Note: the following article was published in the Cookbook Collectors Exchange in the Jan/Feb, 1995 issue – I am reprinting it for the benefit of my faithful blog followers, but will attempt also to bring us up to date, from 1995 to 2010! – Sandy
When the idea first came to me, that I’d like to share with you some thoughts about my favorite southern cookbooks, I had misgivings. What on earth could I write about, I wondered, that hasn’t already been written—by famous southern writers with far better credentials than mine? And, indeed, what claim did I have to southern cooking, aside from having spent three years living in Florida, where I DID master the art of making crispy-crunchy perfect hush puppies to go with my husband’s equally perfectly-fried catfish? (We often had Friday night catfish with fries and hushpuppies). Besides, Florida hardly seems “southern” to me, despite its geographic locale, despite Marjorie Kinnan Rawling’s famous “Cross Creek Cookery.” (Please refer to my articles, posted on 5/19/11 “Cross Creek Cookery” and “Cross Creek Revisited”)
Florida today seems to be a mixed bag of culinary influences, sparked, no doubt, by the millions of Midwesterners who have retired to Florida—or the snowbirds; retirees who spend part of the year—the winter months—in Florida and the rest of the year in their primary residences, wherever they may be. My own parents were amongst the snowbirds for a few years, before finally selling their home in Ohio and retiring in Largo, Florida, near Tampa. Their neighbors came from a number of different states, including New York and from as far north as Canada. I do confess, I yearn for the Florida of years ago, the Florida that Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, one of my favorite authors, wrote about in “Cross Creek” and “Cross Creek Cookery”, of swamps and the Everglades, alligators and Key Lime Pie.’
However, what I CAN do, perhaps, is share with you some of the thoughts of those southern cookbook authors and tell you a bit about my own favorite southern cookbooks.
WHAT is southern cooking?
Bill Neal, in his wonderful book “BISCUITS, SPOONBREAD AND SWEET POTATO PIE” (Knopf Publishers, 1990) writes “…when outsiders ask ‘What is Southern cooking?’ I think they don’t look far south enough for answers. Our style is more similar to Mexican than to European cooking. I can’t imagine a southern kitchen without cornmeal and our breads begin with it.
Many of our dishes are European,” he continues. “Some passed directly into the tradition with little or no changes. Wine jellies, trifles, and fruitcakes are scarcely distinguishable from their eighteenth century British ancestors. Other European techniques are adapted to native ingredients: French tortes made with native pecans, crumpets made with grits, custard pies thickened with cornmeal. This hybrid cooking is the most intriguing to me; it reveals the ingenuity and creativity of the Southern cook combining Old World practices and New World foods…”
Neal continues, “The third major and most exotic influence is African. Our sweet potato biscuits, for example, are in the African tradition of using starchy tubers rather than milled cereal grains to make bread…they brought from their homelands techniques for working with sugar in a hot, humid climate which influenced the way we make candies and confections…”
What IS Southern cooking?
In a small booklet published by Culinary Arts Institute, “The Southern Cook Book of Fine Old Recipes”, the authors write “People think of the Southland as the place where the sun shines brighter, the breezes are gentler, the birds sing sweeter and the flowers are fairer…the natural geographic and climatic advantages of the different sections of the sunny south have played an important part in Dixie cookery. The fertile fields, plentiful fruit trees and waterways have each contributed bountifully. Every part of the Southland is individual and distinctive in its cookery. The “Creole Dish” of New Orleans has nothing to do with racial origin but rather indicates the use of red and green peppers, onions and garlic Oranges, grapefruit and avocados play an important part in Florida cookery. Maryland is famous for its fried chicken and its delicious sea food recipes. One thinks of Virginia, its hot breads and its sugar cured hams. Kentucky is known for its corn ‘likker’ and its flannel cakes. Only one thing is universally true: Every corner of the south is famous for its fine cookery.”
What is SOUTHERN cooking?
The introduction to yet another fine book Sarah Belk’s AROUND THE SOURHERN TABLE (Simon & Schuster publishers, 1991) rhapsodizes with “It’s no secret that the ingredients are the heart and soul of all great Southern cooking. After all, the South is home to juicy peaches and corn, gulf shrimp, black-eyed peas, the softest flour on earth, and crunchy pecans. Imagine (if you can) life without plump sweet potatoes, hominy grits, smoked country ham, oysters, green tomatoes, bourbon and the underestimated catfish”.
Sarah Belk writes, Mention the term “Southern cooking” to a non-Southerner and he or she will most likely think ‘Ah, yes, pecan pie, mint juleps, ham biscuits and those awful grits.’ And then there are those who think Southern food is only Cajun and Creole and to them, ‘Southern food’ means jambalaya, gumbo, crawfish etouffee and blackened redfish.”
She continues, “Southern cooking is also the result of geography. This diverse region includes three major mountain ranges, over 3,000 miles of coastline, one of the most important rivers in the country and the largest estuary in the world. Overall, the south has a temperate climate and therefore a long growing season, making it one of the most prolific food-producing regions in the country. But Southern agriculture is more than just pork, peaches, and pecans; farmers are branching out into new areas and cultivating jalapeno peppers and kiwi fruit, raising quail, ‘farming crawfish, catfish and shrimp, making goat cheese and nursing vinifera*grapes not just for juice but for dry, European style wines –through humid summers and cold winters”.
(*Sandy’s cooknote – Vinifera refers to hybrid grapes)
Belk adds, “The South is a place where good manners, going to church and family life are still important. Chiggers, coon dogs and chewin’ tobacco are alive and well, but so are fancy debutante balls, full-dress fox hunts and white-columned homes with formal gardens.”
In a beautiful book titled SOUTHERN MEMORIES, by Natalie Dupree, the author writes “To many Americans, all of the area south of the Mason-Dixon lime and east of Texas makes up a vast slightly mysterious, vaguely rural, and steadfastly folksy place called “The South”. In fact, the South is larger than Europe and as diverse, a loose conglomeration of distinctly differing regions. My south is not the Gulf south, although it is a south too, or all of the counties of Florida, Texas, and Louisiana, where Southerners also live and breathe in batches, as they do in Illinois and Indiana. My South ranges from the Eastern Shore of Maryland through the District of Columbia and Virginia, taking in the Carolinas, weaving its way around West Virginia, embracing Georgia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi…” She continues, “My South encompasses the rice fields I helped seed from a small plane, the grits I saw ground from dried corn in a small mill next to a powerful stream, the small towns and cities of Covington and Social Circle, Georgia, where I made my home and started my first restaurant…”
And what is Southern COOKING?
Join me, won’t you, while we make that discovery?
One of the earliest Southern Community cookbooks is the best selling RIVER ROAD RECIPES, first published in 1959 by the Junior League of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. RIVER ROAD RECIPES holds the distinction of being the “best-selling” community cookbook of all time! New York Times food editor Bryan Miller wrote “If there were Community cookbook Academy Awards, the Oscar for best performance would go hands down to RIVER ROAD RECIPES. RIVER ROAD RECIPES: A SECOND HELPING was published in 1976 and has provided the Baton Rouge community projects with over two million dollars in profits.
In second place is the ever-popular CHARLESTON RECEIPTS which, when originally published in 1950, sold for $2.50 and has since gone through at least fifteen printings*. A new copy, today, costs about $19.00 (You can often find a copy for a great deal less. Amazon has the cookbook for sale, new, for $13.57 and pre-owned copies starting at $6.21). I am leafing through CHARLESTON RECEIPTS as I write this, trying to decipher what it IS about the book that makes it so special. Is it the poems or the drawings or the recipes…ah, yes, the recipes….for here you will find cheese straws and cheese wafers, a simple but tasty mock pate de foie gras canapé, soups, gumbos, chowders, cocktail sauces, fried tomatoes, hot breads. The muffins and rolls melt in your mouth, the waffles and biscuits hit the spot. Oh, hear the table-call of the South, “Take two! And butter them while they’re hot!”
When I think of CHARLESTON RECEIPTS, I am reminded of my friend Adrianne’s copy, which is battered and stained and USED. A good cookbook should, after all, be used.
(*Sandy’s cooknote: CHARLESTON RECEIPTS is now up to twenty-three printings.)
Yet again we come back to the original question—just what IS Southern Cooking? Why is Southern cooking so distinctive from, for example, Midwestern cuisine or that of the Southwest? Why does Southern cooking outshine every other geographic area of the United States?
Perhaps the answer lies in the past, in hundreds of years of southern hostesses, proud of their reputations for hospitality, cherishing and passing from mother-to-daughter the family’s treasured recipes.
In SAVANNAH SAMPLER COOKBOOK, (1978), written by Margaret Wayt DeBolt, the author writes, “The receipts of the plantation period, the gumbos and beaten biscuits, barbecues and pecan pies, have been passed among the generations as carefully as the family silver and china once hidden from the soldiers who marched through Savannah with General William Tecumseh Sherman. They have been rediscovered with delight by tourists and those who have c hosen to make the New South their home.”
Incidentally SAVANNAH SAMPLER COOKBOOK contains quotations from an equally fascinating earlier volume dedicated to Savannah cooking, titled THE SAVANNAH COOK BOOK, by Harriet Ross Colquitt, originally published in 1933 and reprinted some years later by the Cookbook Collectors Library. The latter had the good fortune to have an introduction written by Ogden Nash, the poet. I, luckily, found a reprint copy while visiting a cookbook store in Portland, Oregon.
Cookbooks dedicated to Southern cuisine fall into one of two categories; there are regional cookbooks representing one state (or city) and there are cookbooks presenting an overall view of Southern cooking. A good example of the latter was a book titled, SOUTHERN COOKING, by Mrs. S.R. Dull. Mrs. Dull wrote a weekly page in the magazine section of the Atlanta Journal for twenty years, culminating in a cookbook of her own which was originally published in 1928. The author explains, “Southern Cooking is just what the title implies. It is a compilation of recipes and information gleaned from over forty years of experience in the practical study and application of cooking in the Southern way…”
In the introduction, written by her son, Mrs. Dull is described as a woman born shortly before the close of the War Between The States (the Civil War). “Like most women of the South at that time, she learned early that she would have to work hard for anything she got or wanted…”
It seems that Mrs. Dull’s own mother died when she was very young; when Mrs. Dull was still a young woman with six children, her husband’s health vegan to fail so she turned row ha she knew best—cooking—and began to furnish things to eat for the people of Atlanta. She took special orders for parties, dances, and receptions, and her reputation grew. Next, she began editing the food page of the Sunday Magazine of the Atlanta Journal. Interestingly, the reporter assigned to oversee the cooking section was Margaret Mitchell, author of GONE WITH THE WIND who worked with Mrs. Dull for several years. It was because of the many homemakers who saved the recipes—and repeatedly requested copies of lost recipes—that the idea for a cookbook was born. SOUTHERN COOKING, copyrighted in 1941 by Mrs. Dull, is a big, thick, cookbook, chock-full of recipes. It was reprinted in 1968 by Grosset & Dunlap and copies can still be found. (In a soft cover reprint by Grosset & Dunlap, in the Foreword, Mrs. Dull states that SOUTHERN COOKING was born in 1928. (I really thought I had an original copy of the cookbook but so far my searching has left me empty-handed. I have a hard cover copy of SOUTHERN COOKING published by Grosset & Dunlap, and a soft covered edition, also by Grosset & Dunlap, that was printed in 1977. Ever since we moved in 2008, I am often unable to find a particular cookbook).
Yet another cookbook whose author was a food editor for the very same Atlanta Journal is Grace Hartley, whose book GRACE HARTLEY’S SOUTHERN COOKBOOK was originally published in 1976 and reprinted in 1991. This, too, makes interesting reading. Both books are general, encompassing numerous categories.
Recently, I came across yet another cookbook written by a southern newspaper columnist, Mildred Evans Warren, whose column THE COOK’S NOOK appeared in the Houston Home Journal in Perry, Georgia. She tells us, in the forward, that “picking up one’s pen and writing a cookbook presents problems but we’ll solve them as we go along. There is always a ‘reason and rhyme’ for everything and as for mu cookbook, it’s like Topsy, ‘it just grew.’” You’ll find Mrs Warren’s book, THE ART OF SOUTHERN COOKING interesting reading also.
Two of my all time favorite Southern Cookbooks are CROSS CREEK COOKERY, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, published in 1942, and another equally fine cookbook titled THE SOUTHERN COOKBOOK by Marion Brown, published in 1951 (no relation to the “other” Browns, Cora, Rose & Bob, as far as I know). Marion Brown was kind of a forerunner to the “BEST OF—“ books by Quail Ridge Press. Writes Ms. Brown, in the preface to her book, “When I first started the adventure of collecting, testing and selecting recipes for it, the first step was to review an extensive collection of North Carolina recipes and cookery memorabilia which had been enlarged after my preparation of SOUP TO NUTS for the woman’s Auxillary of the Episcopal Church in Burlington. Then I started to unearth local and regional cookbooks in all the Soutehrn States as a step towards making a truly “All Southern” selection of the best recipes of the South. She then explains how she enlisted the aid of the Chambers of Commerce in every Southern State and accumulated some two hundred cookbooks which were the nucleus of HER cookbook. She even received treasured old manuscript cookbooks, one of which went west in a covered wagon, but returned, generations later, on a train.
THE SOUTHERN COOKBOOK is an immensely interesting, readable cookbook—you know, the kind you like to curl up with in a comfy chair on a dismal rainy day?
Preceding CROSS CREEK COOKERY and Marion Brown’s THE SOUTHERN COOKBOOK by many generations were a number of nineteenth century cookbooks which, not accidentally, were written by Southern cooks. THE VIRGINIA HOUSEWIFE, THE KENTUCKY HOUSEWIFE and THE CAROLINA HOUSEWIFE were all authored by southern ladies.
Mary Randolph, author of THE VIRGINIA HOUSEWIFE, published in 1824, claimed to e related by marriage to Thomas Jefferson. Lettice Bryan’s cookbook THE KENTUCKY HOUSEWIFE was published in 1839. THE CAROLINA HOUSEWIFE was published in 1847 by southern hostess Sarah Rutledge. A few decades later, Mrs. Peter A. White published THE KENTUCKY COOKERY BOOK; A BOOK FOR HOUSEWIVES. And yet another book, HOUSEKEEPING IN OLD VIRFINIA, was edited b Marion Cabell Tyree and published in 1879.
(*Sandy’s cooknote: the last time I offered dates and titles for early cookbooks, I was taken to task by a reader for having offered some misinformation. I have NO idea whose book was first, aside from Amelia Simmons and I don’t think she was a southern cook).
About a century later, Marion Flexner would author a book titled OUT OF KENTUCKY KITCHENS (1945) proving that the subject of southern cookery has, if nothing else, staying power.
END OF PART ONE