Although cookbooks in Europe had been popular for centuries, American publishing of any sort of cookbook didn’t happen until late in the colonial era. These were reprints of contemporary English cookbooks with minor changes to bring them more into line with the sensibilities and food sources of the American colonists.
Cookbooks were imported and brought into the American colonies, but the first cookbook printed was in 1742 in Williamsburg, Virginia when the printer William Parks published Eliza Smith’s The Complete Housewife: Or Accomplished Gentlewomen’s Companion. Popular in England for fifteen years prior to its publishing in Virginia, it and several other English cookbooks were reprinted by printers in cities such as Boston, Philadelphia and New York.
The first American cookbook was believed to have been printed in the spring of 1796, in Hartford, CT. This book was 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…Adapted to this Country and All Grades of Life. Little is known of the author, other than that she was a self-proclaimed orphan, but the lasting impact this book had was in its use of American ingredients. Corn meal, turkey and cranberries make an appearance in this cookbook, all of these are native to North America and would not have been included in cookbooks from England or other European countries. Although many of the other recipes can be traced to other English cookbook authors of the period, these native recipes make it truly an American cookbook.
Another important ingredient in many of the recipes was the introduction of pearl ash. Pearl ash is created by baking potash in a kiln to remove impurities and, prior to the development of baking powder, was used as a leavening agent. This process was patented in 1790 by Samuel Hopkins and this is the first recorded use of it in a recipe.
European cookbooks continued to be reprinted in the new United States, many times with sections on local recipes added, and it wasn’t until 1824 that the next important cookbook appeared. Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife drew on more of a French tradition and recorded regional Southern dishes. Catfish, gumbo and barbecue recipes were becoming popular.
After the appearance of The Virginia Housewife, more cookbooks began making an appearance and by the 1840s themed cookbooks had become popular. These cookbooks were written about various regional dishes, baking, vegetarianism, diet and health and many other still-current topics. By then, cookbook printing was well established in the United States.