The Daily Meal Hall of Fame: Amelia Simmons

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This mysterious eighteenth-century woman wrote the first published American cookbook, and truly American it was

American Cookery was published in Hartford, Connecticut in 1796.

The Daily Meal is announcing the inductees into its Hall of Fame for 2017. The Hall of Fame honors key figures, both living and dead, from the world of food. We are introducing the honorees one per weekday. Our sixth inductee is Amelia Simmons. For all Daily Meal Hall of Fame inductees, please click here.

Amelia Simmons (1760s?–?) wrote the first American cookbook in print, American Cookery, published in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1796. (The lengthy sub-title reads: “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 plumb to plain cake. Adapted to this country, and all grades of life.”)

This volume of just 50 pages is deceptively simple. Many of Simmons’ recipes run just two or three lines — but her impact on American cookbook writers who followed was definitive.

Simmons was the first to use vocabulary that represented American cooking in the early days of independence. Her language would have been foreign to English cooks. Rather than calling for “fat,” Simmons listed “shortening”; what an English cook would have called “biscuits” Simmons called “cookies,” and what would have been known as "scones" in Britain were instead American “biscuits.”Not only in her language but also in her choice of ingredients throughout the book, Simmons showed several ways in which American cooking had already developed its own style, distinguishing itself from its English colonial heritage.

Not only in her language but also in her choice of ingredients throughout the book, Simmons showed several ways in which American cooking had already developed its own style, distinguishing itself from its English colonial heritage. She wrote glowingly of Indian corn and called it “one of the most agreeable and wholesome grains in the world,” later stating that a corn-based johnnycake or hoe cake is better than a Yorkshire pudding. She was also the first author to mention the use of a chemical rising agent called “pearl ash” — the forerunner of baking powder, made from the white remains of baked potash (today it is known as potassium carbonate).

Simmons remains a mysterious figure in culinary history, and very little is known about her life. In American Cookery she refers to her orphaned upbringing, and mentions her lack of “an education sufficient to prepare the work for the press.” Her perseverance in publishing a cookbook despite her own limitations is admirable, and she likely had some financial backing at the time of writing it.

Despite the “all grades of life” in her sub-title, the recipes in her cookbook are obviously directed toward families with generous resources. For instance, she gives directions for several sweets at a time when sugar was expensive and not at the disposal of the common household. Her recipe for “Independence Cake” calls for several eggs, twenty pounds of flour, and gold leaf for decorating. Although meant to be made just once a year for “the Glorious Fourth,” an extravagant cake such as this would not have been baked by cooks of lower means.

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We may not know much about Amelia Simmons herself, but she was a true pioneer who opened the door for both men and women in American cookbook writing.