Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery is the transcription of a handwritten recipe collection that came to Martha Washington through her first husband, Daniel Custis. By the time she received it, in 1749, its value would have been mostly sentimental, not culinary; the old family recipes date from Jacobean and even Elizabethan England. This we learn from the book’s spirited annotator, Karen Hess, whose commentary, published with the transcription in 1981 by Columbia University Press, works like salt: without it, the old recipes, filled with antiquated spelling and vocabulary, would be hard to choke down. With it, the reader—this reader—can’t get enough. (“Lady comes from Old English words meaning kneader of loaves,” Hess writes. How was I muddling along in my floury apron without this fact?)
Karen Hess, who was given access to the manuscript by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, was an instinctive cook, trained at her grandmother’s side between the two world wars in a Nebraska community where the competition to prepare the tastiest supper for the pastor was, by her own account, fierce. Her contempt for the use of flour—“demon flour”!—in sauces was the result of years of cooking and tasting. Her interest in food deepened in the sixties, when her husband, John, a reporter for The New York Times, took the family to Paris for a nine-year stint. France did its thing, and the housewife eventually transformed herself, despite her lack of formal training, into a pioneer of food scholarship. “No other aspect of human endeavor has been so neglected by historians as home cooking,” she wrote. “I cannot help but feel that this neglect is also related to the ageless depreciation of the work of women.” In her books she strove to re-create our domestic past accurately, without sentiment. After Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery, Hess published annotated editions of several more important early American cookbooks, such as Mary Randolph’s Virginia Housewife and The Carolina Rice Kitchen, a social history of rice cultivation in South Carolina, with an emphasis on the role of knowledgeable slaves. In 1985, she became one of the founding members of the Culinary Historians of New York.
The book that launched her career, however, came out in 1977, and was cowritten with John. The Taste of America was a scathing indictment of American food culture in the twentieth century. Conventional wisdom held that early Americans were too busy surviving and fearing God to bother with their appetites, but the Hesses convincingly described a “colonial Eden” in a generous new land where one couldn’t help but eat well. (Though the New Englanders had to work a little harder than the Virginians.) Back then, “local and seasonal” was not a cliché or a trend but a fact. “The Founding Fathers were as far superior to our present political leaders in the quality of their food as they were in the quality of their prose and of their intelligence,” they write, giving us as examples not only Thomas Jefferson’s Frenchified tastes and habits—a surprising proportion of his correspondence concerned the purchase of wine—but also Benjamin Franklin’s ardent defense of the tastiness of corn (“one of the most agreeable and wholesome grains in the world … a delicacy beyond expression”). By contrast, they cite a New York Times account of Gerald Ford’s habitual lunch: “a ball of cottage cheese, over which he pours a small pitcherful of A.1. Sauce, a sliced onion or a quartered tomato, and a small helping of butter-pecan ice cream.” Eating was, Ford said, “a waste of time.”
The Hesses’ project was meant to explain how we got from there to here: how America’s taste buds were ruined by corporations, home economists, and food professionals, a “Rape of the Palate” that resulted in a preference for junk food over meals. The implicit parallel with politics is, I think, obvious: people continue to support candidates whose policies will harm them in the long run not because those candidates have any genuine appeal but because they’ve been slickly marketed, presented in easy-to-digest packages, and most of us would rather mindlessly root and gobble than do the work and the thinking to understand the situation ourselves.
The Martha Washington cookbook, as annotated by Hess, extends The Taste of America’s argument that culinary philistinism has not always been and need no longer be part of the national character. Food writers on the corporate payroll in the mid-twentieth century had extolled modern convenience foods such as tinned ham and processed cheese, but the Washington cookbook hints at what was lost: pickled lettuce stalks, quince marmalades (seven kinds in this one family’s book), damson preserves, candied rosemary, violet paste, caraway cakes, syrup of cowslips, and elderberry wine. Also:
Take 2 Chicken, or a hare, kill & flaw them hot. take out theyr intrills & wipe them within, cut them in pieces & break theyr bones with A pestle. yn put halfe a pound of butter into ye frying pan, & fry it till it be browne, yn put in ye Chiken & give it a walme or two. yn put in halfe a pinte of faire water well seasoned with pepper, & salt, & a little after put in a handfull of parsley, & time, & an ounion shread all small. fry all these together till they be enough, & when it is ready to be dished up, put into ye pan ye youlks of 5 or 6 eggs, well beaten & mixed wth A little wine vinegar or juice of leamons. stir these well together least it Curdle, yn dish it up without any more frying.
Hess unpacks the language of the recipes like a critic unpacking poetry. Frykecy is fricassee. Flaw is flay. “Walme is an old Jute word—it appears in Beowulf, for example—meaning bubble. Faire means clean or pure … Frying means the boiling of liquid, an exceedingly rare usage. Indeed, the only such citations given in the OED are poetic: ‘Ye might have seene frothy billowes fry Vnder the ship’ (Spenser, The Fairie Queene, 1590).” (“Put into ye pan ye youlks” sounds much less amusing when you learn that that y was shorthand for th. I am almost sorry to know it.)
This recipe would have been about a hundred years old when Martha Washington was born, in 1731, making it almost perfectly contemporary with the first English settlers in the New World. Gone now are the days when Americans could “depend altogether upon the Liberality of Nature, without endeavouring to improve its gifts by Art or Industry,” as an early Virginian chided his fellows for doing. Hess’s warnings about the American palate remain all too relevant, and her readers today, forced to contemplate our lack of progress since the seventies, might be tempted to despair. But some small comfort may, I hope, be taken in this: in 1967 and 1974, New York bumped its largest produce and meat markets from lower Manhattan up to Hunt’s Point, where, as the Hesses write, “no housewife does her shopping.” The Hesses’ sorrowful account of this move inspired the founders of the city’s Greenmarkets—two in 1976, fifty-three today. With Hess and Martha in tow, we can fill up our baskets at the local Greenmarket and, imagining how those Virginians might have eaten, try to re-create a mouthful ourselves:
TO MAKE AN APPLE TANSIE
Take 12 eggs & leave out halfe of ye whites, & beat ym well. yn put in 4 or 5 spoonfulls of rosewater, a nutmegg, & halfe a pinte of cream. yn take as many apples, beeing pared & skread, as will thicken it; & fry it in fresh butter. you must fry some apples in round slyces & set ym by till yr tansie be turned once. yn you must lay those pieces on ye side you fryde last. serve it up hot, & strow on some sugar & rose water, & shread in a leamon with yr apples & put in some sugar.
A tansy (or tansie or tansey, suit yourself) was originally a sort of omelet containing many herbs, but at some point the herbs became as optional as the spelling. I made this apple tansy using 1/3 of the stated quantities; I also replaced rosewater with vanilla (a substitution upon which Hess would not smile) and inadvertently forgot the nutmeg (which Hess says the colonists used in unpalatable quantities anyway). A cook more skillful than I probably could have turned out something more like an apple custard, but now I know that apple-flecked, sugar-strewn scrambled eggs aren’t the worst way to celebrate the end of a long weekend and, this week, the birthday of Martha’s second husband.
Robin Bellinger cooks dinner every night in Wellesley, Massachusetts.