Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in Broadside, the magazine of the Library of Virginia, Issue No. 3, 2021.
The most popular cookbook in 18th-century America came from England in the form of The Compleat Housewife: Or, Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion by Eliza Smith. The first cookbook to be published in the American colonies, it was issued in Williamsburg by William Parks in 1742. Using Smith’s 5th London edition as his basis, Parks deleted some recipes and added several for colonial tastes in the first American edition.
The Compleat Housewife went through 18 editions between 1727 and 1773. Pictured here is the 14th edition, from 1750. Each page holds approximately four to five recipes, with only two to three sentences devoted to each. The book runs 400 pages within 10 sections and contains more than 600 recipes, as well as some home remedies.
Although Smith writes plainly, most of her recipes do not provide enough detail for use by today’s standards. She does not include cooking temperatures or times, for example.
Smith provides an extensive bill of fare for every season and month of the year, and offers tips on how to tell if meat and poultry are fresh. She devotes many pages to soft foods for elderly palates, such as Scotch collops, fricassees, ragouts, soups, gravies, and plum porridges. There is a lengthy recipe for English “Katchup” that requires a week to reach proper strength.
This edition includes an illustrated frontispiece image showing a kitchen scene with servants preparing food for guests in the dining room in the background. It also contains engravings showing table placement of food courses for winter, summer, and “A Supper, Second Course —The Dessert in the Middle.”
Eliza Smith herself remains a bit of a mystery. In the book’s preface, she wrote that she spent her life as a cook and housekeeper for wealthy households for more than 30 years, but she offered no other personal information and produced no further books.