LEIGH WRIGHT (this article was first published in September 2012)
The culture of the American South is probably the most distinct and notable part of the United States to both those living within its borders, as well as those living abroad. Positive and negative accounts in our history and current events give this region its personality and individuality. With the recent emphasis on “haute food couture” in almost every corner of the globe, it is no surprise that Southern cuisine is headlining major menus and restaurants all over America. The South’s culinary history is what truly sets it apart from any other melting pot areas of our country. With Cajun and Creole influences, African-American inspired soul food, Appalachian country recipes, and ingredients that hark back to the era before the first white settlers (think corn, a.k.a. “grits”), there has always been a multitude of depth and involvement in Southern cuisine from many different origins.
This past weekend, the Southern Food and Beverage Museum concluded its “Hungry in the South” 2012 Symposium and I had the privilege to sit in for a few events that went on – one being Rick Ellis’s seminar on cookbooks. I had already planned to write a three-part series on the history of culinary manuscripts in the South, but to listen to Mr. Ellis’ notes on not only the way technology has evolved but also what cookbooks are written about and the way they are actually written made me realize more than ever that I wanted to research this topic.
I realized how important cookbooks are after reading and writing a college paper on Janet Theophano’s Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives Through the Cookbooks they Wrote. They go beyond how many ways to make a smoothie or 101 recipes for your Dutch oven; they have also represented and documented entire family histories. Even such distinguished families as the Washingtons and Jeffersons had cookery manuscripts handwritten to pass through the matriarchal side of the lineage. One side generally would contain a brief family history and then proceed into recipes for food, the manners in which the linens and plates were to be used, and the different foods of each season. The book could then be flipped over and reversed like an English/Spanish owner’s manual to reveal the various medicines, tonics, and treatments the family generally partook in to do the healing.
In the beginning of European settlement in America, the two major manuscripts were The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse, first published in 1747, and The Lady’s Companion (1753), and The Compleat Housewife by Eliza Smith (1727). The first manuscript was written as a more common conversational piece while the remaining two were supposed to hold everything a lady of higher social status needed to be the best household hostess. Each was written in the style of the times however and recipes can be read as whole paragraphs instead of separated ingredient lists and directions.
When reading through the manuscripts one gets a sense of the ordeals and customs of earlier times. Taken from The Lady’s Companion, the recipe for “portable soup”: “To make a Veal Glue, or Cake Soup to be carried in the Pocket Take a Leg of Veal, strip it of the Skin and the Fat, then take all the muscular or fleshy Parts from the Bones; boil this Flesh gently in such a Quantity of Water, and so long a Time, till the Liquor will make a strong Jelly when it is cold.” To think of the more primitive technology that our ancestors possessed, yet the extent to which they labored over food, is quite remarkable. Many culinary techniques are still used today and the basis of many recipes can be founded in the ancient arts of cooking from the beginning of time. It was not until the end of Medieval times that European food began to take on a truly presentational and exquisite pretenses of grandeur, and quite often it was only served to the very elite of families.
In Glasse’s book she reveals her almost complete disdain for French cooking and anything too “high class”. To begin Chapter 3 she writes, “Read this Chapter, and you will find how expensive a French cook’s sauce is.” Her book was used quite extensively by the middle and low-class homes and became the standard for mid-18th to 19th-century household cooking.
I wanted to research and write not only about the history of cookbooks but the people, customs, and technology that helped shape them throughout the South’s earlier history. Southern food is like the eclectic, neighborhood millionaire artist; always consistently doing his own thing, and always the talk of the town. It has evolved and taken on new shapes while still being able to hold strong to its roots, customs, and flavors. In the next coming months I will share stories of Martha Washington hosting some of the first presidential parties; the technology that has changed in our cooking methods and also the times in which we still ignore them for the more simplistic, natural ways; and, the people—slaves, servants, housewives, ladies of stature—who have shaped the generations, traditions, and food of our past.