America’s Early Love Affair with Sugar and Fat

An 18th-century family cookbook chronicles cooking in America.

March 02, 2016 Susan Bell

Despite its handsome brown calfskin cover and imposing size, an unpublished 18th-century manuscript had been overlooked by academics until Juliette Parsons PhD ’14 discovered it. Now its torn, yellowed pages have opened a window on the diet of a long-ago era.

Intrigued by early American food culture, Parsons focused her USC Dornsife history dissertation on The Recipe Book of Bettee Saffin and Ann Ellis, a scrapbook-sized tome with the heft of an encyclopedia volume, which is housed at the University of Pennsylvania Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts. Thanks to Parsons’ efforts—including squinting at inked script so faded it was sometimes impossible to read—the book proved to be a treasure trove of information on our nation’s food history.

The cookbook was first composed by Bettee Saffin, a well-to-do gentlewoman living in Somerset, England, and continued by her daughter Ann Ellis, who immigrated to America in the 1760s and settled in Pennsylvania. It chronicles how traditional English recipes were adapted to meet the challenges of the New World.

We tend to think of our sugar-rich American diet as a modern phenomenon, but it isn’t.

Juliette Parsons

When Ellis arrived, she discovered that the rolling green pastures of Pennsylvania were filled with dairy cows and sugar prices were among the cheapest in the world.

“We tend to think of our sugar-rich American diet as a modern phenomenon, but it isn’t. Eighteenth-century Pennsylvanians consumed much more sugar than modern Americans. The food culture of 18th-century Pennsylvania was dessert-centric, with the majority of calories provided by a daily intake of pies and other baked goods,” Parsons says.

Ellis adapted her mother’s recipes in accordance with local ingredients. From Quakers, Ellis learned to use cream cheese to make cheesecake. From Dutch neighbors, she learned to preserve meat and make cookies. From Native Americans, she borrowed the practice of frying in lard.

“It was a very rich and fattening diet. It contained vastly more sugar and food fried in animal fat than was usual in England,” Parsons notes.

Although Ellis wrote her recipes only a few decades after her mother, she breaks with food traditions that existed in Europe for thousands of years. “Their recipes became more than just practical adaptations to local conditions,” Parsons says. “They became American food.”