Book Review

The American Century Cookbook

By
May 29, 2007

There are two types of cookbooks: those you follow, and those you read. The American Century Cookbook, by Jean Anderson, is one to read. That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of recipes to choose from — more than 500, in fact. But this is a book to sit down with and journey through a century of American cooking.

A timeline runs along the right side of the book’s pages, revealing significant and unusual events in American culinary history. The invention of fruit cocktail is pegged at 1913, although canners didn’t agree on a recipe until 1927, the same year that Kool-Aid (invented by a Nebraska chemist and originally called “Fruit Smack”) was introduced.

Girl Scout Cookies were first made and sold in 1934 by Troop 129 in Philadelphia to raise money for camp; two years later, the cookies were baked commercially and sold for 25 cents a box. And while California might have started the 1980s sushi craze, the first sushi bar in the United States opened in New York way back in 1957.

Essays throughout The American Century Cookbook give detailed histories of such Americana as the marshmallow-topped sweet-potato pie (invented in 1928), the Tupperware Party (it debuted in the 1950s to sell merchandise that had been languishing on store shelves since 1946), and Frieda Caplan, the “Queen of Kiwifruit,” who renamed the Chinese gooseberry and brought it to the U.S. in 1962.

Then there’s macaroni and cheese, which apparently dates back to 1824. Kraft’s version appeared in 1937 with the slogan “A meal for four in nine minutes for an everyday price of 19 cents.” (A meal for four? Please.)

Instead of being organized by decade, which seems to make more sense for such a cookbook, the recipes are divided by type, which finds Salmon-Pimiento Loaf (1903) and Paul Prudhomme’s Blackened Redfish (1979) on the same page — most certainly the only place these two dishes will be in such close proximity.

The book is American through and through; even ethnic recipes are often American versions. Moussaka is “liberally adapted” from The New Good Housekeeping Cookbook (1986), and Beef Chimichangas comes from a 1979 Family Circle magazine article.

In lieu of photographs, there are reproductions of ads and promotions through the years, including a magazine cover from February 1917 that reads, “American Cookery (formerly The Boston Cooking School Magazine of Culinary Science and Domestic Economics).” It sold for 15 cents a copy.

There’s also plenty of amusing kitsch (like an entire section on molded salads, starting with 1905’s Perfection Salad), but there are serious recipes as well, adapted from sources like The Union Square Cookbook, The Silver Palate Cookbook, James Beard, and Wolfgang Puck.

While this isn’t necessarily a cookbook you’d turn to often for inspiration, it’s an indispensable tool for your next 1950s potluck or fondue/key party.

Cookbook author Keri Fisher (One Cake, One Hundred Desserts) has written for Saveur, Gastronomica, and Cook’s Illustrated. She lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and two sons.

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