Library Acquires Collection of American Cookery Books, From the 1770s to 1960s

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The George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives has a new collection of American Cookery Books from the 1772-1960s, donated by Esta Kramer

A proper “Independence Cake,” according to Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery, should be big enough to feed quite a few Americans. The cake recipe, originally published in 1796, requires 20 pounds of flour, 15 pounds of sugar, 10 pounds of butter, four dozen eggs, one quart wine, one quart brandy, one ounce each of nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon, two pounds citrons, currants and raisins, and one quart yeast. Then, “when baked, frost with loaf sugar, dress with box and gold leaf.”

In the Esta Kramer Collection of American Cookery — the library’s new collection of over 700 American cookery books — you can find recipes for federal pancakes, squash pie, flummery (fermented pudding), calf’s head pie and stewed oysters. You can read about how to smoke a herring over a campfire or how to remove freckles. Along with “receipts” (as recipes were once commonly called), many of the books offer household advice for “young, inexperienced housewives” or frugal housewives, bachelors or servants. Other are geared toward professional chefs, hunters, and children. The collection includes titles dating from the 1770s to the 1960s.

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Marieke Van Der Steenhoven with the stacks of cookery books

Although its titles span a longer period, the collection’s strength is the late Colonial era through 1900, according to Marieke Van Der Steenhoven, the outreach fellow for the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives in Hawthorne-Longfellow Library. “It is an incredible resource for American food history. One of the exciting prospects for this collection is how students, faculty and visiting scholars will use this collection to tell stories.”

The collection includes every type of American cookbook to emerge between the late 18th and early 20th centuries, including ones on foreign cuisines, diets, seasonal cooking, vegetarianism and military cooking, Van Der Steenhoven​ said. The books help to illuminate the evolution of American culture, because embedded in their mostly practical advice is a kind of commentary on social shifts and major events, such as women’s suffrage, the Civil War, the African-American experience, the Industrial Revolution, immigration and westward expansion.

“The collection not only provides a window into the evolution of the culinary arts in the United States, it is an extraordinary resource for the study of cultural and social history,” said Marjorie Hassen, director of the Bowdoin College library.

Van Der Steenhoven said she anticipated that the books will appeal to researchers and students who are interested in history, gender and women’s studies, American studies — even religion. Many community and charitable books are part of the collection, including ones assembled and published by churchgoers to raise money for their congregations. This includes the first Maine cookbook, Fish, Flesh, and Fowl: a book of recipes for cooking, compiled by Ladies of State Street Parish (1877).

The book collection is named after Esta Kramer, who made a gift to Bowdoin to enable its acquisition from the Biddeford, Maine, book dealer, Rabelais. Kramer, who was a former assistant editor at the New York-based Arts Magazine and now lives in Damariscotta, “has a keen interest in food, cooking, gardening and cookbooks,” Hassen described. “She was a foodie before the word was invented.”

Amassed by Clifford Apgar, a retired banker from New York, the collection is made up of books printed by presses from across the country. It contains the first Southern and Midwest cookbooks, as well as other regional works, including La Cuisine Creole: A Collection of Culinary Recipes, From Leading Chefs and Noted Creole Housewives, Who Have Made New Orleans Famous for its Cuisine (1885) and Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife (1824). Also included are later works on Japanese-American and Mexican-American cookery.

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Esta Kramer, a lover of good food since she traveled to France in 1950, made possible through a gift the acquisition of the cookery collection for Bowdoin’s Special Collections. Special Collections & Archives already holds the papers of Kramer’s late husband, the New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer. “I love the idea of both my husband and I being together in some way in the library,” she said.

The earliest imprint in the collection is a book by Susannah Carter of Clerkenwell, which was originally published in Great Britain in 1765. The first American edition came out in 1772. Called The Frugal Housewife, the small and fragile book contains two engravings by Paul Revere on how to prepare a rabbit, goose, turkey, chicken, pheasant, woodcock, duck and pigeon for roasting or boiling. Engraving was just one of the Revere’s talents — besides being a staunch patriot, he was also a silversmith, industrialist and, briefly, according to Wikipedia, a dentist.

The collection also contains an 1815 edition of the first truly American cookbook, American Cookery, which was first published in 1796 by “an American Orphan” about whom little is known other than her name, Amelia Simmons. The book’s full title is (like many of the cookbooks in the collection) rather lengthy: American Cookery, or, The art of dressing viands, fish, poultry, and vegetables; and the best modes of making puff-pastes, pies, tarts, puddings, custards, and preserves. And all kinds of cakes, from the imperial plumb to plain cake.”

There is a book in the collection by Harriet Beecher Stowe and her sister Catharine titled The American Woman’s Home. It includes, besides recipes, sundry advice on such matters as how to plant a kitchen garden, manage young children and hang pictures. “All of it is steeped in the idea that it is a woman’s duty to make a good home to create a foundation for democracy and a strong country,” Van Der Steenhoven said. Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin while she was living in Brunswick in the early 1850s with her husband, then a Bowdoin professor.

The House Servant’s Directory by Robert Roberts, published in 1828, is one of the first books by an African-American issued by a commercial press. It is also the first book dedicated to domestic work written by an African American. It includes short chapters on eclectic topics, from how “to cure those that are given to drink” (put three live eels in their liquor) to how to use “safe liquid to turn red hair black.”

Other cookery books, however, treat alcohol as a health aid. “Lives, without doubt, have been saved by the use of champagne,” maintains Fannie Merritt Farmer in her book, Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent, published in 1907.

The first Maine cookbook, Fish, Flesh, and Fowl, promises that “each recipe contained in this book has been thoroughly tested and proved good.” Published in 1877 in Portland, the book contains recipes for lobster salad, “hodge podge” (vegetable pickle), meads and various cures for ailments, including small pox and poisoning.

Among the cookbooks are many rare works published by small presses. As a collection, it “presents a broad range of what food is, and the different ways we think about, consume, purchase and engage with food,” Van Der Steenhoven said.

For more information about the collection go here, or contact the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives at scaref@bowdoin.edu or (207) 725-3288.

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