Saturday, January 9, 2010

We'll Make the Best of What's Around: Looking Back at Cookery in the Genesee Valley

Spring 2008

Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma tries to tackle the fundamental question of "what should we eat for dinner?" (1). Pollan's discussion can largely be seen as an investigation of nature versus culture -- nature being the actual food we, as humans, eat, and culture being how we find, prepare, and think about that food. In cookbooks this relationship, in a way, has been written out in black and white. Cookbooks can be used as a vehicle to explore the food culture of the past. Since a nation's food culture is a reflection of the nation itself, it should come as no surprise that one of the very first American cookbooks, American Cookery by Amelia Simmons (circa 1796), is seen as a being "in its own way, a second Declaration of American Independence" ("Feeding America").

If one wanted to explore the food culture of the past in one's own area, a good way to begin would be by researching cookbooks from as far back as one can find from one's hometown. In New York State's Genesee Valley, an excellent resource is the Genesee Valley Collection at SUNY Geneseo's Milne Library in Geneseo, NY. The collection contains American cookbooks, many that were published or distributed in the Genesee Valley region. The collection itself serves as a time machine for exploring the history of the area; the assortment of cookery books in addition to the agricultural and farming texts in the collection allows a researcher to peek back in time to see what people were eating and how it was being prepared. This look backwards can turn into a view forward with sights set on returning to locally based eating.

One of the first things a casual browser of the cookery collection might notice is the use of the word "receipt" in cook books of the past instead of "recipe". The explanation for this can be found in Susan S. Kinsey's book Pioneer Cookery of the Genesee Country:

I often wondered about early cookbooks using the word receipt instead of recipe so I found a 19thcentury dictionary and looked up both words. Recipe was defined as "a formulary for making some combination; especially a prescription medicine." Receipt, on the other hand, was "a formulary according to the directions of which things are to be combined; as a receipt for sponge cake." My modern dictionary shows how our language has evolved. Now recipe is defined as a "formula for making a dish in cookery; -- often preferred to receipt."

The change in semantics reveals the cultural shifts in American cookery. Things change over time, and the cookbooks of the Genesee Valley collection attest to this. When leafing through the cookbooks of the collection, they are in fact directions, not formulas. These books are filled with short paragraphs, titled by the dish, with measurements throughout -- unlike the formulaic structure used today where the amount of each ingredient is listed at the top of the recipe and the directions for assembly below.

Another reflection on the change in time is in the language within the "receipts" of the past. Recipes today are very standardized in comparison with the receipts of the past. Before, typical measurements would involve words such as "a few" and "about" as well as measurements unused today such as a "gill," which is equivalent to a quarter pint. Temperature was also discussed in vague terminology, such as "blood warmth." Today the measurements and temperatures in recipes are written out with exact measurements of the ingredients, and the tools used to make those measurements range from small measuring spoons to measure out a pinch to the multiple kinds of thermometers from candy to meat to oven. The differences between the past and the present is a reflection of our American culture -- the need for structure is a means to getting things done as quickly as possible in order to keep up with the fast-paced American life style of today.

The textual differences between cook books of today and of the past is just a beginning; more differences come in the form of what foods were being used. The actual food people were preparing dishes with was different from the food available in grocery stores today. Many of the earliest cookbooks have receipts for different "Indian" dishes, such as Indian Pudding and Indian Cake (renamed Johnny Cake) containing Indian meal, which would equate to corn meal today, but is by no means the same. The corn meal one would purchase in a grocery store today would contain enrichment agents such as niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, and folic acid. Another difference is the variety of meats used in the past. There are many receipts in the old cookbooks using a variety of game animals, such as deer, partridge, cedar bird, also more exotic animals such as terrapin (sea turtle), as well as miscellaneous animals parts such as ox tongue and animal kidneys. The way food is used in these old cookbooks is a testament to the locavore cooking of the past-- that is, eating food grown/produced locally -- as well the way more than just the typical cuts of meat were eaten.

Cooking something out of a modern American cookbook can be standardized across the nation -- someone in New Mexico could make the same thing in Maine using the exact store-bought ingredients and if prepared exactly as the recipe reads, the two products would be almost identical; if attempted 150 years ago this experiment would not even be possible. the national shifting in how food is produced, the increasing scale of agriculture, along with the diversification of modes and speeds of transportation have developed a whole new way of national eating. the nation has become a "fast food nation" on every level -- not only are chain fast food restaurants a norm, the amounts of processed and prepared foods available at any minute are endless. The cookbooks of the past can really teach Americans today about a different way of living, a slower-paced, locally centered, community strong way of living. With the revival of local eating, these cookbooks may become a resource for rediscovering the rich food sources naturally occurring in one's own area.


Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. New York: Penguin, 2006.

Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook Project. "Introduction to Amelia Simmons."  2004.

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