparent in each entry regardless of their publishing date.
The Compleat Housewife, or Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion, written by Eliza Smith was originally published in London in 1727, and is considered the first cookbook ever to be published in the United States.
In addition to recipes, The Compleat Housewife included directions for household management, domestic tasks, nursing sick family members, preparing home remedies.
New England families had ample supplies of seafood on hand, and the The Compleat Housewife contains ample cooking and serving instructions for lobsters on page 11 of the book.
In 1796, flush with victory after the War of Independence, Amelia Simmons published the first “bestselling” cookbook written by an American, for an American audience. As cooks had been using books written in England by British writers, Simmons set her book apart from the rest with the title: 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 Plum to Plain Cake: Adapted to this Country, and all Grades of Life.
As far as researchers can surmise, Simmons promoted uniquely American ingredients such as turkey, corn meal, pumpkin, and cranberries for the first time in print. If you’re looking for an early reference to cranberry sauce, you will find it on page five, of her book, along with a two great recipes for turkey.
Mrs. Henry Onderdonk of Ringgold Manor in Virginia submitted a unique recipe to a book entitled Colonial Recipes from Old Virginia and Maryland Manors, with Numerous Legends and Traditions Interwoven. The recipe, To Make A Rich Black Cake, was hand written by Martha Curtis Washington, wife of our first president George Washington. Onderdonk inherited the card from her great-grandmother, Mrs. Hazelhurst of Philadelphia. So, who wants to sample a cake served served to George Washington?
Building on the cookery skills of their colonial mothers, their successive daughters and granddaughters published their own cookbooks emphasizing the resources and skills to a unique new country. In Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats, Eliza Leslie provided readers with a substantial cookery book pertaining to everything sweet and dessert oriented. From puddings, preserves, biscuits, jellies, cake, custards, and something called a ‘cup cake’, Leslie states:
“The receipts in this little book are, in every sense of the word, American; but the writer flatters herself that (if exactly followed) the articles produced from them will not be found inferior to any of a similar description made in the European Manner. Experience has proved that pastry, cakes, &c. prepared precisely according to these directions will not fail to be excellent.”
Unlike The Compleat Housewife, Leslie’s book includes precise weights and measurements listed at the beginning of each recipe. This is a huge improvement on earlier publications. With Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats published in 1828, modern cooks are enjoying an instructional concept created by authors in a much earlier era.
Let’s talk turkey! Everyone has an opinion on how our Thanksgiving turkey should be cooked. Pinterest has a great selection of “new ways” to roast, fry, broil, or serve your turkey this year. Do you think colonials ate bland turkey over a spit with no gravy? Think again! In The Virginia Housewife by Mary Randolph, the author accounts for multiple ways to make sauce (gravy) using various seafood, fowl, or vegetable ingredients. If you’re agonizing over your turkey cooking schedule, you need to check this out:
If you’re looking to explore the drive and determination of our female fore bearers, you will want to read America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines by Gail Collins. Forget the drudgery of your high school history class, and read this book! America’s Women is an engrossing and delightful read, filled with stories and examples of how women shaped society and their families from the earliest American colonies to the present day.
Speaking of early American connection are you researching any colonial connections? Take our poll, make a comment, or share your current project!
See you at the Library!