The best books on food and cooking in Victorian America

Jenne Bergstrom and Miko Osada Author Of The Little Women Cookbook: Novel Takes on Classic Recipes from Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy and Friends
By Jenne Bergstrom and Miko Osada

The Books I Picked & Why

The Young Housekeeper's Friend; Or, A Guide to Domestic Economy and Comfort

By Mary Hooker Cornelius

The Young Housekeeper's Friend; Or, A Guide to Domestic Economy and Comfort

Why this book?

We consulted a wide variety of historical cookbooks while writing our book, but one in particular stands out: The Young Housekeeper’s Friend (or as we affectionately call it, YHF), first published in 1846. It is actually mentioned by name more than once in Little Women, so it became our first point of reference for the recipes we wanted to include. YHF was quite popular in its day, and went through several editions–with good reason, as we discovered. Of all the cookbooks we used in our research, the recipes in this one were always the tastiest and most reliable.

Even though by modern standards the recipes are rather vague, she actually gave quite a bit more instruction than other cookbooks of the era, and many of the chapters include an introduction that goes into more detail about the overall theory of how to cook that particular type of food. During the process of putting together The Little Women Cookbook, YHF went from being a quaint vintage curiosity to a cookbook that’s in active use in my kitchen. If you’re interested in trying out historical recipes, this would be the place to start.


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Victorian Cakes: A Reminiscence With Recipes

By Caroline B. King

Victorian Cakes: A Reminiscence With Recipes

Why this book?

This delightful memoir/cookbook of a girl and her sisters growing up near Chicago in the late 1800s gives us a glimpse of what kinds of things a middle-class family ate--there were trendy foods back then, just like we have now!

What’s it like? Just imagine if you took all your favorite 19th-century children's books, mashed them all together, and edited out everything except talking about cake. Oh and maybe keep in a few things about fancy outfits and picnics.


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A Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen

By Malinda Russell

A Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen

Why this book?

Until 2000, What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking (1881) was considered the first cookbook authored by a Black American. It was then that historians chanced upon an incredibly lucky finding: a copy of A Domestic Cookbook at the bottom of a box. As far as we know, there’s only ONE copy left of this little 39-page collection of recipes, which was first published in 1866.

Historians and researchers have delved deep into the mystery of author Malinda Russell, but we barely know more than she tells us in her introduction -- a life story laid out in stark, gripping first-person over just two short pages. As a business owner who specialized in pastry, Russell’s book has upended assumptions about 19th-century Black women and African American cuisine. In such a slim volume, she still includes 70+ kinds of cake and comments that “a great many ladies have wished to know how I have such good success in making my cakes so light.” (She reveals her tips on page 15!)


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Food in the Civil War Era

By Helen Zoe Veit

Food in the Civil War Era

Why this book?

Of the many reference resources we encountered in the midst of our obsessive research for our Little Women Cookbook, this one was a favorite (along with the incomparable YHF). It’s just so satisfying to find the perfect book for a project, isn’t it? When we first started out, we thought, “We’d be so lucky to find anything about food from the Civil War era that doesn’t focus on soldiers’ rations, rich people, or the South — especially if it touches on the role of women in everyday culinary culture.” And as if our local university library were a magical genie who heard my wish, there this book was.

In Food in the Civil War Era: The North, editor Helen Zoe Veit provides a bit of background so you can understand the trends behind five Civil War-era cookbooks. Her engaging commentary made this one a surprisingly quick read. Until reading Food in the Civil War Era, we assumed that 19th-century food was bland, boring, and limited. But Veit explains that ingredients were already being imported from all over the world, and immigration patterns have had a huge effect on the dinner table since the pre-colonial period. There’s no such thing as apple-pie American, everyone -- for the entire history of the United States, its cuisine has been global.


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Savory Suppers and Fashionable Feasts: Dining in Victorian America

By Susan Williams

Savory Suppers and Fashionable Feasts: Dining in Victorian America

Why this book?

If you strive to be a Victorian-era food snob, this is the guidebook. It’s a comprehensive overview of food and cooking customs from the second half of the 19th century, packed with illustrations and tons of fun trivia. (For example: celery was considered a high-status food by the middle class because of its connection to Homer’s Odyssey. If you were looking for a trendy centerpiece, you could put it in specially appointed silver or glass vases like a bouquet of flowers. Haha!) You’ll also find an explanation of mealtimes, and how expectations for breakfast, lunch, dinner, tea, and supper were different from today’s. There’s a whole chapter on Victorian table etiquette! By the way, Victorians advise that if you’re hosting a dinner party, make sure to wear an outfit that’s “rich in material, but subdued in tone” so you don’t show up any of your guests.


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