Special Collections Cooking – Part 1: Early American Cookbooks

Cookbooks offer a unique opportunity to engage with the historic record through performance, allowing the reader to experiment in the kitchen using the print materials available to the original audience. Reinterpreting historic recipes can be an opportunity to investigate issues of economics, material culture, class, gender, and lifestyles of their authors and readers. This three week Special Collections Cooking series will engage with American foodways using materials in DePaul’s Special Collections and Archives to recreate historic dishes, one recipe at a time.

The cooking series was born from the concept of experiential historical research. Coming to DePaul from a background in historical archaeology, my research has sometimes included reassembling early American domestic spaces or “experimental archaeology” to recreate historic tools or housework methods. While cooking implements, ceramic and glass tableware, and food waste form a major part of site collections, the cookbooks held in DePaul’s Special Collections and Archives offer a glimpse into these materials’ actual use as well as the tastes and ideals of their readers.

The Experienced American Housekeeper title page

Our first Special Collections Cooking entry examines recipe books in the newly formed United States, focusing on an 1823 edition of Maria Eliza Rundell’s The Experienced American Housekeeper. Rundell’s book, originally published in London as Domestic Cookery in 1806, is one of several early British and American recipe books held in DePaul’s Special Collections and Archives. Formal publications that included recipes or “receipts” were circulating in England by the sixteenth century, building upon a tradition of hand-written books that primarily collected formulas for medical treatments and home cleansing. Recipe books gradually shifted focus from medicinal to culinary recipes in the eighteenth century, as healthcare routines in the era stressed an intrinsic link between dietary elements like acidity, spice, and temperature and physical health.

Frances Parkes’s Domestic Duties, p. 217

Early Americans typically used original or reprinted British cookbooks like Rundell’s that covered a range of topics related to household management. Popular cookbooks included sections on distillation, treatments for illnesses, and home maintenance along with culinary recipes. These books’ wide focus was partly intended to help families instruct a variety of hired domestic servants, with one author’s introduction noting her work used simple language to “instruct the lower Sort.” Frances Parkes’s Domestic Duties (1829), a guide for young married women, includes a mock dialogue in which two ladies discuss using popular cookbooks, including Rundell’s, as instruction sources for their cooks to “strictly follow.”

While these early cookbooks highlight the importance of domestic management among wealthy families, they may also have served as an avenue for less wealthy readers to indulge in aspirational meal preparation, mimicking the culinary lifestyle of more affluent swathes of society. Most late eighteenth and early nineteenth century cookbooks were attributed to women authors, echoing the era’s increasing classification of home management as a feminine sphere as well as publishers’ attempts to appeal to women as a growing consumer base. Domestic management was especially relevant to American readers, as post-Revolutionary leaders championed an idealized image of the nascent American household in which women cultivated their families’ physical and moral development. Women were seen as key to raising the new nation’s first generation of temperate, industrious workers, and food was a critical part of their enterprise.

American cookbooks initially reflected the habits of wealthy Europeans, but they began including more affordable eating styles in the early nineteenth century as the perceived importance of economical domestic management grew. American reprints of British works began including new recipes using local crops like pumpkin, cranberries, and cornmeal, or “Indian meal.” These recipes balanced other entries for expensive European fare that required imported wheat flours and heavily taxed sugars and wines. The mix of luxury foods with simpler recipes accompanied an increasing focus on responsible food buying, reusing goods, and substituting expensive ingredients.

Rundell’s Experienced American Housekeeper follows this trend, mixing elaborate recipes like “Neck of Veal a’-la-braise” with a variety of breads, cakes, and meat dishes made with staple ingredients, such as “a Cheap Seedcake” and “Bubble and Squeak,” fried cabbage and beef or tripe. Also included are extensive alternate recipes and suggestions for ingredient substitutions. To explore the mix of recipes stressing economy with those offering indulgence or luxury, I decided to recreate Rundell’s recipe for “fool”, a dessert mixing thick, sweetened custard with stewed fruit.

Stay tuned for Thursday’s entry to explore the difficulties in translating 200-year-old cooking instructions and to see how you can whip up a nineteenth century dessert in the modern kitchen.


Special Collections Cooking is a periodic, bi-weekly series using resources from DePaul University’s Special Collections and Archives to explore American lifeways by recreating historic recipes. The entire series may be viewed here. To learn more about DePaul’s rare books and archival collections, contact Special Collections and Archives at 773-325-7864, or archives@depaul.edu.

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