When research for this project first began, it was full of laughter. The cookbooks I found had recipes for “Who Kissed Maybelle?” Stew and a boozy punch perfected by “a Charleston gentlemen.” Eyebrows were raised, and giggles ensued. Digging into the pages of old cookbooks is falling into the past, and the past, like the present, is full of stories.
The history of American cookbooks is long and flavorful. The first known published American cookbook is “American Cookery or, The Art of Dressing Viands, Fish, Poultry and Vegetables, and the Best Modes of Making Puff-Pastes, Pies, Tarts, Puddings, Custards and Preserves and All Kinds of CAKES, from the Imperial PLUM to Plain Cake.” Dictated in 1796 by Amelia Simmons, a self-proclaimed illiterate and “American orphan,” it shares the best way to roast mutton over an open fire and six ways to make rice pudding. It also includes commentary: “As this treatise is calculated for the improvement of the rising generation of females in America…doing those things, which are really essential to the perfecting of them as good wives, and useful members of society.” In other words, to be a useful female in 18th century America, you had to know how to cook.
As time passed and traditions were established, cookbooks focused less on being American and more on the region in which they were written. In 1824, a Virginia socialite, Mary Randolph, published the first true Southern cookbook: “The Virginia Housewife.” She included a list of necessities for running a household, such as “awakening early.” There’s no acknowledgement of the help she had running her house in those years — such things were not discussed. However, the cooking of the region already embraced the traditions and flavors of enslaved Black people.
The first known cookbook by a Black author is “What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking: Sours, Pickles, Preserves, Etc.” It was written by Abby Fisher, an award-winning chef in San Francisco. Published in 1881, it opens with a preface and apology from the author:
“The publication of a book on my knowledge and experience of Southern cooking, pickle and jelly making has been frequently asked of me by my lady friends and patrons in San Francisco and Oakland. Not being able to read or write myself and my husband also having been without the advantages of an education…caused me to doubt whether I would be able to present a work that would give perfect satisfaction. But, after due consideration, I concluded to bring forward a book of my knowledge based upon an experience of upwards of 35 years.”
Mrs. Fisher was probably enslaved during that “upwards of 35 years” experience with Southern cooking. While her talent for cookery brought her fame and stability, she still couldn’t read. Yet, by including recipes like “Plantation Corn Bread” in her book, she displayed a nostalgia for the way things were.
Nostalgia for the past also played into the creation of a local classic, “Charleston Receipts,” the oldest Junior League cookbook still in print. Starting as a fundraiser for the organization, the book’s recipes were collected from families with surnames such as Laurens, Hagood and Ravenel. It was sorted into categories like canapes and hominy and interspersed with illustrations from Charleston renaissance painters. “Charleston Receipts” plunges readers into a world of white gloves and church hats, cotillions and sockhops. It’s a world in which there are 10 kinds of punch and no fewer than six kinds of shrimp pie. It’s the beautiful recollection of our grandmothers and their golden memories. And it begins with this verse:
“There was a time when folks had cooks,
Who never did depend on books
To learn the art of cooking.”
In short, “Charleston Receipts” was compiled because the ideal 1950s housewife still needed to learn how to cook, even without the cooking help their relatives had once employed.
Decades later, in 1989, Oscar Vick published “Gullah Cooking: Creative Recipes from a Historic Past from the Low Country of South Carolina.” A collection of stories, poems, sketches and recipes created to honor the Gullah culture, it is a relic, Vick said, of “a stormy past.” He does a beautiful job capturing the music of the Gullah language in poetry and whimsical recipes. The “Who Kissed Maybelle?” Stew referenced earlier is from this book, and requires, among other things, 12 squirrels, 12 doves and six ducks.
There’s much to love about Southern cuisine. A poet could write odes all day to boiled peanuts, pimiento cheese, sweet tea and mint juleps. Celebrity chefs compile the recipes of our storied past, celebrating heirloom vegetables and the perfect grain of Carolina Gold rice. Revisiting these original cookbooks is a journey through history, from illiterate orphans to former slaves to the “perfect” 1950s housewife. It’s a compelling journey, with plenty to learn and many recipes to master in your modern kitchen.
“Who Kissed Maybelle.” Stew
from “Gullah Cooking”
- 2 whole chickens
- 4 lb. chopped venison
- 12 squirrels, halved
- 6 diced onions
- 1 qt. raw corn
- Salt and pepper
- 4 cans tomatoes
- 1 qt. lima beans
- Legs and wings from a wild turkey
- 1 lb. fried bacon
- 24 clams in the shell
- 12 doves, whole
- 6 ducks, halved
- 1 qt. oil
- 1 qt. diced celery
- 5 lb. diced potatoes
- 1 qt. red wine
- 1 qt. water
- 1 bottle hot sauce
- 1 bottle Worcestershire sauce
- 1 lb. raw shrimp, shelled
Add oil to a large pot. Salt, pepper and flour all of the game. Brown and set aside. Add all other ingredients. Cover and simmer for three hours. Serve on rice.
Cotillion Club Punch
from “Charleston Receipts”
- ¼ lb. gunpowder (green) tea, makes 5 quarts
- 1 qt. cherries
- 2 doz. lemons (juice)
- Fruit syrup (about ½ pint)
- 12 qts. carbonated water
- 6 or 8 qts. rye whiskey
- ½ pint rum
- 1 lb. sugar, made into thick syrup
Pour five quarts boiling water onto the tea, and bring this to a boil. Remove from fire at once, and let stand until strong enough. Strain and when cool, add juice of lemons, syrup from the cherries and also the rye and rum. Sweeten to taste with any fruit syrup, and add sugar syrup and cherries.
Bottle this stock and keep on ice until ready to serve. Pour over a block of ice, add one quart of carbonated water to one quart of stock. This stock can be kept indefinitely if bottled and sealed.
Yield: 275-300 servings