Brave New World

By studying transatlantic food culture through the lens of an 18th-century unpublished cookbook, doctoral student Juliette Parsons sheds light on the formation of modern American eating habits.
BySusan Bell

Despite its handsome, embossed, brown-calfskin cover and imposing size, the unpublished 18th-century manuscript had been overlooked by academics until Juliette Parsons, a doctoral student in history at USC Dornsife, discovered it while researching early American food culture.

“Although the cover is impressive, the manuscript is in poor condition,” Parsons said. “The paper is yellowing and torn, some pages are missing altogether and the ink on those that remain has faded to such a light brown that the text is sometimes impossible to read.”

Rising to the challenge, Parsons is focusing her doctoral dissertation on this rare document, The Recipe Book of Bettee Saffin and Ann Ellis, housed in Philadelphia, at the University of Pennsylvania Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts. Her efforts show this previously ignored manuscript to be a treasure trove of information.

First composed by a well-to-do gentlewoman living in Somerset, Southwest England, and continued by her daughter, who immigrated to the United States and settled in Pennsylvania, the cookbook demonstrates how traditional English recipes were adapted to meet the challenges of the New World, evolving into the basis of modern American cooking. Closer reading also revealed the compelling story of a family’s descent into poverty.

“When researching American food history prior to 1800, historians have concentrated on unpublished cookbooks written by wealthy Southern women,” Parsons said. “This is one of the first times that anyone has seriously studied as a historical document an unpublished 18th-century recipe book written by a Northern woman from a less privileged background.

“Ann’s early education as a member of the wealthy English elite meant she was more literate than her peers, and her writing provides unique insights into Northern, middle-class cooking. Much of what came to be considered Early American food originated in Southeastern Pennsylvania and Philadelphia and is typified by Ann’s recipes.”

As a young girl in 1716, Bettee Saffin started the cookbook. It was a labor of love that would continue through the decades after her 1728 marriage to John Ellis. For 47 years, Saffin carefully noted friends’ recipes, or painstakingly copied instructions for dishes from published cookbooks and popular London magazines. She also used the cookbook to record medicinal remedies and handy household tips, such as how “To Make China Ink as the Chines doe it [sic],” instructions “For the cleaning of any Sort of Oyl [sic] Pictures” and how “To Make a Fine Glow to Cherry or hard Wood [sic].”

Like many 18th-century English mothers of her class, she entrusted her cherished cookbook to her eldest daughter, Ann, on her 24th birthday, the year before Ann’s marriage.

However, by then the family’s fortunes had suffered a serious reversal. As the 18th century advanced, Somerset’s rural economy collapsed in the wake of the Industrial Revolution and many wealthy families lost their savings overnight.

“Until 1757, Bettee bought exotic, expensive ingredients like spices for her recipes,” Parsons said. “Now she and John found themselves in dire financial straits and Bettee started writing thrifty recipes for times of famine.” In 1761, after John’s death, Saffin and Ellis left the rural comforts of Somerset for the poor south London neighborhood of Bermondsey.

“They must have been desperate when they moved,” Parsons said. “As two impoverished, unmarried women unaccustomed to poverty or the city, their future looked bleak.

“When Ann married Christopher Smith on Feb. 2, 1763, she likely did so out of desperation. Christopher could barely sign the marriage record and since he never wrote in the cookbook as Ann’s father and brother did, it’s unlikely he ever learned to write.”

Nevertheless, the marriage provided an escape route from poverty. On Sept. 21, 1763, the couple left England for a new life in Pennsylvania. The cookbook accompanied Ellis on her voyage across the Atlantic to this New World of American food.

Left behind in London, Saffin died alone in 1765. Her well-meaning efforts to prepare her daughter for the challenges of cooking on the American frontier were mostly rendered worthless by Saffin’s ignorance of New World ingredients.

Arriving in the New World, Ellis discovered that the rolling green pastures of Pennsylvania were filled with dairy cows, while sugar prices in Philadelphia, a major port city with trading ties to the West Indies, were among the cheapest in the world. An underground network of Quaker merchants provided additional ingredients at reasonable prices. Unprecendented access to previously scarce, rationed or expensive items like sugar revolutionized Ellis’s cooking.

“Her recipe for apple pie filling called for sugar to be added nine times during preparation” said Parsons, noting that until the 19th century, recipes contained no separate list of ingredients or exact quantities.

“We tend to think of our sugar-rich American diet as a modern phenomenon, but it isn’t. Eighteenth-century Pennsylvanians consumed much more sugar than modern Americans. The food culture of 18th-century Pennsylvania was dessert-centric, with the majority of calories provided by a daily intake of pies and other baked goods.”

Ellis adapted her mother’s recipes in accordance with local ingredients. From Quakers, Ellis learned to use cream cheese to make cheesecake, from Dutch neighbors she learned to preserve meat as well as make cookies. From Indians, she borrowed the practice of frying in lard.

“It was a very rich and fattening diet. It contained vastly more sugar and food fried in animal fat than was usual in England,” Parsons said.

This is vividly illustrated by a 1789 letter Parsons cites from Pennsylvanian Ruthie Wood, who wrote to her mother back home in her native England: “Our home is in a pretty lonesome place. But I have 45 pounds of sugar waiting and this is pretty fine.”

In the cookbook, Saffin and Ellis’s recipes appear as stream-of-consciousness paragraphs.

“The authors’ focus frequently wandered,” Parsons said. “The recipes read like conversations, like a cook casually explaining to dinner guests how she made a dish.”

Although Saffin and Ellis were educated women, misspelled and wrongly uppercased words, and grammatical errors abound.

Also, “The cookbook isn’t chronological and most recipes aren’t even dated,” Parsons said.

It was also sometimes used by other family members, notably to practice reading and writing. On page 11, where Ellis recorded recipes for gooseberry pie, dried fruit and boiled mushrooms, her younger brother, John, copied out a 1704 account of naval battles, no doubt as a writing exercise.

Saffin’s condiment recipe “To Make Catchup [sic] that will keep Good 20 Years” contains “a Gallon of Strong stale beer, one pound of Anchovies washed and cleaned from the guts half an ounce of cloves three large pieces of ginger one Pound of shallots one quart of flap mushrooms [sic].” Bearing no resemblance to modern-day ketchup, Saffin’s condomint shares more similarities — beer apart — with garum, a fermented fish sauce popular during the Roman Empire.

The ingredients of Ellis’s recipe for “Sauce for Fryed [sic] Fish” — chives, a shallot, butter and lemon — are simpler, evoking more closely what one would find in a modern American cookbook.

“Bettee’s recipes were not much different from those of the eighth century,” Parsons said. “Although Ann wrote her recipes only a few decades later, she breaks with food ways that existed in Europe for 1,000 years, using ingredients in ways familiar to a modern cook.

“At first, 18th-century Anglo-American women like Ann clung to English food culture, but they quickly added indigenous ingredients and adapted recipes from other colonial women, natives and slaves,” Parsons noted. “They elevated the importance of dessert, made sugar a defining taste in American cuisine and contributed new foods of their own invention. Their recipes became more than just practical adaptations to local conditions — they became American food.”

Read more stories from USC Dornsife Magazine‘s Fall 2014-Winter 2015 issue