Wednesday, August 29, 2012

"There Was A Time When Folks Had Cooks Who Never Did Depend On Books-"

These are the opening lines of some pleasant doggerel that is the Forward to the 1950 edition of "Charleston Receipts", the" War and Peace" of American cookbooks.

A culinary Tolstoy could have written it.

History. Nostalgia. Sadness. Mourning for a lost and pleasant past. Belles and Charleston gentlemen. Gullah cooks. A hundred characters and a recipe that serves Cotillion Club Punch to 300 .

The opening chapter is devoted to beverages, mostly strong, and the book says that the
"unit of measure designated herein is the quart", which makes one wonder if some of those 300 servings of punch went to the same people.

And the imbibers who offered up their plantation firewaters- who were they? Such mysteries lie within! The Cotillion Club Punch receipt was from "A Charleston Gentleman", a man who remains anonymous for reasons unknown.One would think a man would be proud for conjuring how to get the entire Cotillion drunk- or perhaps since most of the strong water recipes came from single women, underrepresented in the rest of the cookbook, he was ashamed of such an unmanly occupation, one which was the usual province of old maids. Perhaps these old maids were eccentric aunts who never had beaus, or if they did lost them to shadowy ends- And they took to drink.

Another question. Who was "A Connoisseur", the inventor of "Champagne Punch For The Wedding". Male or female? Were Charleston women allowed to be connoisseurs? Who was the inventor of "Flip", a whiskey, eggnog, and milk concoction. Miss Ellen Parker, obviously a historian of all things Charlestonian, remarks it came from England with "The Lord's Proprietors", more evidence that this book has multiple story lines.

The canape section is next, and here the married women take back the book, as they and their Gullah cooks practice Shrimp Worship. Shrimp molded, pasted, pounded, pickled. Shrimp unending, sharing the canape tray only with the Holy Cheese Ball-

In the next section the Ocean brings forth soup, and everything that swims backwards or forwards or has to pried with a strong arm from a shell goes into it. We hear Gullah voices now.

"crab got tuh walk een duh pot demself or they ain' wut."

For "Cooter Soup" the receipt tells us to "kill cooter by cutting off the head". This is puzzling advice to a Yankee, for I would not know what a cooter was even if it swam up behind me. And I am certain it does swim, or did, as everything does that goes into that city's soup tureens. That they resort to violence for a little soup should surprise no one. These are the people who fired on Fort Sumter.

Let us now proceed to the section on "Seafoods" A subject inexhaustible in that lovely city in the heart of Gnat Country. We hear Gullah voices again urging household ladies with dishpans to come and buy"Swimpee! Swimpee! Raw, raw swimp!'
Breakfast shrimp. Shrimp in pies. If anyone ever invents a Shrimp punch it will be the people of Charleston.

For culinary inventiveness they have no equal. Here is "Otranto Pine Bark Soup", whose first instructions are"Arise early and go on the Lake and catch about eighteen
Big Mouth Bass, Bream, or Redbreast. Have "Patsie" make an outdoor fire of pinebark-"
I hope poor "Patsie", the designated fire starter ate at least one bass.

In Chapter the next the chicken and pig make their appearance at last . They must have been lonely while everyone else was down at the slough with crab traps. Inventiveness falters here for mankind has known the chick and the piglet so long that its culinary default is frying. Yet there is a recipe for "Chicken Hemingway", whose Hemingwayish touch must be the sherry.

Hominy and rice have their own chapter, and it begins with an admonishment by a culinary Yeats-

"Never call it"Hominy Grits"

Or you will give Charlestonians fits!'

In the dessert section under cakes, a white poetess tries to bake a cake. "My measuring is meticulous.And what's the result of this fuss and fiddle? My cake sinks heavily in the middle!"

This amuses her old black cook to no end, and with "a smile of glee, with a touch as light as an angel's kiss" old Maria, who measures nothing, makes the perfect cake.
This is the denouement. Now we know who really was in charge in Charleston's kitchens.

The fascinations of this book are unending.

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