From London to Williamsburg: The Evolution of an American Cookbook


For the sake of convenience, we’ll be using the short title of this book in today’s posting about The Williamsburg Art of Cookery, though it IS worth sharing the title from the title page one:

The Williamsburg Art of Cookery: or, Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion: Being a Collection of Upwards of Five Hundred of the Most Ancient & Approv’d Recipes in Virginia Cookery…and also a Table of Favorite Williamsburg Garden Herbs. To which is Added, an Account of Virginia Hospitality; Treatises on Various Branches of Cookery; an Account of Health Drinking; some Considerations on the Observation of Christmas in Virginia, with traditional Recipes for this Season; with the Author’s Explanation of the Method of Collecting & Adapting these Choice Recipes; and an alphabetical INDEX to the Whole. (And that leaves out the list of categories of included recipes printed on the title page!)

The story behind The Williamsburg Art of Cookery begins in 1727 when Eliza Smith wrote a cookbook and household guide for women in London, The Compleat Housewife: or, Accomplished Gentlewoman’s Companion. (Be warned, the full title for this work would also take another 5 or 6 lines, too.) Special Collections has a copy of the 6th edition of Eliza Smith’s work from 1734 printed in London. In 1742, a printer in Williamsburg, Virginia, named William Parks decided to adapt the 5th edition of Smith’s book for American audiences. Although he kept the same title and most of the same content, he removed ingredients unavailable in this country, producing what is considered to be the first American cookbook.

In 1938, Helen Duprey Bullock took everything one step further. Working with Parks’ version of The Compleat Housewife, she added new content, including the sections on herbs and Christmas in Virginia, as well as recipes for other Virginia sources. The Culinary History Collection includes 5 editions of this title from a first edition published in 1938 to a 1961 reprint. The images the post are from the a copy of the 4th edition printed in 1947.

Before this simple blog post turns into a much-too-long essay on the history of these two cookbooks/household manuals, let’s turn to the text instead. The majority of the recipes fit into categories familiar to cookbook fans: soups & sauces, meat & fish, breads, vegetables, pastries and other baked goods, and pickles & preserves.

There are a some more unique elements, too. The book contains a reprint from a 1780s British magazine, “A Moral and Physical Thermometer: or, A Scale of Progress of Temperance and Intemperance–Liquors, with their Effects in their usual Order.” The consequences of imbibing beyond strong beer once in a while range from vices like idleness or swindling to  severe punishments like transportation (“Botany Bay”) or the gallows. And this page, of course, is immediately followed by recipes for cordials and shurbs. Oops? The sections on Virginia hospitality, herbs, and the holiday season are a nice addition and a way to insert local/regional feel to a text that is both historic and modern.

On a related note, as another example of how a book or manuscript itself can have a story independent of the actual content…This edition was printed by August Dietz (1867-1963) in Richmond, Virginia. August Dietz was a well-known printer (in Virginia, at least) and Civil War philatelist (he wrote several books on the topic). In 2010, a small collection of his Civil War memorabilia was donated to Special Collections. This unique collection includes individual newspapers, manuscript materials, a woodcut and block, Confederate playing cards, and, of course, several stamps. A finding aid with more information is available online.

Thanks for bearing with a long post this week, but this is a great text with so much history!  You can find editions of The Compleat Housewife online, since it’s long out of copyright, but you’ll have to visit Special Collections (or another library) to check out The Williamsburg Art of Cookery–and you should!

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