Food on the Page: Cookbooks and American Culture

Food on the Page: Cookbooks and American Culture

Food on the Page: Cookbooks and American Culture

Food on the Page: Cookbooks and American Culture


What is American food? From barbecue to Jell-O molds to burrito bowls, its history spans a vast patchwork of traditions, crazes, and quirks. A close look at these foods and the recipes behind them unearths a vivid map of American foodways: how Americans thought about food, how they described it, and what foods were in and out of style at different times.

In Food on the Page, the first comprehensive history of American cookbooks, Megan J. Elias chronicles cookbook publishing from the early 1800s to the present day. Following food writing through trends such as the Southern nostalgia that emerged in the late nineteenth century, the Francophilia of the 1940s, countercultural cooking in the 1970s, and today's cult of locally sourced ingredients, she reveals that what we read about food influences us just as much as what we taste.

Examining a wealth of fascinating archival material--and rediscovering several all-American culinary delicacies and oddities in the process--Elias explores the role words play in the creation of taste on both a personal and a national level. From Fannie Farmer to The Joy of Cooking to food blogs, she argues, American cookbook writers have commented on national cuisine while tempting their readers to the table. By taking cookbooks seriously as a genre and by tracing their genealogy, Food on the Page explains where contemporary assumptions about American food came from and where they might lead.


I once bought a secondhand copy of a Fannie Farmer Cookbook in which a previous reader had written and underlined the word “no” next to a recipe for soft custard. I myself have since made clear my allegiance to a particular chocolate pudding recipe through spine wear as I opened the book to it many times and through glops of batter dropped on the page, expressing my own version of “yes.”

The little direct evidence of cooking that occurs in physical cookbooks comes in the form of such personal annotations and stains. These marks do not often show up in archived cookbooks for the practical reason that libraries look for the cleanest copies they can get. Because of this, researchers seldom encounter this kind of evidence. Even when notes and stains show up, it can be difficult to know what to make of them. They can be read for clues to women’s lives, but the stories they tell tend to be very particular. As in my case, I like Fannie Farmer’s Denver Chocolate Pudding quite a lot.

Cookbooks are full of words about food, but they don’t really tell us what people eat. I first became interested in the history of American cookbooks when I realized this limitation. Trying to figure out what Americans had eaten in the past, I found that cookbooks could not tell me what I wanted to know. That certain recipes recur again and again over a generation or more both on restaurant menus and in cookbooks may suggest that someone has cooked them, but there is no way to be sure.

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.