Mary Emmons, the heroine of my new historical novel The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr, is a cook. Because there were no cooking schools or culinary institutes in the American colonies, she learns to cook the traditional way: from other cooks, in other kitchens, while peeling, chopping, slicing, and stirring, but most of all by observing, listening, and tasting.
In the home of Colonel Aaron Burr and his wife Theodosia, Mary is the much-prized cook - and a much-prized possession, too. Like many of the cooks in 18thc America, Mary is enslaved. Whether female or male, on a large tobacco plantation in Virginia or a brick townhouse like the Burrs’ in New York City, the cook was usually the most valuable enslaved person in the household. Not only was the cook responsible for feeding the family, but she (or he) was also essential for successful entertaining, and maintaining the genteel air of hospitality that was so important in early American society.
Theodosia would have planned the day’s meals with Mary, and taken extra care when guests were invited. Considering that the Burrs were exceptionally well-read and kept a standing account with a London bookseller, it’s likely that Theodosia owned the latest edition of The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse (1708–1770), and turned to it for reference and recipe ideas. The frontispiece, right, shows the beruffled mistress of an English household giving a recipe to her cook. The legend beneath this illustration is a flattering 18thc version of “good food for busy cooks” that’s promised in modern cookbooks:
The Fair, who’s Wise, and oft consults our Book
And thence directions gives her Prudent Cook,
With Choicest Viands, has her Table Crown’d,
And Health, with Frugal Ellegance is found.
Mrs. Glasse’s cookbook was first published in 1747. An early bestseller, it swiftly became the most popular book of its kind in the 18th and early 19thc English-speaking world, and outlived Mrs. Glasse herself, with the cookbook going through numerous editions and revisions over the years.
These revisions reflected evolving British tastes and the increasing availability of imported ingredients. Europeans had been trading with India since the 16thc, and the cookbook’s first edition included a simple recipe for curry that depended mostly on pepper for flavoring. By the 1770 edition, a “currey the Indian way” included ginger and “tumerick” as well. Global trade routes benefited adventurous cooks, and these spices - as well as many others - would have been available in the shops of 18thc New York City. A curry like Mrs. Glasse’s would have been considered a sophisticated dish for Theodosia to serve her guests.
But to Mary, who had been born in India, Mrs. Glasse’s version would have been a Westernized travesty. Of course Mary has no say in the matter, and would have followed Theodosia’s wishes and Mrs. Glasse’s recipe, shown above, no matter how much she dislikes the results:
“It was the recipe’s seasonings that made me frown with dismay, even disgust. Mrs. Glasse believed that with the simple additions of two ounces of turmeric and a large spoonful of raw chopped ginger-root to the cream, the dish now had a right to be called a ‘Currey Made in the Indian Way.’ I could have told her that it most assuredly wasn’t. There was none of the subtlety or delicacy of carefully toasted, ground, and blended spices that was to be found in a true Indian curry. This was coarse and common and English. I hated to think what my grandmother with her treasured masala dabbas would have said had she seen this unappealing dish, glowing yellow from a surfeit of turmeric and surrounded by frills of parsley.”
Later in the novel, Mary finally does get to make a curry that honors her past, but the consequences for her future will prove far more lasting than those frills of parsley….
Illustrations from The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse, London, 1777.
Excerpt from The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr copyright 2019 by Susan Holloway Scott.
Read more about Mary Emmons and Aaron and Theodosia Burr in The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr, to be published by Kensington Books on September 24, 2019. Pre-order now here.