Food historian Penelope Bingham

Even for dedicated foodies, cookbooks are mostly a means to a satisfying meal. For food historian Penelope Bingham, however, cookbooks are equally valuable as historical documents that shed light on what she calls “the music” of the country’s cultural and political past. An Illinois Humanities Council Road Scholar who lectures across the state about American cookbooks and culture, Bingham spoke with Chicago over tea and homemade scones (from Joy of Cooking, 1997 edition) in her Streeterville apartment, filled with more than 2,000 cookbooks, including historical reprints from the 18th century.

Q: What do you see when you look at a cookbook?
For one thing, I don’t just read the recipes; I also read the preface, which gives you the context in which a cookbook was written. Buckeye Cookery, from 1877, is dedicated to “those plucky housewives who master their work instead of letting it master them.” That says something about the attitude toward women then. They were housewives, but it’s also when women’s colleges were formed and woman suffrage was getting going.

History books practically never mention the food of a culture. That’s a big gap. There’s a book, In Memory’s Kitchen, with stories of women in the Terezin concentration camp arguing over recipes they’d never see again as a way to keep their souls together. In this unbelievably horrible environment, food was a link to each other, to their families, to the past, to hope for the future.

Q: Nowadays some 1,500 cookbooks are published annually in America. Are other cultures as crazy about cookbooks?
The English are close to us, but I think we outdo them. The French have maybe one cookbook they got for a wedding present, but it’ll be, “These are the sauces; these are the techniques.” Italian women won’t even admit they have a cookbook.

Q: Why are cookbooks so popular here?
Lots of reasons. One, we have a history of broad-based literacy. There were people in grand houses in Europe with recipe books, but the lower classes couldn’t read and didn’t have the food. Also, Americans have always been very mobile. From the beginning, all you had to be was 50 miles from your family, and you [might as well] have been across the ocean. So, you turned to cookbooks instead of your mother. It may also be an American quality to look to an outside expert to learn what’s good, whether it’s Fannie Farmer or Betty Crocker—who, by the way, is fiction, created by [the then parent company of] Gold Medal flour.

Q: So, basically, a flour company has been telling us what to cook?
You can’t talk about American food without talking about food manufacturers. Look at Dole. When it opened the pineapple fields in Hawaii and started canning things in the 1920s, you’d see recipes everywhere for dishes with pineapple. You really see the influence of mass marketing when you look at community cookbooks and find recipes for Snickers salad, which features Snickers and Cool Whip.

But there are parts of American society that aren’t big on cookbooks. The African American culture in the past had very few. There are some now, but women I’ve talked to who are African American say that if you went to their neighborhood and asked ten women to make sweet potato pie, you’d get ten different recipes because they learned from their mothers, aunts, grandmothers. You could make a whole case for it never being integrated into mainline American culture. So why should you adopt Betty Crocker as your model?

Q: One of your lectures is titled “Just What Is American Food?” To answer that, you must have researched what our founding fathers and mothers ate.
Well, if there was a cookbook in a founding father’s home—and there were precious few in the beginning—it might well have been Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, which first appeared in London in 1747. Its market was very much a great house, and [it] would have been brought over from England or reprinted here. The lady of the house would have read the book, telling the servants what to cook.

The first cookbook written by an American for Americans and printed here was Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery in 1796. She uses American ingredients to make foods that wouldn’t be unfamiliar to an Englishman. Wheat is hard to come by and expensive, so she makes things with corn. She has the first pumpkin pie that looks like our idea of pumpkin pie. She describes herself as an American orphan and says the cookbook is for young girls who might find themselves dependent, so they can get a job as a cook in a house.

Q: Later on, some of the cookbooks, like The Settlement Cook Book from 1903, seem to take this authoritarian tone—-and not just about cooking.
The original Settlement Cook Book was very basic. It included lots of recipes but also told you what to wear while cooking, how to wash dishes, make sure you clean the sink afterward. But, then, it was definitely aimed at new immigrants.

Q: Were those instructions intended as a way to Americanize immigrants?
Or a kind of good deed. The Settlement Cook Book came out of an effort by settlement workers in Milwaukee to help new immigrant Jews integrate and cope. Imagine coming from the steppes of Russia, where you had nothing—hearth cooking, probably. To survive in a modern American city would have been very hard. The Italians, by the way, had no interest in listening to the settlement workers. They didn’t want to cover everything in a white sauce. They’d happily come to sewing classes but not to cooking classes. The settlement workers would get upset and comment: not yet Americanized; still eating Italian food.

Q: Today Italian cooking is everywhere. How did that happen?
Americans’ views about Italian food changed. During World War I, Italian ways of eating were right in line with the Food Bureau’s restrictions on how much meat to use. And Italy was our ally then. It became patriotic to eat Italian food. By the 1920s, Campbell’s and Franco-American had essentially domesticated this exotic food. A lot of people’s introduction to spaghetti was a can of Chef Boyardee. Authentic Italian American food wasn’t discovered until Prohibition, when people went into Italian neighborhoods to buy wine and stayed to eat.

Q: Chinese food has also become pretty standard, even in small-town America.
Chinese food came here early on to support the Chinese work crews, who were imported for building the railroads and mining. To feed them, you used the ingredients available in places like Wyoming and came up with chop suey, [which is] an American invention. It means “bits of this and that.” Anything resembling the food of China came much later.

Q: The more we talk, the more I wonder if there is such a thing as American food.
It’s a tough question. I could tell you what an American meal was in 1910. It wasn’t that different from a meal in 1940: a hunk of meat, starch, vegetable, and dessert. But I have less confidence in describing American food now. For example, if you look at an American cookbook, it’s very rare that peanut butter and jelly shows up. Yet, you know that you eat peanut butter and jelly all the time.

You also don’t know why certain recipes are there. In some of the old cookbooks, the percentage of sweets, whether it’s cakes or candies or pies, makes your teeth ache just to read it. [Are those recipes included] because you don’t make [them] all the time, so you need a reminder? Or is it because they are more difficult? Any idiot can make a stew. You make it one time, you can make it again. But to make a cake, you may need a recipe. So you have to be careful about making judgments about a culture based on its cookbooks.

Q: I’ve heard that on Thanksgiving, 90 percent of all Americans eat turkey.
Yes; I don’t think there’s another day when so many people eat the same food. You may bring your ethnic specialties to the table, but the generic Thanksgiving foods—stuffing, potatoes, green beans—which are plain, easily available, and inexpensive, are always there. It’s a holiday that resonates at the heart for immigrants.

Q: If, a century from now, people read today’s cookbooks, what will they see?
They’d see the splintering of our culture. If you go over to Borders, you’ll find everything from an entertaining section to celebrity cookbooks to regional cookbooks. Then there are foreign cookbooks, and sections on baking or barbecuing, or, my favorite, appliance cooking. I think that speaks to a country that’s no longer speaking with one voice. Perhaps we never spoke with one voice. But we had an ideal of a single voice. That’s not true now. And it’s there in the cookbooks. The diversity in the cookbooks is reflective of the multiplicity of true American voices.

Maybe that’s why Thanksgiving is so powerful. Because, on Thanksgiving, we not only have a single voice—as single as 300 million people can have—but it’s not a government voice. It’s your table and my table, and no one is declaring what we must do. Yet we’re all doing the same thing. On this one day a year, we are speaking with one voice.

Photograph: Katrina Wittkamp