My day of cooking from Charleston Receipts began with calls to five different fish markets in search of live, female crabs, which nobody had. I found this shocking, coming from everyone except for one fishmonger, who very kindly told me, “I’m sorry to disappoint you, but we’re a kosher fish market.” Whoops.
I continued to ask around, my standards lowered. Any live male crabs? Nope. Any whole, recently deceased crabs? Nope. I wound up buying lump crab meat at Whole Foods, knowing full well that my crab soup was destined to suck. As Charleston Receipts warns, “Crab got tuh walk een duh pot demself or dey ain’ wut.”
There was one bright spot in my search, which was the discovery of Louisiana Pico Sea Food, which is a southern cook’s paradise: catfish, red snapper, and shrimp as far as the eye can see. No crabs, but I’m sure I’ll be back there soon.
Undeterred, I finished my marketing, and returned home to get cracking on the first of four dishes I’d be making from Charleston Receipts:
(from Carolina Housewife)
“This is really a candy”
“Formerly these groundnut cakes were sold by our Maumas on street corners or on the Battery on July 4th and other special occasions. The Maumas were picturesque, with their turbaned heads, waving a short fly rush made of dried grasses.”
1 quart molasses
4 cups shelled peanuts (roasted)
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup butter
Combine all ingredients, except nuts, and boil for one half hour over a slow fire. Then add the roasted and shelled peanuts and continue cooking for fifteen minutes. Drop on lightly greased cookie sheets or on a piece of marble. Make little cakes of the candy and let harden. For peanuts you may substitute benne seed.
-Miss Ellen Parker
I halved this recipe, and it still made about two and a half dozen candies, which, rich as they are, is probably all you need. It’s an easy recipe, though shelling two cups of peanuts takes longer than you think it will.
The term “Mauma” is used here to describe elderly African-American women, and is similar to “Mammy,” though “mauma” tends to turn up more in the Carolinas and Florida.
Next, I started work on my second dessert:
3 tablespoons butter
1 cup medium brown sugar
1 egg, well beaten
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 cup pecan halves
2 tablespoons flour
Melt butter and blend in sugar, add egg, nuts, flour, vanilla, and mix well. Prepare a well-greased heavy cookie sheet, drop one half teaspoon of batter for each cookie, placing them five inches apart. Bake about 10 minutes in a moderate oven, then loosen edges of each cookie with wide spatula and lift onto wire cake rack to cook and crisp. This delicious receipt, a truly Southern treat, makes 2 1/2 dozen cookies.
-Mrs. Howard Read (Adelaide Higgins)
These cookies were truly the high point of the meal, but two words of warning on making them. First, Mrs. Read is not kidding about spacing them five inches apart. They spread like crazy in the oven. Second, it is nigh on impossible to get them off the cookie sheet without some serious mangling. Also, you must work fast because if they solidify on the tray, they’re not coming off with anything less than hot water and a scrub brush. This was the prettiest one I was able to make (still, even the ugly ones are delicious).
I made this week’s menu in reverse serving order, partly to coordinate cooking times, and partly because I was absolutely dreading the crab soup. Instead of a cornbread or grits spoonbread, I opted to make a bread with hominy, something that Charlestonians take rather seriously. Most cookbooks have a “Cheese & Eggs” section, while Charleston Receipts has instead a “Hominy & Rice/Cheese & Eggs” section. It begins with the verse:
“Never call it ‘Hominy Grits’
Or you will give Charlestonians fits!”
It’s an important distinction. Grits are the coarser bits that result when grinding corn for cornmeal, while hominy is corn with the germ and bran removed. The latter is a popular staple in both southern and Mexican cookery (where it’s also called posole).
“Awendaw,” as found in Charleston Receipts, among others, is a spoonbread made with hominy and cornmeal.
Mrs. Ralph Izard’s ‘Awendaw’
1 1/2 cups hominy, cooked
1 heaping tablespoon butter
1 1/2 cups milk
3/4 cup corn meal
1/2 teaspoon salt
While hominy is still hot, add butter and eggs beaten very light. Then gradually add milk and when well mixed, add corn meal and salt. The batter should be like thick custard. Pour in deep greased pan, bake in moderate oven (375 degrees). Serves 6-8.
– Miss Emma Gaillard Witsell
Older cookbooks are often decidedly unhelpful about things like baking times and temperatures. In case you’re trying this at home, an 8″ x 8″ baking dish does the trick, and it takes about 45 minutes for the awendaw to turn nice and golden brown. Also, the batter will in no way resemble a thick custard. It will be more the consistency of thin cake batter. I panicked and added a little extra cornmeal, which probably explains why my awendaw was too dense.
Though not entirely unpleasing, awendaw is also a little too eggy for my taste. But I will definitely be cooking with hominy again.
Which brings us at last to the shameful tale of the culinary pantsing of Mary McCoy, otherwise known as my attempt to make she-crab soup without she-crab. Though male crabs are larger and have more meat on them, female crabs are thought tastier by many because of their roe. The roe is a crucial ingredient in she-crab soup, and all I had was some rather pungent lump meat. Which is not to say it had gone bad, just that it had gone fishy.
Aunt Blanche’s She-Crab Soup
As given to me by my aunt, Mrs. R. Goodwyn Rhett.
1 cup white crab meat
2 tablespoons butter
1 small onion, grated
Salt and pepper, to taste
1/4 teaspoon mace
3 ribs celery, grated
2 cups milk
1/2 cup cream
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire
2 teaspoons flour
1 tablespoon water
3 tablespoons sherry
Put crab in double boiler; add butter, onion, salt, pepper, mace and celery. Let simmer for 5 minutes. Heat milk and add to crab mixture. Stir, add cream and Worcestershire sauce. Thicken with paste made of flour and water. Add sherry. Cook over low heat for 1/2 hour. Serves 4.
– Mrs. C.O. Sparkman (Mary Rhett Simonds)
The sad thing is, my cooking technique was perfect. I grated the onion and celery to heartbreakingly beautiful and uniform fineness, and my control on the double boiler was nothing short of fierce. But all for naught, because that pretty, creamy soup tasted like nothing but a bowl of slightly skanky crab. None of the other flavors had any hope of penetrating it.
And here’s what happened to the soup.
But wasn’t it a pretty table, if only for a moment?
Also, observe that Brady couldn’t help tearing into the Praline Cookies before I could get the shot.
This week was a learning experience, and I expect at least a few more like it before the year is out. But I’m optimistic about next week’s cookbook, Be Milwaukee’s Guest. I’ve actually lived in Wisconsin, and I probably won’t wind up cooking with shellfish.