Saturday, March 29, 2008

Lowcountry Bookshelf #1: Charleston Receipts

The Lowcountry of South Carolina has one of America's oldest and most distinctive food cultures and thriving modern restaurant scene. The cooking of this region has been captured in dozens of books, some with a historical focus and some with a more contemporary slant. This series takes a look at the essential cookbooks for anyone seeking to learn more about the classic cooking of the Lowcountry.

In 1950, members of the Junior League of Charleston undertook a project to raise funds for the Charleston Speach and Hearing Center. The result was Charleston Receipts, a sprial-bound hardcover volume with some 350 pages of receipts compiled by a committee of twenty-one league members.

Most committee-created cookbooks from America's churches and civic organizations are eminently forgetable: collections of cream-of-mushroom soup casseroles and bland pie recipes that gather dust on people's shelves and are never actually used. Not so with Charleston Receipts. The book is one of the key volumes documenting the food heritage of the Lowcountry. With over twenty printings during its first half-century, it has sold over 750,000 copies and is the country's oldest Junior League cookbook still in print.

So what makes it special? Charleston Recepits sits as a bridge between the 19th Century and the present day. By the time it was published in 1950, American food culture had already crossed the divide from traditional cooking to the industrial food of our time. But, the women writing the book (most of whom have recognizable Charleston family names like Laurens, Izard, Rhett, Gaillard, and Stoney) remembered firsthand the older food culture of Charleston, and many of their favorite receipts have Antebellum roots. The book's text captures and provides commentary on many of the changes that had occurred during the authors' lifetimes.

The changes are reflected is in the language itself, starting with the title and its use of the classic Charlestonian term "receipts" rather than "recipes". Little snippets of verse are scattered throughout to help clarify term for the reader, like the following opening to the "Hominy & Rice" section:

Never call it "Hominy Grits"
Or you will give Charlestonians fits!
When it comes from the mill, it's "grist"
After you cook it well, I wist,
You serve "hominy"! Do not skimp;
Serve butter with it and lots of shrimp.

These little ditties are worth the price of admission alone, but it's the receipts themselves that really capture the history. The volume begins with five pages of punches, including the traditional concoctions served by the St. Cecilia Society, the Cotllion Club, and the Charleston Light Dragoons. The "Soups" are dominated by crab and oyster versions; "Game" is plentifully stocked with receipts for turkey, duck, marsh hens, and venison; and the "Meat" section includes more than one receipt calling for the head of an animal.

The volume was written at a time when shrimp was still caught not by big ocean-going trawlers but in the creeks and inlets around Charleston, and they were sold not in markets but by street vendors with baskets. The Breakfast Shrimp receipt captures the lost classic of the Lowcountry breakfast table, and there are multiple versions of shrimp pies. In the "Hominy & Rice" chapter you can find several classic pilaus as well as Hopping John, and the "Desserts" section opens with puddings, syllabubs, and charlotte russes.

But, the book has only one foot in the 19th Century. The other is firmly planted in the 20th. Worchestershire sauce appears all over the place (including in an otherwise quite wonderful receipt for a classic shrimp pilau)--but you can easily omit that. Chicken Tetrazzini and Spaghetti with Beef (including tomato catusp and "1 small bottle stuffed olives, chopped") appear amid the chicken pilaus and Country Captain. There's a whole section dedicated to "Canapes" (very 1950s!), but even amid the horrendous celery rings and egg balls are some old gems like benne seed biscuits and pickled shrimp.

All told, Charleston Receipts is an indispensable reference for anyone looking to explore the traditional old recipes of Charleston and the Lowcountry.


Kim said...

Great review, I will add this book to my collection as I learn to cook Southern over the next year.

Agricola said...

I grew up with this book and, as a young man, was given my very own copy by my grandmother in order to be able to entertain guests properly. Even today, we will serve country captain at a supper party.....and no party table is complete without pickled shrimp. But mostly, I think, it reminds us of the value of local, fresh, and seasonal. Great post!

Robert said...

Thanks, Kim. Best of luck with your quest to learn Southern cooking!

Agricola: I'm thinking about making up a batch of pickled shrimp tonight!

Tartelette said...

My husband is a natice Charlestonian and when we got married I asked my newly mother-in-law what were some of his favorite Southern dishes and before I knew it she put this book by our front door. I am always surprised by what I foud in it, but he is rather impressed to have homemade Chow-Chow with his grilled steak!!

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