An endeavor of this scope and grandeur requires an auspicious beginning. And there is no Junior League cookbook more grand or auspicious than Charleston Receipts. First published in 1950, it is the oldest Junior League cookbook still in print, and through its numerous printings has raised over $1 million for the Junior League of Charleston’s community projects. It was also a national bestseller in the 1950s, and references to it still turn up today in the pages of publications as varied as Gourmet, the Black Issues Book Review, and the New York Times. It was inducted into the Walter S. McIlhenny Hall of Fame for Community Cookbooks in 1990.
And for good reason. It’s a collection that revels in the traditions of Lowcountry cookery, explores the foodways of both the 19th and 20th centuries, and embraces the strangely mingled language and cultures of two fading, yet resilient, cultures – the Gullah and the Southern aristocracy.
Charleston Receipts is a complicated cookbook because the family recipes included here are clearly the product of white Charleston residents and their black slaves (and later, servants), spending generations in the kitchen together. Of course, this is basically true of most southern cookery, but Charleston Receipts frames things a little differently, and more interestingly.
Though the Junior League has become increasingly diverse in recent years, the early cookbooks its Leagues produced were drawn from a white, elite membership, some of whom learned to cook at the knees of black servants. However, that heritage isn’t acknowledged in many southern cookbooks.
On the other hand, in Charleston Receipts, the contributors tend to pay tribute to the sources their recipes, whether it’s Elizabeth O’Neill Verner’s Beef a la Mode (“My father’s method, which he brought back from France, where he was educated.”), or Harriet Stoney Simons’s Faber’s Pilau (“Samuel Faber, who has always been with our family and officiates as a doorman at the St. Cecilia Balls, is a superior cook besides being a leader among his people, particularly among the farmers of Charleston county.”).
Each section of the cookbook begins with a portion of Gullah dialect and verse. The Meats section begins with the admonition, “Ef dey ain’ bin no meat pun’ de table, de dinnuh ain’ wut!” And the fish section’s introduction is a recipe in itself: “‘E hab uh hebby pan full uh mullet, en’ ‘e hab swimp en’ crab all two, en’ ‘e hab hominy en’ ting.”
I’ll admit that when my sister gave me this cookbook as a Christmas present, I was as horrified as if she’d presented me with a set of “Mammy” salt shakers. But being a good librarian, I decided to do a little research on the subject, which led me to the Gullah roots of Charleston Receipts.
Though its acknowledged contributors aren’t an integrated group, its recipes proudly recognize the impact of the African-American community on its culinary heritage. And for a 1950s Junior League cookbook out of Charleston, South Carolina, I’m inclined to say that’s fairly bold, even though some of it is framed in a way that’s paternalistic (like Harriet Stoney Simon’s remarks above), and even though the organization wasn’t open to many of the women who provided the recipes included here.
When I shared this observation with my friend, Gwen, she made the point that, really, this is a pretty easy way to “pay tribute” to an oppressed group of people because it’s done in a way that is superficial and doesn’t actually challenge the social order. This is absolutely true. There are many other cookbooks by white authors that take a more inclusive look at regional Southern cooking (Eugene Walter’s American Cooking: Southern Style is a marvelous example), but there are also those that would lead you to believe that the cherished recipes of Southern families simply occurred in a vacuum.
The fact that Charleston Receipts acknowledges the city’s Gullah heritage at all, as well as its impact on the food served in white households during the first half of the 20th century, makes it historically interesting, and unlike just about any other cookbook of that time and place that I’ve ever seen. And what’s more, it’s a document that chronicles the relationships between whites and blacks in 1950s South Carolina.
And to think, it looks like an ordinary old cookbook.
Up next: I will totally blow your mind with a recipe for something called Cooter Soup.