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Mastering the Art of Reading an Old Recipe

For every moment of historical significance, there is a figure — often hidden — who fed the figures we do remember.

Interior of a Kitchen, by Eliphalet Fraser Andrews. [Smithsonian American Art Museum]

The trouble with studying historical recipes is that they are records of meals that no longer exist. We can’t go back in time to see, taste, and smell the dishes, and so we are left in the present to wonder what something might have tasted like way-back-when. Recipes connect us to the aspects of history which are often the most challenging to fully grasp — the everyday, the unremarkable, the ubiquitous. For every moment of historical significance, there is a figure — often hidden — who transformed ingredients into dishes to feed the figures we do remember, and often rose with the sun to do so.

As late as the 19th century, family recipes and cookbooks were considered so important for young brides that it wasn’t uncommon for scribes to be hired to make handwritten copies of a mother’s or grandmother’s cookbook. This lineage is beautiful and fraught. While cookbooks offered women an opportunity to connect with other women across great distances of time and space, it was often the case that the original owners of the cookbooks had very limited practical knowledge about cooking. 

Cooking has historically been a task that occupied much of the day. This was true even after the 19th century advent of labor-saving equipment like the egg beater and coal-burning stove. Those with the means to outsource domestic labor eagerly did so. As a result, many of the most popular 18th- and 19th-century recipes were likely not developed by the person named on the spine of the book, but rather her hired or enslaved cook, who may not have had the means — or literacy — to publish her own words. The recipes of this era — often only a few sentences long with little of the prefatory reading typical of today’s era of mile-long internet recipes — very rarely reflect this relationship. 

Still, there are methods of reading against the grain of these brief texts to locate clues about the recipe’s origins. Sometimes this involves following the trail of specific words in a recipe, tracking down locations mentioned, or even turning to census data, when it's available, to learn about people who are named. Sometimes it involves attempting to follow the recipes in a modern kitchen and making note of places where the recipe withholds key information or even repeats steps. The study of historical recipes is not dissimilar from detective work; every seeming peculiarity of the text is just as likely to reveal key information about the author as a name or date. It requires both practice and patience, and rewards treating the typical signs of a dead-end — no leads on a person’s name, no record that a cookbook even existed in the first place, or even burned cake — as answers within themselves.


Even within a single cookbook, you might find a surprising trove of history, relationships, and changing views. Elizabeth Smith Miller’s In The Kitchen provides an interesting case study. The 1875 cookbook offers keen readers insight into post-Civil War American life. It was not a publishing smash-hit like some of its more famous 19th-century peers, such as Lydia Maria Child’s The American Frugal Housewife or Fanny Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cook Book. Without the few copies of Miller’s cookbook that still exist in archives and library collections, In the Kitchen might have entirely disappeared from view. 

Miller was the daughter of abolitionist Gerrit Smith. Growing up in New York, she was exposed through her father’s work to notable abolitionists such as John Brown. She was a lifelong women’s rights activist and counted among her friends Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. This decidedly Northern upbringing renders her book’s table of contents especially interesting. Dedicated to the “cooking class of the Young Ladies’ Saturday Morning Club,” it opens by noting that many of the recipes within “are taken from written receipt-books of families famous both at the North and South for their savory cooking.” It makes good on this promise, including recipes from New York, Mississippi, and Maryland, as well as New Zealand, Germany, and England. As such, Miller’s book provides a glimpse of Reconstruction-era attempts to reintegrate the diverging regions of the country back into a central identity as well as to integrate more international dishes into the American palate. 

The book also marks a transitionary period in American cooking, where the more casual style of recipe writing from the first half of the 19th century was slowly being replaced with a more scientific delivery, with ingredients and measurements provided at the top of the recipe and the instructions given below. The old-fashioned narrative style of recipe writing, typically just a few sentences long with ingredients and measurements intermixed with the instructions, was a side effect of the way cooking was taught in the early years of the United States. Recipes were documented as quick reminders for experienced cooks, rather than as self-contained lessons about how to prepare an entirely new dish. 

Page from In The Kitchen, by Elizabeth Smith Miller, courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society. This page features both scientific style recipes as well as paragraph style recipes.

Toward the end of the 19th century, as job opportunities expanded for women and people of color, it became harder to find a cook who was willing to work long and hard hours for limited wages. Social expectations for housewives began to slowly shift, with more and more of the responsibilities for household cooking placed on their shoulders. Recipe writing shifted accordingly, taking on a more pedagogical tone. By the end of the 19th century, cookbooks were uniform in both their adherence to the scientific format and their use of the standard measurements familiar today: teaspoons, tablespoons, pints, cups, etc. The combination of recipe styles within In the Kitchen indicates that the cookbook includes older, traditional recipes as well as more modern ones — and that the recipes were only lightly edited. 

Even within individual recipes, we can see the transition that was underway. The recipe for fried chicken, written in paragraph style, features a mixture of old-fashioned and modern measurements. While the recipe calls for a “gill” of flour — an antiquated measurement that was outdated by the 1870s — the same recipe also calls for a pint of sweet cream and a teaspoonful of pepper. The presence of both the new and old suggests that the recipe long predates the book’s 1875 publication date, and that it has likely been passed down for quite some time. Though it has no attribution, we can deduce from the clues that generations of cooks come together in this single recipe.


Cookbooks from this period that were written for charity — typically by a church group — were understood to be authored by multiple people, and their recipes were often accompanied by an author byline. But it was not nearly as common for commercial cookbooks to cite their sources. It is an unexpected boon for the historian, then, that Miller did include author names along with some of the recipes in her cookbook. 

Some of these people are easier to locate than others. The recipe for Sassafras Gombo is attributed to Professor Alexander Dimitry of New Orleans. Dimitry was a mixed-race politician who went on to become the first person of color to represent the United States in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Any book you read about Dimitry will likely emphasize his political career and familial background. They hardly make any mention of his culinary skill. This recipe — given its obvious ties to New Orleans — might have been one passed down from his mother or grandmother, and it may have represented a dish very dear to him, one that connected him back to New Orleans Black and Creole culture even though his family passed as white. How Miller came across the recipe all the way up in New York is unknown. She might have come across the recipe in another cookbook, or even seen the recipe in a newspaper. 

Page from In The Kitchen, by Elizabeth Smith Miller, courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society. Dimitry’s recipe for Gombo is a paragraph-style recipe that spans the entirety of the page and intermixes instructions with calls for ingredients and additionally uses casual colloquial language such as “throw into the hot lard your chicken.”

Other authors mentioned in the book are not so easily traced. The Stuffed Leg of Mutton recipe is attributed to “Hannah,” with no last name or place of origin. She appears again in a recipe for sausage meat referencing Miller’s “Aunt Hannah,” which indicates that she might have been an older hired cook in Miller’s house. (Many such cooks were referred to as “Aunt” by young children in the home.) Another hired cook may have served as the source for a codfish recipe titled, “Mary’s Codfish For Friday’s Dinner.” The immediacy of the title makes the recipe appear to have been recorded from verbal instructions, perhaps after the meal had been prepared, rather than dictated from an already published book. But we may never know anything else about the identities of Hannah or Mary. Some archival digging — through correspondence or diaries, for example, left behind by Miller — might give us some insights, but only if those records still exist. 

Page from In The Kitchen, by Elizabeth Smith Miller, courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society. This page features both Aunt Hannah’s sausage meat recipe as well as Colonel FitzHugh’s bacon recipe.

Sometimes a recipe’s willingness to elucidate certain facts while obscuring others can provide grounds for further investigation. In a recipe for preparing bacon, Miller writes that one should take 1,000 pounds of ham, a bushel of ground rock salt, one gallon of molasses, and a dozen red peppers and mix them together to cure the meat. The massive quantities signal that something strange may be happening in this recipe. A closer look at the recipe’s source reveals a much more disturbing history than its simple title, “Bacon,” might indicate.

The recipe is attributed to “Col. Wm. FitzHugh, of Maryland.” Fitzhugh was a wealthy politician and plantation owner who was born in Virginia in 1741 and died in the Washington, DC, area in 1809. Heir to a massive tobacco empire, Fitzhugh owned several plantations in multiple counties in Virginia and the DC area. According to 1787 census data, at one time Fitzhugh enslaved a total of 467 people across six different counties — 264 of whom were children under the age of 16. Since pigs were cheap and easy to raise, and cured meat could last longer without proper storage in cellars, cured pork products were a primary source of food for enslaved people. We know from narratives written by formerly enslaved people that along the East coast, many plantations provided enslaved workers with a weekly ration that included a pound of bacon in addition to some amount of cornmeal or flour.

The mass quantities called for in the recipe indicates that it might have been used by enslaved cooks on Fitzhugh’s plantations to prepare bacon for the weekly ration distribution. The names of these cooks are not listed, nor does Miller’s book give any indication of the recipe’s likely use. Whether or not she intended it, her book invites us to question who, exactly, is “in the kitchen” and gets to count as an authority of that space. It’s likely that William Fitzhugh never stepped foot in any of the kitchens on the plantations he owned.

While this method of reading can be frustrating at times, it can also be tremendously illuminating. It has the power to reveal the identities of women who otherwise might have been lost to history, and more generally, to spark questions about where our foodways come from and how many hands have painstakingly forged that culinary history. These same methods can be applied to your own family cookbooks: where do your grandmother’s recipes come from? Who were her close friends? Whose pie did she find particularly delicious? Whose names are given and whose are obscured? These important questions are waiting to be asked — even if they can never be fully answered.

I would like to thank the American Antiquarian Society for the short term fellowship that facilitated some of this research and granted me access to Miller’s cookbook. The American Antiquarian Society has dedicated immense resources to preserving and making accessible hundreds of historical American cookbooks. Without their efforts and the efforts of archives and libraries like theirs, this research would not be possible.