History of Cookbooks: Part 3 — The Women Take Charge

The biggest change in cookbooks as we enter the 18th century is the emergence of women. Earlier, nearly all books about cookery and kitchens were written not only by men, but for men, as chefs to nobility and wealth or for the edification of those nobles so they may properly instruct their servants. 

But the growing and increasingly literate middle class created a market for household guides, and because women tended to run family kitchens, publishers aimed their products at them, and it was mostly women who wrote such books. 

The first notable woman was Hannah Wolley (pronounced “Woolley” and sometimes spelled that way — even on the title page of her own books). Born in 1622, Wolley published five cookbooks over her life, each a best-seller. 

Writer David Goldstein of the Folger Shakespeare Library, which owns original copies, says ““She was the Martha Stewart of her time, the English-speaking world’s first female lifestyle guru. Housewives copied her instructions into their own handwritten recipe books, passing down her advice and rhetorical style to subsequent generations. Her books went through numerous editions; one was translated into German.”

She was widowed by the age of 40, and supported herself and her children with writing and publishing six cookbooks between 1661 and 1674. They covered not only recipes, but also “physick and chirurgery” (basically medicine and first-aid), and issues of deportment and household management. 

The first book was The Ladies Directory, followed in 1664 by The Cooks Guide and in 1668, by A Guide to Ladies Gentlewomen and Maids and in 1670, her best-selling The Queen-Like Closet and 1772 with The Ladies Delight. 

The Queen-Like Closet is dedicated “To all Ladies, Gentlewomen, and to all other of the Female Sex who do delight in, or be desirous of good Accomplishments.” The book was a favorite of 19th-Century writer Charles Lamb, who owned a copy, who wrote of it as “an abstract of receipts in cookery, confectionery, cosmetics, needlework, morality, and all such branches of what were then considered as female accomplishments.”

Earlier cookbooks were often half medical texts, listing herbs and poultices for the curing of diseases. Later books, such as Wolley’s very often did the same, but there was a new addition: chapters on the proper behavior of “all young ladies, gentlewomen and all maidens whatever as the universal companion and guide to the Female Sex in all Relations, Companies, Conditions and states of life, even from Child-hood down to Old-age, and from the Lady at the Court , to the Cook-maid in the Country.” 

In writing about how a kitchen-maid should act, Wolley writes:

“She ought to be of a quick and nimble Apprehension, neat and cleanly in her own habit, and then we need not doubt of it in her Office; not to dress her self, especially her Head, in the Kitchin, for that is abominable sluttish, but in her Chamber, before she comes down, and that to be at a fit hour, that the fire may be made, and all things prepared for the Cook, against he or she comes in; she must not have a sharp Tongue, but humble; pleasing, and willing to learn, for ill words may provoke Blows from a Cook, their heads being always filled with the contrivance of their business, which may cause them to be peevish and froward, if provoked to it…”

Later in her life, her publisher issued unauthorized cookbooks in her name, often jumbled from her earlier work, without her knowledge and without paying her. She fought back against this by complaining, but she had little recourse at the time as a woman in a man’s publishing world. This pattern will recur. 

Wolley’s recipe for “A boyled sallat of Spinage” reads:

“Take four or five handfuls of Spinage clean picked, boyl it well in water and salt; then drain it well from the water, and chop it well with the back of a Knife; then let it boyl in a Dish over a few coals with some butter and vinegar, a few plumped Currants, and as much sugar as you think fit, garnish it with hard Eggs, and so serve it in.”

In 1707, Robert May brought out his True Gentlewoman’s Delight. In 1719, Mary Kettilby edited A Collection of above Three Hundred Receipts on Cookery, Physick and Surgery; for the Use of all Good Wives, Tender Mothers, and Carful Nurses. She didn’t claim to be the author, but the assembler of others’ work. And in 1723, John Nott published The Cooks and Confectioners Dictionary: Or, the Accomplish’d Housewives Companion. Titles containing the words “accomplished” and “housewives,” and “frugal” became the norm in the following century. 

Kettilby includes many medical entries, including one for how to cure “the King’s Evil,” or scrofula. 

 Nott’s book describes how to make “Bisks, Farces, forc’d Meats, Marinades, Olio’s, Puptons, Ragoos, Sauces, Soops, Pottages.” Pastries include biscuits, cakes, custards, puddings, pies and tarts. Confectionery includes candying and conserving flowers, fruits, and roots, as well as jellies, marmalades and decorative “sugar-works.” Drinks include the making of beer, cider, mead, perry and English wines, as well as cordials.

A recipe for making an asparagus omelet:

One of the most popular cookery books was Eliza Smith’s The Compleat Housewife, or, Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion of 1727. It went through 18 editions and traveled across the ocean to become, in 1742, the first cookbook printed in the colonies, in Williamsburg, Va. That version was altered for American tastes and without requiring “the ingredients or materials for which are not to be had in this country.”

Smith takes to task the older cookbooks, from previous centuries and days she desires to give regular housewives and middle-class cooks recipes they can successfully prepare at home. In her preface she writes:

“THERE are indeed already in the World various Books that treat on this Subject, and which bear great Names, as Cooks to Kings, Princes, and Noblemen, and from which one might justly expect something more than many, if not most of these I have read, perform, but found my self deceived in my Expectations; for many of them to us are impracticable, others whimsical, others unpalatable, unless to depraved Palates, some unwholsome, many Things copied from old Authors, and recommended without (as I am persuaded) the Copiers ever having had any Experience of the Palatableness, or had any Regard to the Wholsomeness of them: Which two Things ought to be standing rules, that no Pretenders to Cookery ought to deviate from And I cannot but believe, that those celebrated Performers, notwithstanding all their Professions of having ingeniously communicated their Art, industriously concealed their best Receipts from the Publick.” 

Men didn’t disappear completely from the business. Charles Carter published The Compleat City and Country Cook: or, Accomplish’d Housewife in 1732 and Richard Bradley released The Country Housewife, and Lady’s Director in the same year. 

William Ellis published The Country Housewife’s Companion in 1750 and William Augustus Henderson’s The Housekeeper’s Instructor ran through 17 editions, beginning in 1791. 

Henderson has a chapter on food for long sea voyages, which includes a section on “drippings,” or bacon grease, which provides good calories, but says “It is a very good maxim to keep the pot upside down, to prevent its being destroyed by the rats. It will keep good any voyage and makes as fine puff-paste crust as any butter whatever.” 

Sarah Harrison made the case for women, though, in her Housekeeper’s Pocket Book, and Compleat Family Cook of 1733 when she complains how men belittle the “feminine arts of government that are of much more intrinsick value than some admired branches of literature.” 

There is a rising brand of what we might call feminism in many of these cookbooks, that, although they glorify the domestic arts in a way that Betty Friedan might find uncomfortable, they make a case, in the temper of their time, for the efficacy and agency of women. They claim importance for what they do. 

Her recipe for Chicken Fricasee:

But it was Elizabeth Moxon who carried the baton from Smith, with her enormously popular English Housewifery Exemplified of 1741. A 16th edition was printed in 1808. Very little is known of Moxon, outside of her book.

It was designed as a guide for “Mistresses of Families and higher and lower Women servants,” included recipes for “soops, made-dishes, pastes, pickles, cakes, creams, jellies, made-wines, &c.” 

Those who remember ghastly short-cut Can-Opener Cookbook from 1951 may have thought that recipes named “surprise” were endemic to the Eisenhower years, but Moxon includes hers for “Chicken Surprise:”

“Take half a Pound of Rice, set it over a Fire in soft Water, when it is half boiled put in two or three small Chickens truss’d, with two or three Blades of Mace, and a little Salt; take a Piece of Bacon about three Inches square, and boil it in Water whilst almost enough, then take it out, pare off the out Sides, and put it into the Chickens and Rice to boil a little together; (you must not let the Broth be over thick with Rice) then take up your Chickens, lay them on a Dish, pour over them the Rice, cut your Bacon in thin Slices to lay round your Chickens, and upon the Breast of each a Slice.

This is proper for a Side-dish.”

The real superstar of the time, though, was Hannah Glasse. Her Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy was first sold in 1747 and went on through at least 40 editions. It made a case for simplicity and for Englishness. She writes in a simple style, she says, so the lowest maid can understand her, unlike those great chefs of old. She wrote that “the great Cooks have such a high way of expressing themselves, that the poor Girls are at a Loss to know what they mean.” 

In her introduction, she writes: “I doubt I shall not gain the esteem of those gentlemen; however, let that be as it will, it little concerns me; but should I be so happy as to gain the good opinion of my own sex, I desire no more; that will be a full recompence for all my trouble; and I only beg the favor of every lady to read my Book through before they censure me, and then I flatter myself I shall have their approbation.” 

As for the French: 

“A Frenchman in his own country will dress a fine dinner of twenty dishes, and all genteel and pretty, for the expence he will put an English lord to for dressing one dish. … I have heard of a cook that used six pounds of butter to fry twelve eggs; when every body knows … that half a pound is full enough, or more than need be used: but then it would not be French. So much is the blind folly of this age, that they would rather be imposed on by a French booby, than give encouragement to a good English cook!”

She does include a chapter on French dishes, but warns: “Read this chapter and you will find how expensive a French cook’s sauce is.” The first recipe, “The French way of dressing partridges” concludes with her comment “This dish I do not recommend; for I think it an odd jumble of trash … but such receipts as this, is what you have in most books of cookery yet printed.”

And if you think the British taste for Indian food is recent, Glasse  includes the first English recipe for Indian pickles and for curry: 

Glasse wrote two other books, The Compleat Confectioner in 1755, and  The Servant’s Directory, or Housekeeper’s Companion from 1760. In places, she sounds surprisingly modern, especially to those who grew up through the Great Foodie Awakening of the late 20th Century:

After Glasse, the biggest name in the second half of the century was Elizabeth Raffald, whose Experienced English Housekeeper ran through 13 authorized and at least 23 pirated editions. Since British copyright laws didn’t cover recipes, pirating was a serious problem for all our authors. In an attempt to head off the copies, Raffald signed the first page of each of her books in ink and the message, “N.B. No Book is genuine but what is signed by the author.” She managed to do well anyway, selling the copyright to her publisher in 1773 for the modern equivalent of about $200,000. 

Two other notable cookbooks from near the end of the century are John Farley’s The London Art of Cookery and Housekeeper’s Complete Assistant On a New Plan, Made Plain and Easy to the Understanding of every Housekeeper, Cook, and Servant in the Kingdom, from 1783, and Susannah Carter’s The Frugal Housewife, or Complete Woman Cook, from 1765. 

The latter was republished in the Boston in 1772 with illustrations by Paul Revere. The version had added recipes for American dishes such as Indian Pudding, Maple Beer, Buckwheat Cakes and Pumpkin Pie. It remained the only American-published cookbook for two decades and sold very well. 

But, in 1796, the first truly American cookbook was published by Amelia Simmons, called American Cookery. It was the first to suggest serving cranberry with turkey and the first use of the word, “cookie.” 

Little is known of Simmons. She called herself “An American Orphan,” and was probably from either Connecticut or the Hudson River Valley in New York. There were 13 editions of her book between 1796 and 1831, and was sold for two shillings and threepence, or about $1.75 today, and consisted of just 47 octavo pages. The Library of Congress has designated American Cookery as one of the 88 “Books that Shaped America.” 

Simmons has some head-scratchers, like her concern for what the moon does to fish. 

“Salmon, the noblest and richest fish taken in fresh water — the largest are the best. They are unlike almost every other fish, are ameliorated by being 3 or 4 days out of water, if kept from heat and the moon, which has much more injurious effect than the sun.”

Or an opinion on garlic, which survived in the American kitchens until only 20 or 30 years ago: “Garlicks, tho’ used by the French, are better adapted to the uses of medicine than cookery.” 

(The blandness of the American diet was what I grew up on. Such an exotic thing as olive oil was usually bought from an apothecary and was used to drip into the ear for earache. For cooking, we used Crisco.) 

Simmons’ recipes for Indian Pudding:

And so, the century saw the rise of women as authors of cookbooks, and a kind of proto-feminism — a recognition that women had, and deserved to have power and a voice, although that voice still maintained a distinct separation of gender roles. The real breakthrough comes in the next century, when several women became what could almost be called franchises.  

Next: Women consolidate power

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