Monday, February 14, 2011

RICHMOND COOKS 1898-2010: A sampling of cookbooks in the Library of Virginia collection

We have a guest contributor today. Tom H. Ray, the Collections Management Coordinator at the Library of Virginia, has an essay about a number of cook books. 

Tom, a native Tar Heel, has lived in Richmond for nearly 20 years. He has held several positions at the LVA during that time. He completed the course work in VCU's Graduate Art and Architecture Program and has contributed entries to Lost Virginia (2001) and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography (2006). He is the co-author of Greetings From Richmond (2009). Tom collects Southern outsider folk art in addition to postcards. In his spare time he is an enthusiastic, if eclectic, gardener. 

 Receipts for Luncheon and Tea
"Men more easily renounce their interests than their tastes." - Rochefoucauld.

Thus a quote from  a 17th century French writer set the tone for the earliest church cookbook in the Library of Virginia cookbook  collection. Published in 1898, Receipts for Luncheon and Tea, is one of two known copies to survive. The other is at the Virginia Historical Society. The preface could well be the introduction for most contemporary cookbooks:
"In offering this little book to the public, we have aimed to supply a want which every housekeeper must have often felt when called upon to provide a luncheon or tea.
The receipts herein contained have been tested by the ladies who furnished them, and we feel that we can vouch for each and every one, and that those who use them will be pleased with the result." -
       The Ladies’ Societies of Grace Street Presbyterian Church,  Richmond, Va.

Like most later spiral bound church or community cookbooks the names of the lady church members are preserved. What sets this 19th century cookbook apart from its later cousins is the lack of detailed instructions. For instance, Mrs. G.W. Duke’s cake recipe is simply one sentence of ingredients:

                                                            White cake
                        One cup of creamed butter, 2 cups of sugar, 3 cups of flour
                        1 cup of cream, 2 teaspoons of baking powder, whites of 8 eggs,
                        flavor to taste.

No cooking time? How can that be? No temperature? Flavor?

My favorite recipe in this tiny 44 page book is for “Pickled oysters” from Mrs. A.P. Shield. I’ve never heard of such a dish mush less a recipe that could handle up to 100 oysters.

The longest, most detailed recipe in the book came from a Mrs. Kirkpatrick in Lynchburg. Her recipe for “Jellied chicken soup” sounds quite involved. One necessary ingredient is “a gill of wine.” Sounds good but what is it?

The “Cheese suffle” recipe reminds me of St. Paul’s Wednesday cheese soufflé during Lent. Those Presbyterian ladies! Over 50 years ahead of their good Episcopalian sisters.

Receipts for Luncheon and Tea is only one of over 1000 Virginia cookbooks at the Library of Virginia. The collection has been assembled over the years to document the cooking and dining culture of Virginians and to document the people and organizations who contributed to, or published the books. Often a cookbook is the only existing history of a church, a social club, a civic organization, a school or a locally prominent chef or restaurateur.

 The Uzell Family Cookbook

Several years ago a rare book dealer offered the Library of Virginia a collection of cookbooks as genealogical tools. He had a very convincing sales pitch that someday someone would come to the Library and be delighted to find great-grandma’s recipe.

The dealer’s observation is indeed borne out in the most recent addition to the LVA collection, The Uzell Family Cookbook. This family produced collection documents 100 years of an American-Czech family that first settled in Dinwiddie County in 1911. This is actually the second cookbook the family has complied. The books contain family history, photographs, names, traditions – a true family legacy through recipes bridging the old country and the new.

Mary Angela’s Best of Everything

Two other examples at LVA illustrate classical blending and updating of Italian and French cuisine. Mary Angela’s Best of Everything began with the author’s Italian family heritage but was expanded to include recipes from Northern Europe, Spain, Morocco, Greece. Mary Angela Morgan notes her membership in local groups such as the Old Dominion Herb Society, the 
Richmond Culinary Guild and other gourmet groups as her resources and inspiration.

  Chef Paul’s la Petite France
Most cookbooks at LVA are complied by groups. Mrs. Morgan’s and Chef Paul Elbling’s are among the few exceptions. Chef  Paul was noted for his Richmond restaurant, La Petite France. Chef Paul’s la Petite France was published in 1975. Sadly, the restaurant closed in 2007. Chef  Paul’s philosophy is summed up very simply: “…my feeling about food – it is never good if it is contrived. It should never be overdone, overdressed and will never be good if the cook is overstressed.” Anyone who remembers the wonderful sauces at La Petite would treasure this book. Chef Paul has undoubtedly been the most authentic French chef Richmond has known.

 Signs of Good Taste: Recollections and Recipes from
Richmond’s Historic Fan Restaurants

The Richmond community has another, though more limited, recipe collection documenting the history of some well known Fan restaurants. In 2000 Ann Meade Bensenfelder published Signs of Good Taste: recollections & recipes from Richmond’s historic Fan restaurants. Twelve vintage Fan restaurants were profiled: Buddy’s, Chiocca’s, Davis & Main, Helen’s, Joe’s Inn, Julian’s, Robin Inn, Sally Bell’s Kitchen, Sobel’s, Stella’s, Strawberry Street Café, and the Village Café. A brief history, photographs, and selected recipes from each restaurant are included. Want to make 60 gallons of Joe’s spaghetti sauce? Here’s how!

Since 2000 Richmond has lost some of these Fan favorites but a delectable scrapbook remains to remind us of good times.

Two final examples of Richmond cookbooks were published in 2001. First, Dietz Press reprinted a 1958 classic, Recipes from Old Virginia. Originally compiled by the Virginia Federation of Home Demonstration Clubs, later the Virginia Extension Homemakers Council, this book represents a movement of the mid-20th century to popularize and standardize regional recipes. Many local Junior League groups lead the way – and still do.

Recipes from Old Virginia boasts recipes of two centuries, plus tested recipes. Many of our mothers or grand-mothers probably had home-ec classes in which recipe collections like this were their text books. Interestingly, no recipe for pickled oysters appears but suggestions for the bi-valve include soup, stew, fried, scalloped, each with cooking times and temperatures clearly explained. The book includes the home county of each lady contributor and it is a nice cross section of the state.

 Forever Thin Cookbook

Forever Thin Cookbook, from the Gastric By-pass Support Group, is included here for three reasons. First, it is a chronicle of a unique modern culture organization, a group of individuals with a shared medical history. Second, the recipes include nutritional information for each serving including calories, fat, carbohydrate and sodium contents.  Third, the book illustrates the range of recipes and cooking styles currently in vogue: Tex-Mex and other internationally inspired dishes, “lite” dishes, and “almost” homemade, those recipes that begin with a mix or brand name commercial product.

 -- Tom Ray.
The LVA cookbook collection is a heritage print collection. Copies circulate if there are two in the collection, otherwise they are available for use in the Library.

For additional information on Virginia cookbooks the following resources are suggested:

Bertlesen, Cynthia D., A Bibliography of Virginia-related Cookbooks, compiled 2006:

Harbury, Katherine E., Colonial Virginias Cooking Dynasty. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2004.


Kendra said...

You can still get The Virginia Housewife by Mary Randolph. Considered one of the first regional cookbooks. (read about it in a Kollatz book!)

Tom said...

I'm working at VCU as well. I'm doing a reading group with a number of faculty and historical recipes came up and that led me here. Small Internet. :)