Top 12 Most Influential Historic American Cookbooks

Table Service, from Charles Ranhofer's "The Epicurean" (1894)

Table Service, from Charles Ranhofer’s The Epicurean (1894)

Occasionally I hear from people looking to start a historic cookbook library and want recommendations. With the new year being the time for lists, here’s my list of the top twelve most influential historic American cookbooks that help to document the way we ate. As all lists of its kind, it is imperfect and incomplete, but attempts to capture highlights from American history. It is subjective, and to limit it somewhat, I’m only including books published before 1950. But anyone interested in American foodways will undoubtedly learn a great deal and eat well from these selections. Happy reading & eating!

Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747)
Technically, this is not an American cookbook. But Hannah Glasse’s Art of Cookery was the bestselling English-language cookbook for over a century, and its import and influence on early American cooking can’t be overstated. It could be found in homes from all thirteen colonies including many of the Founding Fathers, and sales of the book continued well after the Revolution. We can see its influence on Martha Washington’s cookbook, and we know she had a copy of Glasse’s Art of Cookery at Mount Vernon. The popularity of the book came, in large part, from the way Glasse wrote the recipes so that an untrained cook would likely understand. The recipes are plentiful and can be made economically, and dispute the belief that early American cuisine was bland or uninteresting. Any of the early printings will be of interest to the food historian, but American food historians will particularly be interested in the first edition specifically targeting American readers. Published in 1805, it included recipes for such things as Cranberry Tarts, Indian Pudding, and Maple Sugar.
Online Editions: PDF, 1747 Edition; Ebook/PDF, 1774 Edition
Print Editions: AbeBooks: New / Collectible
The Art of Cookery by Hannah Glasse
American Cookery by Amelia Simmons Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery (1796)
Believed to be the first cookbook printed in America, by an American for an American audience, this is one of the most significant early cookbooks ever written. Other cookbooks had been printed in the colonies and the new republic, but they were largely reprints of English cookbooks like that of Hannah Glasse. Simmons turned her attention to uniquely American ingredients, and her cookbook was the first to include recipes that used cornmeal, and was the first to suggest pearlash as a leavening agent in baking.
American Table Recipes: Pound Cake
Online Editions: PDF, HTML, 1798 Edition
Print Editions: AbeBooks: New / Collectible
Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife (1824)
To this day, Randolph’s cookbook is referenced by chefs and cookbook writers as an inspiration for authentic southern cuisine. Considered the first regional American cookbook, it offers the first printed recipes for barbecued pork, okra soup, and a host of other traditional southern recipes. She doesn’t stick exclusively to the south, however. Her recipes include Italian, Spanish, French and Caribbean dishes that reflect the cosmopolitan palates of a growing nation.
American Table Recipes: Scolloped Tomatoes
Online Editions: PDF, HTML, 1838 Edition
Print Editions: AbeBooks: New / Collectible
The Virginia Housewife by Mary Randolph
The Frugal Housewife by Lydia Marie Child Lydia Marie Child’s The Frugal Housewife (1829)
The Mark Bittman of her day, Lydia Marie Child’s The Frugal Housewife was a slim volume that made it popular amongst pioneers and light travelers. Her emphasis on frugality extended beyond the kitchen, offering numerous tips on budgeting at home. She also recognizes the impact that diet has on health and recovery from illness, which would be a popular theme in cookbooks for the next century. Child’s book came out of the major economic depression that occurred in the 1820s, and her cookbook receives renewed interest whenever, as a nation, we turn our attentions back to our budgets.
American Table Recipes: Fish Chowder
Online Editions: PDF, HTML, 1830 Edition
Print Editions: AbeBooks: New / Collectible
Eliza Leslie’s Directions for Cookery, In Its Various Branches (1837)
Eliza Leslie was among the most prolific cookbook writers of the early 19th century, and this was among her most popular books – by 1870, it had gone through its 60th printing. Leslie’s culinary fame began in 1828 with the publication of Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats, an equally important cookbook documenting early 19th century American baking. The recipes largely come from the cooking school of Mrs. Goodfellow – the most celebrated baker in turn-of-the-century Philadelphia (you can read more about Mrs. Goodfellow in the book by Becky Diamond). Leslie’s Directions for Cookery expanded her recipe collection beyond baking, and was written to appeal to cooks across social and economic classes. The precursor to Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, this book is particularly notable for its fairly consistent use of measurements and clarity in writing.
American Table Recipes: Ginger Crackers
Online Edition: PDF, HTML, 1840 Edition
Print Edition: AbeBooks: New / Collectible
Directions for Cookery by Eliza Leslie
How to Mix Drinks by Jerry Thomas Jerry Thomas’ How to Mix Drinks, Or, The Bon-Vivant’s Companion (1862)
As the first major recipe book exclusively on cocktails published in the United States, this volume has achieved mythic status for modern-day mixologists. Also known as The Bar-Tender’s Guide, this book offers the basic approaches to making cocktails that is still used today. Thomas made his career largely in California as a bartender, gold prospector, and manager of minstrel shows. He was business-savvy, and a showman – the practice of preparing the drink was just as much a part of the experience as drinking it. His popularity and fame grew, and by the time he published this book, he was earning over $100 a week – an incredible sum of money at the time. Thomas is credited with inventing some of the most well-known cocktails, and the many editions of his book include the first recipes for many famous drinks including the Tom Collins, the Brandy Daisy, sours, and the Martinez. For those interested in reading more about Thomas and the growth of America’s cocktail culture, check out David Wondrich’s excellently written study Imbibe!.
American Table Recipes: Tom Collins
Online Editions: EBook, 1862 Edition; HTML, 1887 Edition
Print Editions: AbeBooks: New / Collectible
The Confederate Receipt Book: A Compilation of Over One Hundred Receipts, Adapted to the Times (1863)
Even the most frugal cooks found it difficult to put food on the table under the Confederacy. Naval blockades prevented most foods from reaching the South, who was more used to growing cotton and tobacco than food. Cooks needed to adapt their recipes to what was readily available, and this booklet offered suggestions such as adding starchy rice or potatoes to breads to reduce the amount of flour needed. It was printed in Richmond, Virgina on polka-dot wallpaper since regular paper was in short supply. Only five copies of the cookbook are known to exist, but it has had a long life in reprint, and many of the recipes and adaptations re-emerged during the Great Depression.
American Table Recipes: Republican Pudding
Online Editions: HTML, PDF, 1863 Edition
Print Editions: AbeBooks: New / Collectible
Confederate Receipt Book
The Epicurean by Charles Ranhofer Charles Ranhofer’s The Epicurean (1894)
If you wanted the epitome of fine dining in the United States, for over a century Delmonico’s Restaurant in New York City was where you went. During the late Victorian period, Delmonico’s hosted dinners for presidents like Ulysses S. Grant, and writers like Charles Dickens. Known for their unique and ornate presentations, the most elaborate of dishes was prepared under the masterful eye of chef Charles Ranhofer. This massive, heavily-illustrated tome, contains mostly classic French recipes, reflecting the impact of French cuisine among the upper class at the turn of the century. Its publication was unparalleled at its time. Ranhofer is credited with inventing dishes such as Lobster Newberg, and popularizing others like Baked Alaska.
Online Editions: HTML: Part 1, Part 2; PDF: Part 1, Part 2; 1894 Edition
Print Editions: AbeBooks: New / Collectible
Fannie Merritt Farmer’s Boston Cooking-School Cook Book (1896)
It is thanks to Fannie Farmer that we have detailed, step-by-step instructions in cookbooks that use standardized measurements for ingredients. Emerging at the height of the domestic science movement in the United States that sought consistency and uniformity in cooking practices, Farmer revolutionized the cookbook industry. Just as later writers such as Julia Child or Harold McGee, Fannie Farmer didn’t just explain how to do something, she explained why – describing in some cases the chemical processes that make a recipe work. Her lesser-known book, Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent, was a groundbreaking work on diet and nutrition widely used in hospitals and institutions for decades to come. The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book has remained in print since its first publication, though revised and retitled over the years to reflect the changing tastes in American palates (itself an interesting study). Today, it is simply called the Fannie Farmer Cookbook.
American Table Recipes: Election Cake
Online Editions: HTML, PDF, 1896 Edition
Print Editions: AbeBooks: New / Collectible
The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook by Fannie Farmer
Good Things to Eat by Rufus Estes Rufus Estes’ Good Things To Eat (1911)
Estes’ cookbook was not the first to be published by an African American – that would be Robert Roberts’ The House Servant’s Directory from 1827. But where Roberts publishes recipes for the wealthy New England families he’s accustomed to working for, Estes offers the recipes for foods he’s been eating his whole life. And what a life he had – born into slavery in 1857, a train porter with the Pullman Company, and eventually a chef. The incredible range of recipes includes everything from Southern Corncakes, Apple Slump and Rib Roast, to Candied Violets, Kedgeree, and Sheep’s Brains with Small Onions. An important insight into turn-of-the-century African American cuisine and its association with labor (read up on the Pullman strikes in America), the book nearly fell into obscurity before being republished by Dover Editions.
Online Editions: HTML, PDF, 1911 Edition
Printed Editions: AbeBooks: New / Collectible
Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking (1931)
Among the best-selling cookbooks in American publishing history, the Joy of Cooking was originally self-published by Rombauer as an attempt to keep busy after her husband died. After its initial success, she entered into a contract with Bobbs-Merrill to expand its publication. Unaccustomed to contracts, Rombauer received little compensation for the popular cookbook, and the early printings were poorly edited and indexed (the publisher being unused to publishing cookbooks). The layout for the recipes was narrative, offering ingredients and amounts as they appeared in the instructions instead of as a list at the beginning of the recipe. Bobbs-Merrill’s aggressive marketing campaign contributed to its huge success. Despite the infamous battle between author and publisher over the next decades, it has had over eight revised and expanded editions. A facsimile of the original 1931 edition was published in 1998. Overall, the recipes of any of the early editions capture classic American cuisine in the post-Depression period. Rombauer uses canned foods when appropriate, and offers simple recipes with ingredients easily available to any home cook at the time.
American Table Recipes: Deviled Crackers
Printed Editions: AbeBooks: New / Collectible
The Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer
How to Cook and Eat in Chinese, Cover Buwei Yang Chao’s How to Cook and Eat in Chinese (1945)
I’ve written about this cookbook before, but it’s worth mentioning it again as the first to offer authentic Chinese recipes to English-speaking American cooks. Adaptable to ingredients and cookware in the post-war American kitchen, this is the book that introduced the word “stir-fry” into the English language. You won’t find the bright red sweet & sour sauce here. Instead, you’ll find an incredible collection of simple and delicious recipes that still hold up after over 70 years.
American Table Recipes: Stir-Fried Chicken with Mushrooms
Printed Editions: AbeBooks: New / Collectible