Founding the Feast:
Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery and Pumpkin Pie
Rachel A. Snell, Ph.D. Candidate
Tomorrow, many Americans will sit down to the Thanksgiving feast closely resembling the spread depicted in Norman Rockwell’s 1943 lithograph, “Freedom from Want.” As I’m writing this post, I’m waiting for my pumpkin pie to come out of the oven. In Monday’s post, my colleague Greg Rogers provided a glimpse of the first Thanksgiving shared between the English and Wampanoag Indians in 1621. It faintly resembles our popular imagination of this celebrated gathering. For many, the food served defines the celebration of Thanksgiving and we would be hard pressed to imagine Thanksgiving dinner without the turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. My grandfather would be greatly disappointed if, distracted by this post, I burned the pumpkin pie. But where did these essential holiday dishes originate?
These dishes have in common the use of distinctly American ingredients: turkey, cranberries, squash, and pumpkin. Identifying the first use of these ingredients would be nearly impossible as they were slowly incorporated into American Foodways throughout the colonial period, but historians have identified the first printed version of recipes for precursors to pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce, and other delicacies now firmly associated with the celebration of Thanksgiving. Many of these distinctly American recipes utilizing distinctly American ingredients first appeared, appropriately enough, in the first cookbook written and published in the United States, Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery, 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. A lengthy title, for a relatively unpretentious and inexpensively produced volume, first published in Hartford, Connecticut in the spring of 1796. Simmons’s cookery book sold for 2s. 3d., a modest price that placed it within the means of most American households.
American Cookery was not only the first cookbook published in America, it was also the first cookbook specifically written for American cooks, using American ingredients, recipes, flavors, and vernacular. This marked Simmons’s work as “another Declaration of Independence,” an effort to simultaneously merge and distinguish “the two cultures, English and American.” Most importantly, Simmons was part “of a much wider process by which oral knowledges were gradually superseded by print.” Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery performed the all-important function of committing to print the recipes that had been developed in kitchens throughout the colonial era. Amelia Simmons did not invent pumpkin pie, but her cookbook contained the earliest recipe for the Thanksgiving Day classic.
View pumpkin recipes from American Cookery: American Cookery_Pumpkin Pie
The pumpkin pie as we enjoy it today probably originated from pumpkin puddings, which regularly appeared in British cookbooks. The one of the first recipes for pumpkin pie appeared in a manuscript cookbook kept by Mrs. Silvester Gardiner of Boston, Massachusetts. Her 1763 recipe for “pumpkin pie” alternated layers of thinly sliced and well-sugared pumpkin and apple under a crust. The result was a deep-dish apple-pumpkin pie hybrid far different from the custard-based pumpkin pie of today. Thirty years later, Simmons’s American Cookery included two recipes for “pompkin” pudding that are more reminiscent of today’s familiar pumpkin pie. The recipes called for the pudding to be baked in a crust and included eggs, sugar, cream or milk, and spices mixed with stewed pumpkin. Both versions include the ubiquitous pumpkin pie spice ginger; the first version combines ginger with mace and nutmeg and the second with just allspice. Today, most pumpkin pie recipes rely on a mixture of ginger, cinnamon, and cloves to flavor the pumpkin custard and, while both cinnamon and cloves were available in the United States in 1796 and cinnamon is included in many other baked goods in the cookbook, Simmons does not include them in her pumpkin recipes. Clearly, the recipe for pumpkin pie was still developing.
Janet Theopano in Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives through the Cookbooks They Wrote, argued the American Cookery was an essential step in asserting American identity. In publishing her cookbook, Simmons codified a collection of preexisting Americanized recipes that had been developed by American cooks using the ingredients readily available to them over nearly two hundred years. Obviously, this was a practical undertaking, but it was equally symbolic. Amongst the first printed recipes for uniquely American dishes like pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce, and spruce beer; Simmons also published recipes explicitly connected and celebrating the American Revolution and new republican government. The second edition contained such delicacies as “Election Cake”, “Independence Cake”, and “Federal Pan Cake.” The Election Cake, clearly designed to feed a large crowd, called for thirty quarts of flour. With this celebration of American institutions and the legacy of the American Revolution, it is unsurprising that some of the most popular dishes from one of the most self-consciously American holidays, Thanksgiving, were first published in American Cookery.
For those who may be concerned, my pumpkin pie came out perfect. I did not use either of Amelia Simmons’s recipes, but anyone interested in early American pumpkin pie recipes should visit Four Pounds of Flour, particularly this post on a recreating a nineteenth-century pumpkin pie recipe.
Rachel A. Snell, “Founding the Feast: Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery and Pumpkin Pie,” Khronikos: the University of Maine graduate history student blog (blog), November 21, 2012, https://khronikosum.wordpress.com/2012/11/21/founding-the-feast-amelia-simmonss-american-cookery-and-pumpkin-pie/.
 Mary Tolford Wilson, “Amelia Simmons Fills a Need: American Cookery, 1796,” William and Mary Quarterly 14, no. 1 (1957): 19; Janet Theopano, Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives through the Cookbooks they Wrote (New York: Palgrave, 2002). 235.
 Margaret Beetham, “Of Recipe Books and Reading in the Nineteenth Century: Mrs. Beeton and her Cultural Consequences,” in The Recipe Reader: Narratives – Contexts – Traditions, ed. Janet Floyd and Laurel Forster (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Co., 2003), 20-21.
 Anne (Gibbons) Gardiner, Mrs. Gardiner’s Receipts from 1763 (Hallowell, Me., 1938), 76.
 Amelia Simmons, American cookery, 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. By Amelia Simmons, an American orphan. Published according to act of Congress (Hartford, CT: Hudson and Goodwin, for the author, 1796). 28.
 Theopano, Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives through the Cookbooks they Wrote: 233.