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Why Focus on Nineteenth-Century Annotated Recipes?

The nineteenth-century was a period of absolute food revolution in the United States. On the cusp of major kitchen appliances being invented (the refrigerator, the temperature oven, the egg beater, etc.) as well as a major shift in how ingredients were being marketed (for example, sodium carbonate being marketed as “baking soda”) cooks in the nineteenth-century were witnessing the birth of modern, American cuisine. Given that refrigeration was limited but food was slowly becoming a major way of signifying middle-class status, cooks had to be creative with their work. Fresh beef and pork in towns and cities had erratic supplies and many ingredients had to be sourced locally. The nineteenth-century is often referenced in discussions of the rise of capitalism and of consumer culture and nineteenth-century kitchens are emblematic of this rise--acting as a site of labor, class reproduction, and product consumption.

Prior to the nineteenth-century, and up until the mid-nineteenth-century, food was seen more as fuel and it mattered little whether someone was eating vegetables, grains, or meat though of course the types of vegetable, grains, and meat have historically always been used to signify class status. With the rise of the middle-class, however, food and dining became incredibly important features of middle-class life. Our contemporary idea of what makes someone middle-class has slightly shifted, but in the nineteenth-century it was incredibly common for middle-class families to employ servants who often worked alongside the mistress of the house in completely domestic chores. It was typical for a middle-class family to employ around three servants either as day workers or live-in servants. Work in the middle-class home was also typically specialized with specific workers hired to complete specific tasks.

However, just as the preparation of food was becoming mainstays of middle-class domestic life, the rise in the industrialization and urbanization that enabled this shift also led to an increase in inequality and poorer nutrition for working-class Americans. In 1881, a semi-skilled worker could expect a good wage to be roughly ten dollars a week. This wage was gendered, of course, and could depend on the type of work one was employed to complete. As Tiffany Wayne notes more than half of free Black women in the North worked as domestic servants and many Northern women who employed servants expected them to work up to sixteen-hours a day. For widowed mothers in Boston, in a time in which work for women and wages was severely limited, a mean wage was roughly $1.50 a week including board. Boarding rates in the city were often one dollar a week which left little else to support a child. Older children often were indentured or left to make their own wages but shoveling dried horse manure or selling matches on the street. While legislation was introduced at the turn of the century to put restrictions on women’s work (i.e. the hours they could work, etc.) household employment was notably excluding leaving it highly unregulated. 

The diet for servants often depended on the benevolence of their mistress. Often, servants were provided food that was less expensive and less elaborate than those served to the main family and even in cases where servants were served the same food as their employers, it was often in lesser quantities and provided insufficient nutrition for their physical labor. As the middle-class domestic space began to define itself distinctly from the working-class, food, food preparation, and the eating habits of servants was pushed away from site and sequestered in the kitchen. In this way, the mistress of the house is able to hold kitchen labor at arms length while demanding culinary labor from servants.

However, the power that cooks had shouldn’t be discredited. The ability for a cook to inhabit, as Kyla Wazana Thompkins argues “the mouth of her ‘superiors’ at the same time as she functioned as a proxy for their mouths in the cooking spaces of the home” is powerful. Recipes, themselves, can act as evidence to the power over consumption. While mistresses were primarily responsible for maintaining food records and menus from dinner parties, annotations to recipes have to come from someone actually preparing the food, even in cases where the white mistress is the proxy through which these words are recorded. 

With the increase in print innovation in the nineteenth-century and in literacy rates, the reading public was widely expanded. Printed, single authored cookbooks were often written but middle-class or upper-middle-class white women who used cookbooks as a way to not only regulate American cuisine but to define what was appropriate for middle-class diners. Most purchasers of cookbooks in the period were literate and with enough disposable income to afford what was then still a pricey purchase of a book. These urban or small-town middle-class women viewed cookbooks as descriptive and narrative rather than hands-on and were often unlikely to be found cooking, themselves. These mistresses might know how to prepare a few things--enough to dictate the family’s menu--but these tasks were often left to a hired cook. Cookbooks, as a genre, in the nineteenth-century were largely produced for and by middle-class white women. This community of women writing for other women is significant in a period in which women’s public discourse was severely limited but the fact that this discourse largely ignored women of color and working-class laborers shouldn’t be ignored. 

For this reason, focusing on annotations in cookbooks (and in even cheaper print publications such as magazines and newspapers which would have been read by a wider audience with less disposable income) might give us insight into the literature of nineteenth-century working-class laborers and servants. It is already a well accepted fact that most of what we fondly refer to as soul food or Southern cuisine was introduced to the South by enslaved Black people. Similarly, with so many Black women in the North employed in domestic service and Black men employed as caterers, there is no denying the influence that Black cooks had on Northern cuisine, as well. With recipes often standing as the material record of eating, and as the primary literature of the domestic sphere, locating the voices of these cooks can be difficult. Scholars in food studies have determined that white, middle-class women treated cookbooks as literature and if this is the case, then what does it mean for a Black cook working in a Northern kitchen to add to that literature through marginalia? What does it mean for a poor woman in the West to add her marks? In a time in which access to publication pathways was incredibly limited, these marks are significant evidence of engagement with literary production. 

Of course for many of these books, there is little information about who the annotator was or what their social status may have been. However, taking up Toni Morrison’s idea of “literary archeology” which she describes as the process through which “on the basis of some information and a little bit of guesswork you journey to a site to see what remains were left behind and to reconstruct the world that these remains imply,” then perhaps we are allowed to wonder if these annotations might have been made by a working-class cook. That the food stains dotting the page and authoritative ‘X’s and crossed out lines might represent a speaking back to this white, middle-class. For these reason, and given this historical context, that is why Texts of Taste focuses on annotated recipes.

Further Reading

Barthes, Roland. Bruissement de La Langue. University of California Press, 1989.

Carson, Scott Alan. “A Weighty Issue: Diminished Net Nutrition Among the U.S. Working Class in the Nineteenth Century.” Demography, vol. 52, no. 3, 2015, pp. 945–66. 

Elias, Megan J. Food on the Page: Cookbooks and American Culture. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017.

Erby, Kelly. “Dining on Dissolution: Restaurants, the Middle Class, and the Creation of the Family Dinner in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America.” Food, Culture & Society, vol. 20, no. 4, Oct. 2017, pp. 671–84, doi:10.1080/15528014.2017.1357951.

Katzman, David M. Seven Days a Week: Women and Domestic Service in Industrializing America. University of Illinois Press, 1981.

Korsmeyer, Carolyn. “Narratives of Eating.” Making Sense of Taste, Cornell University Press, 1999, pp. 185–224. JSTOR, JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctt5hh0p6.11.

Leonardi, Susan J. “Recipes for Reading: Summer Pasta, Lobster à La Riseholme, and Key Lime Pie.” PMLA, vol. 104, no. 3, 1989, pp. 340–47. JSTOR, JSTOR, doi:10.2307/462443.

Levenstein, Harvey. Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet. University of California Press, 2003.

McWilliams, Mark. Food and the Novel in Nineteenth-Century America. Rowman Altamira, 2012.

Merish, Lori. Sentimental Materialism: Gender, Commodity Culture, and Nineteenth-Century American Literature. Duke University Press, 2000.

Richter, Amy G. At Home in Nineteenth-Century America: A Documentary History. NYU Press, 2015.

Tompkins, Kyla Wazana. Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century. Vol. 5. NYU Press, 2012.

Wayne, Tiffany K. Women’s Roles in Nineteenth-Century America. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007.

Woloson, Wendy A. Refined Tastes: Sugar, Confectionery, and Consumers in Nineteenth-Century America. JHU Press, 2002.

Young, L. Middle Class Culture in the Nineteenth Century: America, Australia and Britain. Springer, 2002.