Deb Perelman’s Smitten Kitchen vs. Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery

Plus Cauliflower, Chickpea, and Corn Fritters with Nuoc Cham

Chickpea frittersIn the week before the start of the semester, I found myself procrastibaking. I’d purchased a new cookbook to reward myself for completing all the syllabus- and lecture-writing, but it was so good that I got sucked into reading it before I’d finished my class prep. I’d stopped writing my lecture for first-year students on how historians use primary sources and instead, I was baking Everything Drop Biscuits with Cream Cheese from Smitten Kitchen Everyday.[1]

Then I was eating biscuits while thinking about everything bagels, writing a lecture section where I rhapsodized about NYC everything bagels, talked about this new cookbook, and then segued into a discussion of how historians use cookbooks as primary sources. I repurposed this material from a lecture I’d just finished writing, for second-years in my class on the American Revolution, which began with American culinary nationalism and ended with one diet reformer’s fears that spicy food would wither men’s testicles.

Sometimes, your favorite hobby gives you a way forward with new teaching, which in turn makes you think about your favorite hobby in new ways, too. Perelman’s recipe helped me distil some thoughts about eighteenth-century cookbooks for first year students, and those thoughts helped me articulate the qualities that I look for in a good cookbook today.

I have strong opinions about what makes for a good cookbook. They fall under the following categories:

Argument

I like to see an opening section that explains the book’s argument. Smitten Kitchen Everyday begins with an argument; most good cookbooks have one. Deb Perelman’s introduction is titled “against drudgery (or, in praise of the unfussy but triumphant),” and she argues “against the idea that cooking must be an obstacle to overcome.” Cooking “the food we most want to eat,” Perelman suggests, can result from streamlined, straightforward, and unfussy recipes. Although this was not the book she “had expected to write,” Perelman ended up on a mission: to enable us all to be able to eat something delicious for dinner, if we’re so inclined to cook that day.[2]

Kitchenware and Measurements

I want to see a chapter, at the beginning or end of the book, on the equipment that readers should use to cook the recipes. Do I need to buy additional kitchenware, such as a special cake pan, a candy thermometer, a food processor, blender, or metal frying spatula? And can I use these tools for several recipes in the book? This book, like Perelman’s last one, includes a section on converting weights, measures, and temperatures, which I really appreciate as a cook who cooks British and American recipes. Perelman doesn’t say a ton about kitchenware in Smitten Kitchen Everyday, probably because she’s already done it in her first cookbook, and because she has a set of tips and conversions on her blog.

Level(s) of difficulty

I prefer a cookbook that contains a mix of really easy recipes, and day- or multi day-long projects. When I sit down to read a cookbook (which I usually do by reading the introduction, back section, and then the recipes in order from beginning to end, usually in one sitting as if I’m reading a novel, yes, yes I do), I’m looking to see whether the author tells me enough about the recipe that I know whether I can replicate it using the skills I already have, or whether I’ll need to learn a new technique. If I’m being told to learn a new technique, I like learning how and why it works, and why it’s better than other methods I might have used. If the technique is very close to a technique that’s more common, I need to be told why that technique won’t work, or I’ll probably try to use the one I know. I also appreciate a recipe that provides realistic time estimates for preparation and cooking (don’t tell me it will take me only ten minutes to caramelize onions, because this estimate is a LIE), indicates which steps can be done ahead of time, and makes suggestions about spots in the recipe where I can pause.

Transferability

I think it’s an asset if the cookbook’s author links his or her recipes together. I don’t love when two recipes must be made together to work, but I do like suggestions about meal pairings, or a pastry crust that works for a sweet dish and a more savory one. I also enjoy when a recipe in the first few sections of the book introduces me to a technique that I can use for a later recipe in the book. It’s nice to read about when I can use these new techniques to riff on a recipe, and I love when authors speculate about possible tweaks or substitutions. I do prefer that they differentiate between tweaks that they’ve tried, and the ones they’ve only imagined.

Assumed Knowledge

I don’t need a cookbook to have step-by-step photographs (I don’t take a ton of in-progress photos myself), but I’d like clear directions that err on the side of too much information. Do I need to clear out space in my fridge, like I know to do when I have to defrost a giant turkey (I learned that lesson the hard way)? Does the author make sure to tell me that it’s easier to whip egg whites at room temperature, rather than cold out of the fridge—or that, conversely, it’s easier to whip cream when it’s cold, and after you’ve put the whisk attachment of your mixer into the freezer for 15 minutes? Does he correctly insist that garlic should be added later than the onions, so that the garlic doesn’t burn? When I was writing my recipe for Chickpea Cauliflower fritters, I polled friends when drafting the instructions about frying them to try to gauge what people knew about frying.

Index

A good cookbook, like a good academic book, needs a working index. I want an index that mentions all the recipes you’ve included, by name, but I also want to see those recipes cross-referenced when I read the index alphabetically by ingredient. The newest Smitten Kitchen cookbook, for example, has a fantastic recipe called a “Leek, Feta, and Greens Spiral Pie,” but you can find it mentioned in the index under “spinach,” “phyllo,” “pies (savory),” and “cheese.” Readers will be able to find this pie, and they are going to be happier having done so.

I found it so easy to slip from lecture-writing into biscuit-baking because I love baking, obviously. But the transition was also easy because many of these categories that inform my cookbook preferences map backwards in time to the cookbooks I teach about. Take, for example, Amelia Simmons’s 1796 American Cookery, commonly described as the first “American” cookbook to be published in the new United States after the country won its independence from Great Britain.[3] Like Perelman, Simmons had an argument to make. Like so many other eighteenth-century women writers, she tried to manage her readers’ expectations about the book she had written. She anticipated that, “objections will be made and exceptions taken to many things in this work.”[4] She couldn’t help it if readers were unhappy, Simmons explained; she had felt compelled to write “for the improvement of the rising generation of Females in America.”[5]

This was a cookbook by an American, for Americans. On the frontispiece to American Cookery, Simmons is described as “an American orphan” just below her name as author. Though not much is known about Simmons, scholars like Glynis Ridley have suggested that this term was a metaphor for the country’s new place in the world, and that the United States was like an orphaned child, born of British parents.[6] The recipe titles in American Cookery supported that familial argument. Many of the recipes were revisions of earlier, British ones, with a few indigenous ingredients, like corn, substituted in place of flour or oats.[7] These parent recipes evolved, under Simmons’s direction, into recipes that resembled their forbears but also received new, nationalistic titles like “Independence Cake” and “Election Cake.”[8]

American Cookery made claims to inclusivity while excluding both recipes and readers. As Karen Hess notes in her introduction to the facsimile of the second 1796 edition, the book included lots of New England and Hudson Valley recipes, particularly those inflected with Dutch influences, like cookies—but it said not a lot about the southern food produced by enslaved women.[9] Writing in a country that was torn between an older, hierarchical society and a new one that made constant (and often false) claims about its egalitarian nature, Simmons was adamant in her assertion that the book was meant for everybody. American Cookery had a long subtitle, including a note that the book was “adapted to this country, and all grades of life.” If you lived in the United States, Simmons implied, you could cook—though the preface to the book made it clear that she expected only women to read her book and work from it, and white women, at that.

There were some similarities between Simmons’s book and Perelman’s, but there are also striking differences. Although Simmons penned several paragraphs about her audience, she had fewer things to say about kitchenware and measurements. The first edition of American Cookery included seventeen pages on buying meat and vegetables, but Simmons complained in the second edition that she had not authored these pages. These were details “with which, the Authoress does not pretend to be acquainted, much less to give directions to others.” She claimed that if she didn’t know about it, she couldn’t write about it. She also varied the measurements in her recipes, sometimes offering pound or weight suggestions, and at other times measuring things by teacups.

Unlike Perelman, Simmons assumed that her readers knew a great deal already about cooking, which affected the difficulty levels and transferability of some of her recipes. Her detailed recipe for dressed turtle filled three pages of text, but other recipes are much shorter. She instructed readers to bake tea biscuits in a “quick-oven,” and to roast lamb, she directed cooks to build “a good clear fire that will not want stirring or altering.”[10] For her custard recipes, she simply instructed readers to bake the custards, giving no baking times. Sometimes she failed to tell readers the order in which to add the ingredients, or how long to stir a pot, beat eggs, or whip cream. She did offer her readers flexibility, describing recipes as “cheap” and “good,” and making suggestions about ways to adapt things like pie crusts for pastries with varying fillings. Simmons figured that the women reading her book already understood how hot a quick oven needed to be, and that they would know how to build and maintain a hearth fire.

It is also worth pointing out that Simmons “transferred” many recipes from previous English cookbooks, engaging in an activity that today we would call plagiarism. Whereas a modern writer like Perelman is careful to explain where she draws her influences, eighteenth-century writers simply borrowed from each other without citing previous work.[11]

I thought about all of these historical connections while writing my lectures, and then while baking Perelman’s biscuits. I had to alter the recipe to accommodate the ingredients I can find in the UK. Our buttermilk can be a bit thicker, for example, and the butter has more fat in it, so my biscuits needed a splash more buttermilk than called for. The ingredients to top everything bagels are harder to find (as are proper everything bagels, a subject on which do not get me started). Depending on where I shop, I can find dried onion and powdered garlic granules, but dried garlic is more elusive, and I’d forgotten to buy dried onion, anyway. I had to improvise with some sautéed, finely-diced onions and garlic, which I added before the biscuits went into the oven.

These changes made me think about the last point I try to make to my students when we read cookbooks: they don’t tell us precisely what people in the past ate; they tell us what cookbook authors wanted their readers to eat, and they tell us how cookbook authors sought to shape how people thought and rethought national cuisines. Only by looking at old cookbooks for evidence of cross-outs, amendments, and food stains on the pages, and cross-referencing cookbook recipes with shopping lists, diaries, etiquette books, and other writings can we really get close to stating with certainty what people ate.

Which brings me back to withered testicles. Amelia Simmons belongs to the first wave of writers who might be said to have written publicly about food in the United States. Later reformers, like Sylvester Graham—inventor of the Graham cracker—picked up where Simmons left off. Graham was an interesting character. His cracker bore little resemblance to the one we eat today, because it was designed to be bland and to encourage the wheat-based vegetarian diet that Graham promoted.[12] One of Graham’s most pressing worries was that spicy foodstuffs would have degenerative effects on men’s bodies. In A Lecture to Young Men, printed several times in the 1830s and 1840s, he wrote that eating spicy food caused premature sexual development, leading to “Heat and burning of the parts—shocking enlargement of the spermatic cords—swelling—inflammation—scirrhus and ulceration of the testicles,” and “in other cases, a general withering, and impotence and decay of the parts, commences and continues on.”[13]

If Simmons wrote about food and cooking because she was trying to help American ladies cook for their children and husbands, then Graham wrote about food and eating because he feared that the nation’s men would no longer be able to produce those children. For Graham and for Simmons, food was deeply political, and the fate of the nation rested on what people put into their stomachs. Texts about food and drink are rarely devoid of gendered discussions that reveal all the anxiety wrapped up in the founding and maintenance of the new republic.

When my students read cookbooks, they now know to read the introduction and additional front and back matter more closely than they might have done. They know that cookbooks can have arguments, and that recipe titles might offer additional clues about what authors are arguing. They’ll ask questions about audience, and they’ll know to be skeptical when authors make claims about the broad appeal of their work. They’ll also know to examine cookbooks alongside other materials, anticipating that some of the things we know about cookbooks today are both similar to and different from what we know about the cookbooks of the past.

***

Although I’ve talked a lot about biscuits today, I’m not sharing a recipe for them. I own both of Deb Perelman’s cookbooks because of her blog, What I like about it is that it reveals how obsessed Perelman is with the linked goals of streamlining recipes to make them as straightforward as possible, and mashing recipes together to achieve that aim. One of the first recipes that I cooked from her blog was a recipe for zucchini fritters. Another of her recipes simplifies a fantastic recipe by Yotam Ottolenghi for a zucchini and mozzarella pasta. I’ve tried to embrace these tendencies with my own fritter recipe, instead tweaking a fritter recipe by Ottolenghi in a way that I’d hope Perelman would appreciate.

I had chickpea flour on hand from a previous recipe, so I decided to try swapping that in for the regular flour—regular flour would probably work fine, because that’s how the fritters are made in the original recipe. As I was cooking, I was in the mood for Vietnamese or Thai, so I added lemongrass and lime leaves, and corn kernels, which often get added to these fritters in the UK. I decided to eat the fritters with nuoac cham, a salty, citrusy Vietnamese dipping sauce. If you’re feeling lazy you could just drizzle them with Sriracha, or a bit of mayo or Greek yogurt mixed with soy sauce and ginger. Assemble the sauce after frying, but before that final crisp in the oven.

Cauliflower, Chickpea, and Corn Fritters with Nuoc Cham

For the Fritters
1 small cauliflower, cut into small florets (about 380 grams)
1 cup chickpea (chana) flour (140 grams)
2 shallots, diced
2 ears corn, kernels cut off the cob
1 garlic clove, minced
3 Thai green or red chilies, minced (remove the seeds if you want less heat)
2 stalks lemongrass, tough outer stalks removed, minced very fine
3 kaffir lime leaves, finely chopped (substitute a tablespoon of lime zest)
1 ½ tsp ground cumin
½ tsp turmeric
1 tsp white pepper
1 ½ tsp salt
¼ cup cilantro, chopped (15 grams)
4 eggs
About 2 cups neutral cooking oil, for frying

For the Nuoc Cham Dipping Sauce
2-4 limes, depending on juiciness, squeezed
1/2 cup water
Granulated sugar, to taste
Fish sauce, 1-3 tablespoons
Garlic, minced (optional)
2 Thai green chilies, split in half (optional)

  1. Make the fritter batter. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the cauliflower florets and simmer briskly for about fifteen minutes, until the cauliflower is soft. Drain and cool slightly.
  2. In a large bowl, use a potato masher and mash the cauliflower until there are no pieces bigger than a corn kernel left. Tip in the remaining batter ingredients, except for the eggs and oil, and stir until thoroughly combined. Lightly beat the eggs in a separate bowl, and then stir them into the batter, too.
  3. Fry the fritters. Heat a scant inch of oil in a cast-iron skillet, and heat over medium low heat until a drop of water sizzles when you drop it into the pan (or until a wooden chopstick placed into the oil starts to bubble). Doing this slowly helps your cast-iron heat up evenly; I recommend using one because I like how crisp my fritters get, but you can use a different pan, if you like. In a cast iron skillet, my oil usually takes about ten minutes to get up to temperature, but don’t leave your apartment and go for a walk or anything while it heats.
  4. When you’re ready to cook, line a tray with foil and paper towels, and turn the heat up to medium. Drop large spoonfuls of the batter into the hot oil—about an inch apart—pressing down on each piece so that it flattens slightly. Try not to let the fritters touch. I can usually do about four at a time. Fry on one side for 2-3 minutes, until nice and brown on the bottom. Aim for fritters with spots that are the color of coffee with a bit of milk in it. If your fritters are lighter, turn the heat up a bit, and if they’re darker, flip them sooner, but lower the heat before the next batch goes in. Flip, using a spatula, spider spatula, or chopsticks, and fry for another 1-2 minutes, and then remove to the towel-lined plate. As your last batch is cooking, heat the oven to 425°F/220°C. If you’re freezing them for later, stop here, and begin at step 5 when you’re heating them up from frozen.
  5. Make the dipping sauce. This step is really about what tastes good to you. Mix the lime juice with ½ cup cold water, and then add enough sugar to make it taste like a good, tart limeade. Start adding fish sauce until the mixture tastes salty, tart, and a little funky. I usually add at least a tablespoon, but saltiness will change a lot depending on the type of fish sauce you own. Add the garlic and chilies, if you’re using them. Allow to sit, ideally at least fifteen minutes. Taste occasionally, and if it gets too spicy you can remove the chilies.
  6. Hit the fritters with a last blast of heat. These fritters are fine out of the oil, but they get a little crispier (translation: more delicious) if you pop them into a hot oven for a few minutes after frying them. Remove the paper towels, and place the foil-covered tray in the oven and bake for 10 minutes. If you’re baking from frozen, bake them for about 12 minutes—but check them at 10 to make sure they’re not burning.
  7. When the fritters come out of the oven, salt them—go easy on the salt, especially if you’ve made my dipping sauce. Serve, with dipping sauce alongside.

[1] Deb Perelman, Smitten Kitchen Every Day: Triumphant and Unfussy New Favorites (London: Square Peg, 2017), 17.

[2] Perelman, Smitten Kitchen Every Day, xiii, xvii.

[3] Amelia Simmons, American Cookery: Or, the Art of Dressing Viands, Fish, Poultry and Vegetables, and the Best Modes of Making Puff-Pastes, Pies, Tarts, Puddings, Custards and Preserves, and all Kinds of Cakes, From the Imperial Plumb to plain Cake, Adapted to this Country, and all Grades of Life, with an introduction by Karen Hess (Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, 1996). The first edition was published in 1796, but the facsimile edition I cite here, which you can find on Google Books, is the one most often discussed by scholars. This Albany edition contains some of the more “national” recipes I discuss in the rest of the post.

[4] Simmons, American Cookery, 7.

[5] Simmons, American Cookery, 3.

[6] Glynis Ridley, “The First American Cookbook,” Eighteenth-Century Life, 23:2 (1999): 114-23, esp. 115. For more on Simmons, see also “Simmons, Amelia,” Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook Project: https://digital.lib.msu.edu/projects/cookbooks/html/authors/author_simmons.cfm

[7] On these substitutions more generally, see Mark McWilliams, “Distant Tables: Food and the Novel in Early America.” Early American Literature, Vol. 38, No. 3 (2003): 365-93, esp. 365; James E. McWilliams, A Revolution Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 279-321.

[8] Simmons, American Cookery, 43-44.

[9] Simmons, American Cookery, xii.

[10] Simmons, American Cookery, 46, 9.

[11] On this practice in general, see Simmons, American Cookery, xii.

[12] Adam D. Shprintzen, The Vegetarian Crusade: The Rise of an American Reform Movement, 1817-1921 (Chapel Hill: the University of North Carolina Press, 2013), Chs. 1-2.

[13] Sylvester Graham, A Lecture to Young Men (New York: Arno Press, 1974 [1834]), 60.


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