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

Who are we?

Miko and Jenne are librarians who love to eat. Their love of classic children’s literature led them to start their 36 Eggs blog, where they recreate foods and experiences from their favorite books. In 2019, they published the Little Women Cookbook, which required extensive research into the food of the Victorian era.

We wrote...

The Little Women Cookbook: Novel Takes on Classic Recipes from Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy and Friends

By Jenne Bergstrom, Miko Osada,

Book cover of The Little Women Cookbook: Novel Takes on Classic Recipes from Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy and Friends

What is our book about?

You already adore the story of these four sisters who, with little means, find their own paths in a tale full of laughter, love, loss, and family. Now, experience Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel in an entirely new and delightful way—as a cookbook. You’ll learn to make ice cream with Meg, molasses candy with Jo, baked squash with Beth, pickled limes with Amy, and so much more. For a creative twist, these delicious step-by-step recipes are adapted from vintage Civil War-era cookbooks for the modern kitchen.

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The books we picked & why

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

Why did I love 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.

By Mary Hooker Cornelius,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Young Housekeeper's Friend; Or, A Guide to Domestic Economy and Comfort as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This work has been selected by scholars as being culturally important, and is part of the knowledge base of civilization as we know it. This work was reproduced from the original artifact, and remains as true to the original work as possible. Therefore, you will see the original copyright references, library stamps (as most of these works have been housed in our most important libraries around the world), and other notations in the work.

This work is in the public domain in the United States of America, and possibly other nations. Within the United States, you may freely copy and…

Book cover of Victorian Cakes: A Reminiscence With Recipes

Why did I love 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.

By Caroline B. King,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Victorian Cakes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The author recalls her Victorian childhood and shares popular recipes from the 1880s for cakes, doughnuts, pastries, buns, cookies, and desserts

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

Why did I love 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!)

By Malinda Russell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Domestic Cook Book as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

{Size: 15.34 x 23.59 cms} Leather Binding on Spine and Corners with Golden Leaf Printing on round Spine (extra customization on request like complete leather, Golden Screen printing in Front, Color Leather, Colored book etc.) Reprinted in 2021 with the help of original edition published long back [1866]. This book is printed in black & white, sewing binding for longer life, Printed on high quality Paper, re-sized as per Current standards, professionally processed without changing its contents. As these are old books, we processed each page manually and make them readable but in some cases some pages which are blur…

Food in the Civil War Era

By Helen Zoe Veit,

Book cover of Food in the Civil War Era

Why did I love 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.

By Helen Zoe Veit,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Food in the Civil War Era as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Cookbooks offer a unique and valuable way to examine American life. Their lessons, however, are not always obvious. Direct references to the American Civil War were rare in cookbooks, even in those published right in the middle of it. In part, this is a reminder that lives went on and that dinner still appeared on most tables most nights, no matter how much the world was changing outside. But people accustomed to thinking of cookbooks as a source for recipes, and not much else, can be surprised by how much information they can reveal about the daily lives and ways…

Book cover of Savory Suppers and Fashionable Feasts: Dining in Victorian America

Why did I love 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.

By Susan Williams,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Savory Suppers and Fashionable Feasts as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Savory Suppers and Fashionable Feasts offers a delightfully flavorful tour of dining in America during the second half of the 19th century. Susan Williams investigates the manners and morals of that era by looking at its eating customs and cooking methods. As she reveals, genteel dining became an increasingly important means of achieving social stability during a period when Americans were facing significant changes on a variety of fronts - social, cultural, intellectual, technological, and demographic.

Focusing on the rapidly expanding middle class, Williams not only examines mealtime rituals, but she looks at the material culture of Victorian dining: the…

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