Keeping Receipts: The New Life of Old Cookbooks
They call Charleston Receipts the Bible of Junior League cookbooks, so I was naturally excited when Charleston Wine + Food Festival decided to celebrate its 10th anniversary with an opening night gala recognizing the historic cookbook. But when I got to the gala, it wasn’t exactly easy to tell which Charleston receipt inspired which chef’s dish. I looked for Mrs. C.C. Calhoun's Chafing Dish Oysters and Meeting Street Crab Meat, but what I found was considerably more exotic. As the story of the night began to tell itself, perfectly preserved receipts seemed less important. I ate 12-day brined beef tongue, an unshelled quail egg, and duck two ways. I lost track of Junior League names, and began instead to pay homage to Charleston’s collective culinary biography.
Sourcing old cookbooks can be kept to academic pursuit, but breathing new life into historic receipts requires innovation. At least, that is the idea of a receipt, a recipe read as biography. Receipts are perhaps best appreciated as sources of inspiration. There’s a poem in the opening pages of Charleston Receipts that explains as much:
Throughout the book, as you will see,
We never mention recipe,— The reason being that we felt, (Though well aware how it is spelt!), That it is modern and not meet To use in place of old receipt To designate time-honored dishes According to ancestral wishes.
Both recipe and receipt find roots in the Latin recipere, and both were first used in the fourteenth century regarding medicine. Think of present day pharmaceutical compounding. The two words were interchangeable in their early contexts, but nowadays a receipt is more often the piece of paper you carry with you when you leave the grocery store, and the recipe the thing you go home and read in order to prepare all those ingredients. However, if you think of that receipt as evidence, a statement that you were there when it comes time to return that extra bottle of vanilla because you found one in the back of the cabinet, then it, like the recipe at home, begins to belong to your cooking story.
The term receipt, when referring to cookery, is bygone. But allow me a modern understanding. A receipt calls attention to the author, and is a way of saying she was here. The inheritance of a well-written receipt is as valuable as a silver spoon. It tells its own story, and need not be copied verbatim. A receipt is a biography that must be revived in the kitchen to truly be told again, to truly become a link in culinary genealogy. In the South’s small towns and cities alike, this is why certain recipes, once prepared, still serve as currency.
The Sewanee Cook Book offers another kind of biography, this time of community as well as colonial ephemera. Look through it, and you will see attributions to white, Episcopal women throughout the South (identified always by their husband’s names), yet twenty miles down “the Mountain” you’ll find only standard Appalachian community cookbooks. One need only to look at the first pages of Sewanee's history to understand the Cumberland Plateau as the place where delegates from ten Southern dioceses came together in 1857 to create a university to "materially aid the South to resist and repel a fanatical domination which seeks to rule over us."
Bishop James Otey, a founder, was talking about his neighbors to the north. Whether containing receipts of Sewanee or Charleston, in the American South or beyond it, a cookbook is a place where you can crack the story of a life open as easily as an egg. You have to look for it, but it is all there: the name of a church, or that Mrs. Who, exactly? Might she have had a cook of her own? Who was that person? If you are going to appropriate a historic receipt, and you should for serious contemporary culinary currency, learn its story and fold it into your own, but only after you are certain the dish is good. That is what will make people ask about it in the first place. It will mean adding a pinch of yourself, perhaps animating that last minute dash back to the store for the forgotten cottage cheese, but there is nothing more appetizing than a historic receipt with a story appended by your own.
Heather Richie is a nonfiction writer whose special interest is the culture—and particularly the foodways—of the modern South. Visit heatherrichie.com.