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Originally published Wednesday, December 4, 2013 at 5:30 AM

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The history of America, in cookbooks

A new series of historical cookbooks gives insight into American history through the food we ate.

McClatchy News Service

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The American story is usually told through battles, ballots and bravado, not the biscuits, briskets and beans cooked up by generations of cooks. That situation is being rectified thanks to a series of historical cookbooks, drink guides and housekeeping manuals being republished online and in print.

The books in the American Antiquarian Cookbook Collection — 100 total will be released by spring — represent a collaboration between the 201-year-old American Antiquarian Society, a Worcester, Mass.-based research library specializing in American life before 1876, and Andrews McMeel Publishing of Kansas City, Mo.

“Our audiences are foodies and people who have a love of food and history,” says Kirsty Melville, Andrews McMeel president and publisher. Some people, she adds, may actually want to cook from these books, whose pages are rendered exactly as originally published in all that glorious imprecision of an earlier age. Or they may simply find these books make for a fascinating read, she says.

The books chosen for the series tend to be firsts, like the first uniquely American cookbook, Amelia Simmons’ “American Cookery” of 1796, or the first Southern cookbook, Mary Randolph’s “The Virginia House-Wife” of 1824. Or the cookbook emphasizes a theme that resonates today, like the thrift extolled in 1829’s “The Frugal Housewife” by Lydia Maria Child, the vegan diet promoted by William Alcott in “Vegetable Diet” of 1838, or the Louisiana cooking of “The Picayune’s Creole Cook Book” of 1901.

Society President Ellen Dunlap says the library has more than 1,000 cookbooks, which were collected by a board member a century ago. The books are important, she notes, because of what cooking “says about us as individuals, as families and as cultures.” Cookbooks, she adds, help us understand the role food has played in past societies.

So far, 69 historic books have been released in e-book form. Ten of the most significant books in the series have also been published in hardcover print editions.

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