Penn Library Exhibitions

HOUSEHOLD WORDS: Women Write from and for the Kitchen

British and American Public Voices & The Culinary Canon

Until the mid-twentieth century, public life was considered too assertive for women, and unbecoming a lady. The few courageous women who entered the public arena were often subjected to ridicule or accusations of immodesty. Too public a presence connoted a woman who was not fulfilling her primary duties to husband and family. Nonetheless, some women were compelled to write for publication in order to support their families. A handful were so successful that they became economically independent. They did so often, not by their formal education and training, but by transferring the skills and talents they had developed in everyday domestic life to a public venue--the cookbook. In the nineteenth century, particularly, a woman writer might sign her book, "By a lady," to avoid the notoriety associated with publishing a book in her own name. This reticence signaled her willingness or need to forgo fame for respectability. A few assumed responsibility for their writing but only after the publication of several editions of their books. Others remained anonymous until historians unearthed their identities--often years later. Thus, as early as the seventeenth century in Britain, and a century later in America, a few women achieved prominence through their writing and publication of cookbooks and domestic manuals.

In addition to the invention and replication of recipes, the authors also alluded to the proper comportment of women and the frugal deployment of household resources. Cookbook writers, as experts of domestic life, raised awareness of women's craft and, importantly, shaped new images of women that served as agents of subtle social change. Women soon dominated the field of cookbook writing, as authors, audience, and subject. In so doing, they influenced more women of diverse social groups. In modest dedications as well as in more elaborate prefaces and introductions, women read about themselves as pivotal figures in domestic life. Such reinforcement of the significance of their social contributions added to the recognition that they were part of a larger and valued community of women. Along with the other forms of women's literature which debated their roles in society, cookbooks magnified women's social and political awareness. At the same time, cookbook writers and their books were contributing to the development of regional and national cultures.

During the colonial period, both sides of the Atlantic shared a cookery tradition, at least in print. Women relied on memory and experience--past and present--or used the manuscript and printed cookbooks they brought with them to the new world. When cookbooks were finally published in various American urban centers such as Philadelphia, New York, Hartford, and Boston, it was British writers who were commonly reprinted. The first cookbook authored by an American was not published until 1796, more than 150 years after the first immigrants arrived. Until then, several recipes using new world ingredients had been incorporated into a few of the standard English repertoire cookery books printed here and abroad either for the curious English cook or for the newly-developing American market. Since published cookbooks lag behind what is actually done in the kitchen, and the boundaries between oral tradition and printed books are fluid, it is not clear what women actually cooked in their homes.

Slowly, the intermingling of British and American cooking developed into the distinctive and innovative regional cuisines of the American continent, heavily influenced by African, Dutch, French, German, Native American, Spanish, and other culinary traditions. In spite of the diverse regional character of American cookery, by the nineteenth century the written cookbook and its authors were establishing the urban northeast as a flourishing center for culinary America.

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