Alcott · Little Women

Book Review: The Young Housekeeper’s Friend

Young Housekeeper's Friend

Cornelius, Mary Hooker. The Young Housekeeper’s Friend. Boston: Brown, Taggard, and Chase, 1859.

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. And appropriately, the author Mary Hooker Cornelius was from Andover, MA–not far from Concord, where the Alcotts lived.

In the preface she writes, “I have seen many a young lady, just entered upon the duties of married life, perplexed and prematurely care-worn, for want of experience, or a little good instruction, in regard to the simplest domestic processes; and often have felt, with the sincerest sympathy, an earnest wish to render her some effectual aid.”

Her wish seems to have come true: the cookbook 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 as she says in the preface “The receipts, with the exception of about twenty which are copied from books, are furnished from my own experience, or that of my immediate friends.” As a cook, I definitely got the feeling that this was true; they read like someone has cooked them many times and knows where you might run into pitfalls. She often adds in little tips for how to adjust for changes in weather, or ingredients, or even the skill level of the cook!

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–it’s easy to miss these when you’re using a digital copy of the book, but they are quite useful and sometimes have really vital information that’s not in the individual recipes.

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.

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