June 2002 Issue
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A practicing chef might not need to study such sentiments, although they were laudible enough, but it is the fact of their appearance in verse form that makes them interesting here. The poems were not so rare-nineteenth and early twentieth-century cook books abounded in them. It would seem that certain kinds of recipes were chosen for translation into verse-usually those with a special place in the culture-and countless stanzas of cook book dedications (original or quoted) praised the home, the women who cooked, and the higher purposes of cookery.
Such prefaces were common in 19th and early 20th century cook books. Although many used the readily available Meredith stanza to express their sentiments, several authors wrote their own: a 1910 Riverhead, LI church cook book began with;
Recipe for a Day
For these authors, home cooking was clearly a profession in the largest sense, and was to be performed with the highest attitudinal standards.
This penchant for raising the status of one's kitchen work may be traced to a new sense of profession in domesticity among nineteenth century women. Imagine a scene in 1813 in which Sarah Bella Dunlop, a young New York woman recording the favorite recipes of her mother's cooking repertoire, wrote out her receipts in flowery script (another sign of their status) preparatory to her marriage and the establishment of her own kitchen. The first entry on the inside cover of the little notebook was her rhymed testament to her mother's food:
Cookery's art with nicest care
These singled-out dishes represented the most glamorous dishes of the day-young Sarah's poetic testimonial was not wasted on idle praise-and her use of poetry form itself suggests her desire to praise both her mother's culinary skill and women's growing pride in the kitchen. And it may in some way also signify changes in women's educational sights.
Other women also translated their sentiments into poetry form without any prospects of seeing them in print, no doubt as a personal expression. Sarah Booth (Connecticut, 1800-1864) included a favored, lengthy cake recipe that began:
there's a lady in this learned land
In addition to dedications, recipes themselves made their way into rhyme. Although we do not usually think of recipes as a literary form, the number of poetic expressions in cook books makes one sit up and take notice. There is more than coincidence operating, one suspects. It is as if the author was thinking: " I know this dish is usually considered ordinary, but I will use it to make a point- to glorify it, to pay tribute to it, and by couching it in poetic form I will thereby elevate it and charge it with symbolism, importance, and significance of a larger idea." The connection between this often-ethereal literary form and the earthy, mundane work of the kitchen makes for another aspect of great food history sleuthing.
One of the most famous of the versified recipes comes from the Reverend Sidney Smith of the late 18th century England. In his celebrated poem on salads, Smith portrayed himself as an epicure and used his talent with words and wit to record a favorite recipe (ca. 1796). By extolling this simple, natural and delectable dish, Smith showed himself to be up on the latest trends in cookery. One may guess that as a religious man of this period he subtly revered the natural world and perhaps thus implied his own good sense and spirituality in his appreciation of it. In any case, the poem (and probably also the dish itself) so charmed the cook book world that it was plagiarized and reprinted, sometimes with minor changes, throughout the next century. The following version was somewhat changed from the original-among other things it omitted Smith's initial recommendations for appropriate lettuces, greens and herbs-but graced the pages of many American works such as The Kansas Home Cook-Book, 1874. What had survived over the century, apparently the most attractive verses, was chiefly the recipe for his dressing, fashionable then and still tasty today:
large potatoes, passed through kitchen sieve,
Joel Barstow's post-American Revolution mock epic poem, Hasty Pudding, took things a step further. His was not only a lengthy and detailed versified recipe of a very ordinary dish but also a tribute to the new American nation and the innovative culture of the common man. In fact, Barlow was a member of the Connecticut Wags, a literary group that had set itself the task of developing an American style of literature, and his sentimentalized breakfast porridge became a symbol of home when traveling in France:
...Thro' the rough sieve to shake the golden show'r.
....Dear Hasty-Pudding, what unpromis'd joy
Thus even when the recipe chosen for versification was mundane, it's humbleness made a point within a more exalted theme.
It comes as no surprise that the Colonial Revival movement likewise produced rhymed sentimental paeons to ubiquitous (but definitely still colonial New World) foods. Such efforts were often written by essayists, historians or men of letters who liked the metaphors that connected American philosophies with daily life. One such, printed inThe Rural New Yorker, praised the lowly bean:
my dear rural, you should ever wish
they seem to your poetic eye
cited in The Presbyterian Cook Book, Ohio, 1875.
For decades after the Revival, women's cookbooks continued to highlight special dishes in this literary fashion, and they generally singled out those with patriotic or traditional significance such as those above. Substantial numbers are to be found in the most personal of cook books, the local fund-raising projects that began after the Civil War and continued thence forward to support community projects. In many cases the poet seems to have been a lady in the community who enjoyed rhapsodic expressions, also fashionable at the time.
Growing numbers of urban middle class women were seeing in their domestic food responsibilities an enlarged sense of status and mission. Liberation from farm duties and growing commercial conveniences was providing the leisure for expanded socializing and increasing attention to fashionable niceties. Women's public and private education brought poetry into the sphere of home amusement. In the days when technological entertainment had not yet taken over our entertainment, interesting conversation and use of words were a more important focus of interaction- from carefully-copied sermons, letter-writing, debating societies, games like charades, reading aloud, etc. People wrote their own poems far more casually, often as gift enclosures, as tokens of affection, as expressions of high-minded ideals, in personal notes. Against such an environment it might not seem pretentious to glorify a recipe or a product. And of course local women writing cook books at the time were as susceptible as any to the confluence of nostalgias, sentiments, and family nurturing.
Just such a recipe for Corn Bread says it all:
Two cups Indian, one cup wheat;
One cup sour milk, one cup sweet;
One good egg that well you beat;
Half cup molasses, too;
Half cup sugar add thereto.
With one spoon butter new;
Salt and soda each a spoon;
Mix up quickly and bake it soon.
Then you'll have corn bread complete,
Best of all corn bread you meet,
If you have a dozen boys
To increase your household joys,
Double then this rule, I should
and you'll have two corn cakes good.
When you've nothing in for tea
This the very thing will be.
All the men that I have seen
Say it is of all cakes queen-
Good enough for any king
That a husband home may bring;
Warming up the human stove,
Cheering up the hearts you love;
And only Tyndall can explain
The links between corn and brain.
Get a husband what he likes
And save a hundred household strikes.
from The Way We Cook in East Hampton, Long Island, 1916.
The rhymed recipes and cookbook dedications give a marvelous sense of a new country finding expression. Long before they died out, the new world of advertising took a lesson from them and adapted the form to its own ends.