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11/6/1996

Something Old Is New Again

When Francis Schott and Marc Pascal were searching for something exciting and new to serve at their restaurant Stage Left: An American Cafe in New Brunswick, they found just what they were looking for in a cookbook written in 1796. The cookbook they found was positively revolutionary for its time. Schott and Pascal picked "American Cookery" by Amelia Simmons, the first cookbook published in the United States.

"'American Cookery' is most strikingly current ... in its prescriptions for choosing foodstuffs and preparing them. Simmons's advice to eat locally and look for freshness and quality and to prepare meat 'rare done as it is the healthiest and the taste of this age' is relevant today as ever," Schott said.

"Amelia Simmons was a real forerunner of modern cuisine," said Pascal.

The restaurant is using recipes adapted from "American Cookery" in a fixed-price menu that will be available throughout the month. With a cost of $45, the menu is available only after 8 p.m.

The contemporary four-course dinner starts off with snapping turtle soup with root vegetables, moves on to a wonderful, wood-grilled New York brook trout with apple and onion slaw, reaches a crescendo with stuffed leg of lamb with cranberries, walnuts and mashed potatoes and then comes down to earth with a warm ginger cobbler with pumpkin ice cream.

Stage Left arrived at this menu through some trial and error, said Pascal, who added that other Simmons dishes will be available on the restaurant's regular menu.

Pascal said the recipes were fairly easy to adapt, although it is no longer necessary to hang the turtle by its dorsal fin for five hours, which Simmons recommends.

"American cuisine had access to foodstuffs that were not in Europe or not used the same way there," said Schott. "Ms. Simmons's work was the first to mention such staples as corn, cornmeal, squash and pumpkin. Unknown to the European cook, these made their first appearance in 'American Cookery.'"

Who was Amelia Simmons and how did she come to know so much about cooking? It's difficult so say because there is scant hard information about her life. The title page of "American Cookery" describes her as "an American orphan" and she describes herself as one "circumscribed in her knowledge" and without an "education sufficient to prepare the work for the press."

The book was first published in 1796 with a paper covering by Hudson & Goodwin in Hartford, Conn. It contained just 48 pages and was priced to be bought by a wide audience, including those who could only afford one book a year, an almanac, according to Mary Tolford Wilson, who wrote a preface for a the latest version of "American Cookery" (Dover Publications, $7.95), which is a photo reproduction of the original.

Just because "American Cookery" was the first cookbook published in The United States doesn't mean there were no other cookbooks available in the former British colonies. There were several British cookbooks in common use by American cooks, most notably Gervase Markham's "The English Housewife," The Countess of Kent's "True Gentlewoman's Delight" or Hannah Wooley's "Queenlike Closet."

"Amelia Simmons demonstrated her practicality and proved that her work was truly 'Adapted to this Country' by including five recipes requiring the use of cornmeal: three for Indian Pudding, one for 'Johnny Cake or Hoe Cake,' and one for 'Indian Slapjacks.' This was the first known appearance of any of the three in any cookbook," wrote Wilson.

Simmons also was the first to write about using corn cobs to smoke bacon, the first to pair roast turkey with cranberry sauce and the first to describe pickled watermelon rind.

Her book was the first to use the words "cookie" and "slaw,' according to Wilson. "Other uniquely American advances first mentioned by Simmons include the nonyeast leavening of bakery," said Schott. "The European cook of the day could leaven baked goods only with yeast. Americans had long before discovered that pearlash acted as leavening agent. Pearlash, the precursor of baking soda, eventually revolutionized baking. Simmons's cookbook, was the first to mention it."

Simmons's book is not an easy read because of the archaic language and her recipes require some knowledge of cooking techniques. In some recipes she gives no amounts, or gives amounts in antiquated measurements, such as gills. Some recipes for baked goods require "emptins," a semiliquid prepared yeast.

Simmons was cooking during the time of open fires, and today's cooks will have to use their judgment about time and temperature.

Imagine, however, trying to turn out a perfect loaf of her Diet Bread from this recipe: "One pound sugar, 9 eggs, beat for an hour, add to 14 ounces flour, spoonful rose water, spoonful cinnamon or coriander; bake quick."

"American Cookery" must have been popular because by the end of 1796, a second edition was being printed in Albany, NY. By 1798, Simmons' book had been published by four different printers.

Schott finds the Simmons cookbook far more satisfying than one published 100 years later. "The Original Boston Cooking-School Cookbook," by Fannie Merritt Farmer, was published in 1896. A facsimile of the book was published in February in hardcover (Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, $18.96).

The Fanny Farmer cookbook was the first to use standardized measurements and was written for inexperienced cooks, Schott said. He finds Simmons to be far more original and interesting.

"It is ever more important to know from whence we came," said Schott.

This pound cake recipe is the updated version from Connecticut author Iris Ihde Frey's reproduction of Simmons' book. In Simmons' time, rose water was the preferred flavoring; Frey substitutes vanilla. Rose water is available in specialty shops and can be substituted for the vanilla.

POUND CAKE

6 eggs
1 1/2cups butter
3 cups sifted confectioners' sugar
3 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Bring all ingredients to room temperature. Put eggs, still in their shells, in a bowl of warm water and set aside.

Cut butter into a large mixing bowl. With an electric mixer, gradually increase to high speed to beat butter until creamy. Gradually beat in sugar until light and fluffy.

At medium speed, beat in eggs, one at a time, beating for two minutes after each addition. With a spatula, scrape sides and bottom of bowl before each egg is added. On low speed, gently blend in flour, 1/2 cup at a time. Scrape down batter occasionally with a spatula. Blend in vanilla.

Turn batter onto a well-buttered and lightly floured 9-inch tube pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 50 minutes or until cake is delicately browned and cake tester comes out dry. Cool in pan on rack for 10 minutes. Turn out of pan onto rack to cool completely.

Makes 16 to 20 slices.

To make reservations for the Amelia Simmon's tasting menu at Stage Left: An American Cafe, call (908) 828-4444.


Stage Left | 5 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ 08901 | T: 732.828.4444
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