An American Orphan Cooks (and Writes)

When did the first “real” pumpkin pie arrive on the culinary scene? Unknown. Pumpkin pies, which were more like squash tarts, started to appear in Europe not long after the first pumpkin “pie” was served at the second American Thanksgiving in 1621. Precisely 30 years later, in 1651, the legendary French chef and cookbook author Pierre la Varenne published a recipe for pumpkin tart: basically sweetened pumpkin mixed with milk and butter. Similar recipes started appearing in English cookbooks within a couple of decades.

It wasn’t until about a hundred years later that the first known custard-based pumpkin preparation appeared in print. It was in America and, appropriately enough, in the first American cookbook ever published: American Cookery, by “Amelia Simmons, an American Orphan.” Simmons’ recipes for “pompkin pudding” are identical to our modern pumpkin pie fillings.

Were her preparations inspired by European and/or English techniques? Certainly. American cuisine was English cuisine in those days, and always had been. American cooks (those that used cookbooks) cooked from English books, adapting recipes as they could to local ingredients. Simmons’ book was the first to document those practices, which blended Continental techniques, English sensibilities and native American ingredients. In short it was the first written record of how Americans actually cooked.

Very little is known about Simmons, the American orphan. Only that she was, you know, an orphan, and that she worked as a hired cook, probably somewhere in the Hudson River Valley. She published no other works and so is in all other respects anonymous. But she’s the mother of American food writing. You can buy her seminal book on Amazon for a penny, which is probably less than what it cost when it first came into print.

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