It never crossed my mind, as we approached the new millennium in 1999 that many cookbook writers would be working fast and furious to complete books about American cuisine of the past 100 years. I think I was busier worrying about Y2K to give new cookbook trends more than a passing thought. I was also busy doing a lot of writing for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange at the time.
A comment made by cookbook author Jean Anderson in the forward to one of these cookbooks set me straight, however, and also sent me in search of “my” kind of cookbook on bookstore shelves. I am partial to a lot of different types of cookbooks but especially those dedicated to what we loosely define as “American” cooking.
As many other cookbook authors have illustrated, different types of cuisine make up what we consider “typically” American food. This is because our country was settled by immigrants from many different countries throughout Europe and South American, people who brought their food traditions to the New world with them, often finding ways to adapt their recipes to the unfamiliar fruits and vegetables discovered in North America.
Several entire bookcases in my house are devoted entirely to cookbooks of this genre—primarily books with “American” in the title, but including any and all that fall into what I call my Americana category. “AMERICAN HOME COOKING” by Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison really stood out on the shelves of one of my favorite bookstores.
Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison are the authors of numerous travel guides and cookbooks, including, I discovered while doing a name search on the Internet, “The Border Cookbook” which was a James Beard Award winner in 1996. In 1995, their cookbook “SMOKE AND SPICE” was a 1995 James Beard Award winner.
To compile AMERICAN HOME COOKING, the Jamisons visited family cheese crafters in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania Dutch farmers between market days, and learned techniques for frying catfish from the first African American catfish farmer in Mississippi.
The publishers coax, “In a lively and lucid style that appeals to both novice and experienced cooks, the Jamisons invite you to sample a coast-to-coast feast of more than 300 recipes straight from the heart of America’s own home cooking tradition…”
Hefting this fairly weighty cookbook, you would think there were more than 300 recipes—but this volume is packed with other goodies as well, the very kind of background information that those of us who “read cookbooks like novels” are so partial to. (Show me a cookbook collector and I’ll show you someone who has stacks of cookbooks on their nightstand and piled up next to the bed—cookbook readers like to read cookbooks in bed).
AMERICAN HOME COOKING is just such a cookbook. Possibly the most difficult decision you will have to make is how to read it – page by page devouring the entire contents in one fell swoop, or the first the recipes and backing up to enjoy the wealth of historical information contained in numerous sidebars. (Sort of reminds me of the best way to eat an Oreo cookie).
The Jamisons note, “An extraordinary wealth of books exists on American home cooking. From just our familiar collection and two more extensive and professional collections at the Schlesinger Library of Radcliffe College, and Texas Woman’s University, we amassed a bibliography that runs on for fifty one single spaced pages, and that includes only the works that inspired us to take notes. We cut that list severely to produce this selection, honed to the books we used the most and would recommend to others interested in a deeper immersion in the subject….”
The Jamisons also included culinary essays and historical tomes as well as cookbooks. For readers who enjoy reading the bibliography as well as the book itself (and I know you are out there), you will enjoy this portion too. Kind of like a double serving of dessert after a fantastic dinner.
Recipes? Whether Oregon Hot Crab and Cheddar Sandwich, or Pico de Gallo, Prairie Fire Dip, or Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Cakes, whether Main Steamed Lobster or Mississippi Barbecued Chicken, or Kansas City Sugar-and-Spice Spareribs, AMERICAN HOME COOKING criss-crosses the United States from East to West and from North to South, presenting with obvious forethought the selections chosen for us by the Jamisons.
There are recipes I have not seen or heard of elsewhere, such as “The Gardener’s Wife Salad”, “Maque Choux” and “Honolulu Poke” but many others are familiar traditionally American choices, such as Hoppin’ John, Virginia Country Ham, and new England Boiled Dinner (one of my favorites; my mother-in-law used to make something similar to this—but she was from West Virginia, not New England).
One special feature of AMERICAN HOME COOKING that you will absolutely love are sidebars—interesting food related quotes from many of our favorite cookbook authors of the past century or two, such as current writers James Villas and John Egerton, but including quotes from M.F.K. Fisher, Sarah Tyson Rorer, James Beard and Irma Rombauer. There is even a rhymed recipe from one of the Brown’s cookbooks, AMERICA COOKS, a great favorite of mine.
I especially like a quotation credited to Laurie Colwin in Gourmet Magazine in May, 1990, in which she stated “Anyone who spends any time in the kitchen eventually comes to realize that what she or he is looking for is the perfect chocolate cake”.
Another delight was from George Rector, author of DINE AT HOME WITH RECTOR (1934) in which he sang the praises of pie, stating “A nation with its heart in the right place would long since have erected a monument as tall as the State of Liberty to the unknown heroine who baked the first American pie—its unworthy ancestors abroad can be discarded. The pedestal should be round and divided into six pieces and the figure should be holding up a pie the size of those in Paul Bunyan’s lumber camps..On the pedestal should be inscribed what might be a quotation from Walt Whitman’s ‘O Pioneers!’”
Some years ago, a columnist from the Los Angeles times asked me, if I could only choose five cookbooks, which five would they be? I was hard-pressed at the time to choose just five. But I have to say, now, that AMERICAN HOME COOKING would be my number one choice.
AMERICAN HOME COOKING by Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison, was published by Broadway Books, NY, in 1999. It originally sold for $35.00.
You can find it on Amazon.com—a new softcover copy is $9.38 but hardcover copies are available – new – for 45.89 or pre-owned starting at ONE CENT. (shipping and handling will cost you $3.99 – but you can get a good copy for $4,.00). Alibris.com has copies started at $7.99 and lists a very good copy for $8.22.
This is a worthy addition to any cookbook collector’s collection.
Review by Sandra Lee Smith
Want to know more about America-themed cookbooks? If enough readers are interested, I will compile a list of titles for you.