The moment I opened a thick, brown envelope this week and saw its contents, my heart skipped. Two jewel-toned books slipped out of the package. With hardy, fabric-covered hardcovers and gold trim on the edges of their pages, these were no ordinary cookbooks. They reminded me vividly of the first time I'd received an equally beautiful copy of Little Women, and how much I cherished that gilt-trimmed book throughout my childhood.
Just in time for Mother's Day, publishing company Andrews McMeel is releasing an ingenious collection of historic cookbooks, reprinted on thick paper stock and bound in beautiful, richly-hued hardcover format. The two I received in the mail were only a couple of the series that Andrews McMeel has planned for its American Antiquarian Cookbook Collection.
The American Antiquarian Society currently possesses more than 1,100 cookbooks documenting our nation's culinary history -- starting with the very first cookbook, published here in 1742. It was a reprint of the popular British bestseller The Compleat Housewife, which the AAS holds in its collection alongside other historic works such as Amelia Simmons's American Cookery, generally considered to be America's first truly indigenous cookbook.
Although neither of these volumes are planned for reproduction quite yet, Andrews McMeel has already published Mary Randolph's 1824 guide to homemaking, The Virginia Housewife, and Eliza Leslie's 1828 book of Seventy-Five Recipes for Pastry, Cakes and Sweetmeats. Five additional books are planned for 2013, including The Picayune's Creole Cookbook and the House Servant's Directory.
What makes this collection so significant isn't just the beautiful binding, however. Inside, the pages are literal reproductions of the original -- often complete with handwritten notes in the margin -- which give the reader a much truer feel for the era in which they were first published. There are forewords, too, which explain the cultural significance of each cookbook and how best to use its recipes.
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For The Virginia Housewife, two-time James Beard award winner Nathalie Dupree explains how "Mary Randolph was the ideal Southern woman to write the first truly regional American cookbook." Randolph never lived to see her cookbook in print the way she wanted it, but I imagine she'd be pleased as punch with this clothbound edition.
Andrews McMeel also plans to release an additional 18 AAS cookbooks in eBook format over the next year, including The Frugal Housewife and The Practical Distiller. In case Mom doesn't have a Kindle, however, the hardcover versions of the classic cookbooks should make a cherished Mother's Day gift.