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Hearth to Hearth: Poetry in Cookbooks

Hearth to Hearth: Poetry in Cookbooks – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – June 2002

We may live without poetry, music and art;
We may live without conscience and live without heart;
We may live without friends; we may live without books;
But civilized man can not live without cooks.
He may live without books,-what is knowledge but grieving?
He may live without hope-what is hope but deceiving?
He may live without love,-what is passion but pining?
But where is the man that can live without dining?

Thus wrote Owen Meredith, the Earl of Lytton (England, 1831-1891). His rhymed sentiments must have sat well in his own era as they were copied into numbers of cook books where they set a certain elevated tone. The high cultural value he placed on cuisine was at least equal to that of the arts and letters, and was not a new idea. For centuries it had been the mark of high status among the cultured men who set fashion. The erudite poet thus wrote from the exalted position of an educated, well-rounded and cultured person, who drew not only on experience with the most complex art, music, literature, stylish dress and habits, but on his own skill and inspiration as a cook. Nothing new, this aristocratic regard for creating the finest food was found in the courts and palaces of the ancients, and has been found among the privileged of the world for centuries. In exactly this frame of mind. Edward S. Wilson called his small volume of food tributes The Poetry of Eating (Ohio, 1908), although the essays themselves were in prose.

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;

A Recipe for a Day

Take a little dash of water cold, and a little leaven of prayer,
And a little bit of morning gold dissolved in morning air,
Add to your meal some merriment, and a thought of kith and kin;
And then, as your prime ingredients a plenty of work thrown in,
But spice it all with the essence of love, and a little whiff of play,
Let a wise old book and a look above complete the well made 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:

From Cookery’s art with nicest care
Mama has cull’d what’s good and rare
The mango’d apples, puddings, pies,
Roast meats and boiled. Both stews and fries
Ice Creams, preserves and nicest jellies
With turtle soup to stuff your bellies.
Pineapple ice, raspberry jam,
Barbecued fowls, and cold sliced ham
Puff paste, nut sets, gingerbread
Pickled walnuts, Hashed calfs head
Boil’d onion sauces for ducks or geese
French bean pudding, and even cheese.

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:

If there’s a lady in this learned land
Upon her teaboard wishes something grand
Let her take this advice:
Here’s a cake, whose flavor’s past dispute-
The most fastidious palate needs must suit;
Try it- ’tis very nice…

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:

Two large potatoes, passed through kitchen sieve,
Unwonted softness to the salad give;
Of mordant mustard add a single spoon,
Distrust the condiment that bites so soon;
But deem it not, though man of herbs, a fault,
To add a double quantity of salt;
Three times the spoon with oil of Lucca crown,
And once with vinegar, procured from town;
True flavor needs it, and your poet begs
The pounded yellow of two well-boiled eggs;
Let onion atoms lurk within the bowl,
And, scarce suspected, animate the whole;
And lastly, on the flavored compound toss
A magic teaspoon of anchovy sauce.
Then, though green turtle fail, through ven’son’s tough,
And ham and turkey are not boiled enough,
Serenely full, the epicure may say,
“Fate cannot harm me, I have dined to-day!”

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.
In boiling water stir the yellow flour,
The yellow flour, bestrew’d and stir’d with haste
Swell in the flood and thickens to a paste…
….Dear Hasty-Pudding, what unpromis’d joy
Expands my heart, to meet thee in Savoy!
My soul is sooth’d, my cares have found an end,
I greet my long-lost, unforgotten friend.

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 in The Rural New Yorker, praised the lowly bean:

If, my dear rural, you should ever wish
For a breakfast or dinner a tempting dish
Of the beans so famous in Boston town,
You must read the rules I here lay down.
When the sun has set in golden light,
And around you fall the shades of night,
A large, deep dish you first prepare;
A quart of beans select with care;
And pick them over, until you find
Not a speck or a mote is left behind.
A lot of cold water on them pour
Till every bean is covered o’er,
And they seem to your poetic eye
Like pearls in the depth of the sea to lie;
Here, if you please, you may let them stay
Till just after breakfast the very next day
When a parboiling process must be gone through
(I mean for the beans, and not for you);
Then if, in the pantry, there still should be
That bean-pot, so famous in history,
With all due deference bring it out,
And if there’s a skimmer lying about,
Skim half of the beans from the boiling pan
Into the bean pot as fast as you can;
Then turn to Biddy and calmly tell her
To take a huge knife and go to the cellar;
For you must, like Shylock of old,
“A pound of flesh,” ere you beans gow cold;
But, very unlike that ancient Jew,
Nothing but pork will do for you.
Then tell once more your maiden fair,
In the choice of the piece to take great care,
For a streak of fat and a streak of lean
Will give the right flavor to every bean!
This you must wash, and rinse, and score,
Put into the pot, and round it pour
The rest, till the view presented seems
Like an island of pork in an ocean of beans;
Pour on boiling hot water enough to cover
The tops of the beans completely over,
Shove into the oven and bake till done,
And the triumph of Yankee cookery’s won!

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:

Corn Bread

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 andadapted the form to its own ends.

To be continued next month.

Alice Ross brings 25 years as a dedicated food professional teacher, writer, researcher and collector to her Hearth Studios, at which she teaches workshops in various aspects of hearth, woodstove and brick oven cookery. She has served as consultant in historical food for such noted museums as Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg and The Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts. Ross wrote her doctoral dissertation in food history at the State University at Stony Brook. Currently, she is involved in a major kitchen report on Rock Hall Museum, a 1770’s Georgian mansion on Long Island. Dr. Ross’ e-mail address is Her web site is

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