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What Two 200-Year-Old Books Can Teach Us About Southern Cuisine

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A descendant of Pocahontas and cousin of Thomas Jefferson, Mary Randolph was 62 years old when she wrote The Virginia Housewife in 1824. Randolph was an American aristocrat, raised in the Virginia town of Richmond. It’s a book of gazpachos and curries of catfish, gumbos and barbecued shoat, ice creams of quince and black walnut.

This motley of recipes has come to be representative of Southern cuisine, in all its intricacies and thorniness. Food historian Karen Hess once called The Virginia Housewife the 19th century’s most influential American cookbook. In spite of its vast import and many facsimiles produced through the centuries, the book remains little-known to the larger American public.

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Want to Know Edna Lewis? Start By Cooking Her Food
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Want to Know Edna Lewis? Start By Cooking Her Food

In many ways, it augured the development of Southern culinary literature that would blossom during the Civil War, resulting in such books as 1885’s The Unrivaled Cookbook and Housekeeper's Guide, a cookbook authored by a fictional "Mrs. Washington" that offers a similar cabal of dishes that are uniquely, utterly Virginian.

These two books will form the basis of the first installment of a monthly event series, put on by the Manhattan-based restaurant Root and Bone, exploring the origins of Southern cooking. Each night consists of a rich menu based on an entry from the canon of Southern cooking literature. The first night, for example, features a mock turtle soup, browned hominy, and huckleberry pie.

Apple Dumplings
Apple Dumplings

Earlier this week, I spoke to Root and Bone’s General Manager, David Olson, who conceived of this series. My impression was that these books have been—for whatever reason, and undeservedly—lost to history. I wanted to know what brought him back to them, and why he wanted others to experience their pleasures. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of what Olson told me.

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I am a North Carolinian by birth with close family ties to South Carolina, Virginia and Georgia. I was visiting my godmother's home in South Carolina a short time ago and was looking through her collection of cookbooks, many of which were written by home cooks and ladies church auxiliary clubs. They were a rich and varied resource of what actual Southern families were cooking for themselves, and I was surprised at the variety, and sophistication of many of the recipes. From there I went on a search to find the oldest of these cookbooks and stumbled upon the "Housewife" collection of cookbooks—The Carolina Housewife, The Kentucky Housewife, and The Virginia Housewife—all published in the early-to-mid-1800s.

The first book I cooked from, The Virginia Housewife, is an excellent resource of early 1800s cooking, regarded as one of the first truly American cookbooks. Mary Randolph was a celebrated host in her time. Her recipes are a snapshot of trends, techniques, and resources from that time period. She was active from about 1790 to the mid-1800s.

The History of Gumbo
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The History of Gumbo

The other, The Unrivaled Cookbook, is an excellent bookend to the Virginia Housewife; written after the Civil War, it paints a picture of the culinary world during Reconstruction and the new influences that brought with it. Both books are written more as general guides to run a household and include recipes for paint, perfume, soap and other necessities. Neither book is widely read today by anyone other than food geeks and chefs, but they are a fascinating resource and show that culinary experimentation is nothing new, and that the range of ingredients in the early 19th century was varied and complex. There are recipes in both books for ingredients like salsify and sunchokes. 

When adapting recipes from the books, our mission was to be as true to the recipes as possible. The only adaptations we have made are to adjust for scale, and modern ovens. The recipes as written can be quite cryptic, and some feel more like riddles than recipes. There was a considerable amount of testing done to figure out the correct proportions.

Writing About Food at the Intersection of Gayness, Blackness & Faith
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Writing About Food at the Intersection of Gayness, Blackness & Faith

I think there is a misconception that all Southern food is fried chicken, mac & cheese and collard greens. That it lacks lightness, freshness and variety. That could not be more wrong. Southern food is as varied and influenced as any other cuisine, if not more so. There are influences from French cooking, from the Carribbean, from West Africa, and Spain. These cuisines came to America and became intertwined, inextricably connected to the American South.

It’s a complex and dark history—many recipes were created and perfected by slave cooks in plantation houses—but it mirrors the history of the country itself. I love these books, and their recipes, because they feel like a seance, like a conversation with the past, with its ghosts. They are reminders that food can be more than fuel; that it can be communion, a lesson, and an answer.

Have any favorite Southern cookbooks? Let us know in the comments.

Tags: root and bone, david olson