Honoring Two Women and Two Cookbooks during Women’s History Month
There are so many women whose history I wanted to explore this month, not to mention cookbooks, but they’re always a challenge. Although I’m beginning this project today, it will be with me for a while, and I’m so looking forward to every minute. I’ve chosen to look at two cookbooks, reflective of the women in the two time periods most special to me, the 18th and 20th centuries. The first is American Cookery, written by Amelia Simmons, published in 1796. It is America’s first cookbook. One that I use a lot but still have so much to learn from. The second is the Historical Cookbook of the American Negro, published in 1958 by the National Council of Negro Women, Inc. (NCNW). It has been a part of my collection for years, and although it was compiled and edited by Sue Bailey Thurman, it came to my thoughts again because of Dorothy Height, who was president of the NCNW for 40 years. In February Mrs. Height became the 15th person to be honored with a Black Heritage Forever stamp.
Both of these cookbooks hold significant places in history and in my life. They are special for different reasons, and come from two very different historic spheres. But they share the same purpose. First and foremost, they’re cookbooks. Books with pages full of delicious recipes which are meant to be made and enjoyed. Most of my historic cooking is based in the 18th century, and American Cookery is full of very important receipts of the time. The Historical Cookbook of the American Negro takes me back to the years I was learning to cook, and many social events where dishes similar to those included were served. Both books contain a full range of recipes to complete numerous meals, but I’ve decided to narrow down how I use them, and create from them two expressions of one of my favorite repasts, Afternoon Tea.
In 1796, Tea was a social gathering of family and friends which happened in homes of the upper class, almost daily in the late afternoon around 4:00 or 5:00. In 1958, Tea time was still a social gathering, but then, and in the early years of my life (I was born in 1958), it was a special occasion rather than a daily event, and happened in homes, churches, and other appropriate locations. In both cases the tables were set with an array for cakes, cookies, and nibbles depending upon the size of the expected group. Both books reflect times of major social changes within our country. In both centuries however tea time was when women alone or with men came together to enjoy each other’s company and the civilities of life.
So, before we can ‘hot the pot,’ we’ve got a bit of reading, and baking to do. Tea tables are a reflection of our very best, so along with gathering ingredients I do believe the linens need to be ironed, and the silver does need polishing. Any volunteers?