Political Cuisine: Early American Cookbooks

Professor Mary Eyring showed what cookbooks reveal about the presence of women in early American politics.

Harrison CakePROVO, Utah (Feb. 11, 2016)—Though websites like Pinterest and Food Network are starting to take over their job, cookbooks are still a pervasive presence in American homes. Whether it’s written by Mary Kay or your own grandmother, a good cookbook can be a fountain of more recipes than you’ll ever have occasion to cook.

But cookbooks are more than just sources for preparing for family dinner. Professor of English Mary Eyring considers them as special sources for understanding women of the early American period. In an American Studies-sponsored lecture, Eyring described just one gem she learned from studying the collections of handwritten recipes (also called receipts) that women put together, saying, “Authors of manuscript receipt books used food and recipes to connect to a wide and diverse American culinary culture that was not just social, but also political in nature.”

One surprising characteristic of these early receipt books is that every recipe was attributed to its creator – a practice that went against publishing practices of the early American culinary world. Officially published cookbooks often plagiarized heavily from one another or else imitated each other in style. Eyring attributes this in part to the public, who didn’t allot cookbooks the same status as novels or other literature, and thus didn’t care about originality.

Why then did authors of manuscript receipt books, intended for a familial or neighborly audience at most, give credit for individual recipes? Eyring believes there was an ultimately altruistic motivation. She said, “Attributions . . . served to foster a sense of collaboration and community; to encourage sharing, credit people and encourage communal participation.”

But more central to Eyring’s research is what these receipt books reveal about early American political life. “A number of dishes announce clear political leanings,” she said. Recipes named after political figures – such as Taylor pudding, Clay cakes and Jackson jumbles, to name a few – were plentiful in the receipt books Eyring studied.

The most surprising presence in American receipt books was William Harrison, America’s shortest-sitting president. Despite serving a mere 30 days before dying in office, Harrison’s legacy lived on in the form of puddings, pies, cakes, creams and jumbles bearing his name. However, it wasn’t his presidency that was being memorialized in pastries – it was his candidacy.

“The election of 1840 was a spectacle, even by the standards of 2016,” Eyring said. “It’s the first election with the trappings that we recognize from modern campaigns.” Harrison was the first candidate in American history to actively campaign for the presidency, breaking tradition by organizing rallies, delivering speeches and retaliating against criticism. The election stirred the populace in ways previous elections had not and saw an unprecedented 80 percent voter turnout. And the effect wasn’t limited to voting booths.

“Harrison cakes, pies and puddings show up in manuscript receipt books held in northeastern archives . . . more than dishes named for any president except Washington,” Eyring said. “It suggests something about the energy that his campaigns . . . excited among both men and women.” It also suggests the ways in which women could use their domestic authority to participate in the political sphere from which they were largely barred.

Interestingly, these political dishes are nowhere to be found in published cookbooks of the time. Publishers avoided any political affiliation or writing in order to avoid alienating potential customers. “By contrast,” Eyring said, “these manuscript receipt books are intensely political, and they potentially provoked debate.” Eyring found many receipt books with recipes for Clay cakes, and many with recipes for Jackson jumbles, but none that had both (Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson were fierce political and personal rivals). Bringing any one of these dishes – all of which were intended for large gatherings – to a social event sent a message. “These women were not just making culinary statements: they were registering a voice in what were fierce . . . political debates.”

This understanding gives new implication to the inclusion of attributions. According to Eyring, women considered a recipe as an individual’s artistic and social endeavor in a society that restricted women in both respects. The kitchen gave individual women a voice, one that other women helped spread by sharing and attributing recipes.

“This kind of overlap between domestic and political spheres is not limited to certain time periods or events,” Eyring concluded. “It’s widespread. We see that manuscript cookbooks illuminate an overlap of kitchens, dining rooms and political forums. . . . Women took seriously an opportunity to demonstrate literary authorship and meaningful political authority and to exert edible influence on the political climate of the early American period.”

—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)


Samuel covers events for the American Studies program for the College of Humanities. He is a senior pursuing a degree in American studies with a minor in editing.

Photo courtesy of Mary Eyring