The online magazine
dedicated to the
discussion & revival
of British foodways.

NO.53
SUMMER2017

North & south in both geography & metaphor, or a review of Northern Hospitality: Cooking by the Book in New England by Keith Stavely & Kathleen Fitzgerald with a commentary on “True Grits” by Burkhard Bilger.

1. Not so boring after all.

It is a pleasure to read a wonderful book, especially when its authors provide a bracing corrective to conventional wisdom. It therefore is all the more dispiriting to note that until now no national publication has reviewed Northern Hospitality by Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald.

Northern_Hospitality.jpgCommentators have tended to portray the food of New England as boiled, bland and boring, the culinary manifestation of a dour Puritan doctrine. In Albion’s Seed, for instance, David Hackett Fischer claims that:

“The Puritans of Massachusetts created one of the more austere food ways in the Western world. For three centuries, New England families gave thanks to their Calvinist God for cold baked beans and stale brown bread, while lobsters abounded in the waters of Massachusetts Bay and succulent game birds orbited slowly overhead. Rarely does history supply so strong a proof of the power of faith.” (Fischer 135-36)

It is a preposterous argument that Stavely and Fitzgerald demolish.

Northern Hospitality is nothing less than a meditation on the evolving New England mind through the prism of its foodways. The first section is a nearly Namierite group biography of English and American cookbook authors from the early modern era until the end of the nineteenth century. The second section, almost three quarters of the book’s length, reproduces many of their recipes annotated with commentary from Stavely and Fitzgerald.

The unorthodox structure serves several purposes. The biographical sketches demonstrate how cookbook authors reflected changing mores and values in society writ large. The recipes, unaltered from their original format, provide the cultural as well as culinary flavor of their times; the annotations explain where the recipes originated (and who plagiarized whom, a widespread practice throughout the period); and how and why they changed. The annotations also translate archaic terms, or terms whose meaning has changed, so that “any mildly adventurous cook” can use the recipes. (Stavely xii)

As an unexpected bonus, rigorous endnotes contain lively little essays of their own. We learn, for example, that contemporaries hostile to seventeenth century Puritans mocked their tendency to rationalize their own desires, culinary and otherwise, by bending the doctrine that they used inflexibly to judge others. Ben Jonson for one created a ‘typical’ Puritan, “Zeal-of-the-Land-Busy,’ who upended the precept against pork by allowing himself to indulge “a longing to eat pig” so long as “it be eaten with a reformed mouth.” (Stavely 394n53)

Puritans_arriving_new_world.jpg
No pies, please, we’re Puritans.

Northern Hospitality is not without flaws; the third and fourth chapters covering the second half of the nineteenth century are less comprehensive than either the first pair or the annotated recipes. It seems that the authors’ enthusiasm flags in comparison to the earlier material, and uncharacteristic passages of academic jargon intrude here and there.  Stavely and Fitzgerald also make some minor errors. They misapprehend, for instance, the traditional British usage of ‘melted butter;’ it was a light sauce made with lemon juice, flour, pepper and mace or nutmeg and sometimes cream, not just butter that had been melted. These, however, are minor quibbles.

 

2. Temperate minds address the transmission of trends.

Unlike so many historians dazzled by the significance of their chosen field, Stavely and Fitzgerald refuse to oversell their sources. They realize that we cannot replicate the past through recipes alone, and understand that cookbooks are more than anything else “an expression of social aspiration.”

“So the cookbooks of past times tell us what a few well-off people actually ate, and in so doing these books give us clues about what a great many more people wanted to eat, or were being encouraged to want to eat.” (Stavely 2-3)

There is a certain paradox involved in this. As Elizabeth David, C. Anne Wilson and Gilly Lehmann have noted, the appearance of a recipe in printed sources lagged behind practice for a long time, at least until the early eighteenth century and to some extent until the advent of the internet. This has not just been a function of authors taking time to catch up to cooks; as Wilson notes, “publications tended to lag somewhat when new fashions emerged, since so many of their recipes were copied out of earlier books.” (Wilson 47-48)

When Amelia Simmons published the first recognizably American recipes in 1796,

“she was bringing more fully into the open the tendency in elite New England circles during the several previous decades to confer greater prestige on such heretofore everyday fare as Indian pudding, chowder, and johnnycake.” (Stavely 3)

Cookbooks, however, also have spurred changes in culinary habits. Stavely and Fitzgerald cite Julia Child as a reason why so much more variety appears today in supermarkets than in the 1960s. They also recount the influence of Diet for a Small Planet on the emergence of a mass market for organic foods in particular and ‘healthy’ ones in general. The widespread popularity of these publications not only reflects what their purchasers ‘were encouraged to want to eat’ but also ignited a revolution of sorts. Nobody, Stavely and Fitzgerald note, could have found a salad at McDonald’s in the sixties.

Diet_for_a_Small_Planet.jpg

A third paradox illustrates how the function of the cookbook has continued to evolve. The influence of cookbooks on eating habits may be waning at a time when more titles and more copies of them are selling than ever. While people are buying more cookbooks, they also are cooking a lot less; sales of prepared and takeout foods have reached record levels too. For many readers, the aspirational and entertainment value of cookbooks has eclipsed their utility, a reason why we find so many lavish illustrations and expansive layouts but less recipes per page than in the past.

 

3. A broad net encloses a big cast.

Lest Northern Hospitality sound the least bit dry, the prose is propulsive and the insights fly. In a wry commentary on past and present, for example, Stavely and Fitzgerald conclude that Catharine Beecher, whose writing “discourages pleasure and engagement and instead demands obedience to a code” was “the nineteenth century’s Martha Stewart, not its Julia Child.” (Stavely 92)

Not just Beecher, Susannah Carter and Hannah Glasse, but also John Milton, Jonson, Alexander Pope and Benjamin Franklin inhabit these pages, all of them discussed without a shred of pretense. The baleful Sylvester Graham shows up too. Savory pies of every variety have been considered “a peculiarly English specialty” since the seventeenth century. They remain ubiquitous on British tables but the tradition has nearly vanished from America because he and others waged war on them during the early nineteenth century. (Stavely 43 citing Lehmann)

 Sylvester_Graham.jpg
Scourge of pie.

Graham, inventor of the eponymous cracker, considered piecrust indigestible; perhaps his marketing acumen influenced his nutritional dogma. He, Sarah Josepha Hale and other self-appointed activists--people “who advocated eating beefsteaks for breakfast”--also decried pie for the odd reason that “it consolidated a mélange of foods within its solid envelope.” Another objection, that pie “remained edible for a surprisingly long time,” makes a little more sense to an era that was beginning to value ‘fresh’ ingredients, many of them in fact preserved in newly created “chemical soups.” (Stavely 255-56, 256)

 

4. Industrial advance and the quality of life question.

Despite the intrusion of adulterants, modernity carried benefits with it. Conventional wisdom blames industrialization and concomitant urbanization for the decline of British food in the nineteenth century, but Stavely and Fitzgerald demonstrate that the transformation improved diet in the northern cities of the United States.

Before the railroad could carry goods to the bigger cites whose expanded populations would support bulk cargoes, it would be understatement to describe the diet of most city dwellers and even farmers as dull. Fruits and vegetables were scarce in winter and spoiled during hot summer months, so that wage earners subsisted on little other than bread, potatoes, salt pork and sausage. (Stavely 71) The railroad, however, brought the country to the city, so that, for instance,

“the season during which strawberries, grapes, tomatoes, string beans, and peaches were on sale in northern cities increased on average by three to four months between 1835 and 1865.” (Stavely 94)

 strawberries090.jpg

It was an era that did not fear sugar, so that fruit pies as well as a range of savory dishes, including the “classic” New England baked beans that evolved from one of “the oldest of English dishes” (Stavely 122), became sweeter; molasses does not surface as an ingredient in recipes for them until the nineteenth century. As Stavely and Fitzgerald note, all of this “now serves merely to point up our paradoxical history as ill-informed consumers.” (Stavely 256)

 

5. A comparative interlude.

We ought not to underestimate the contribution of Stavely and Fitzgerald to improving the generally woeful historiography of food. Compare, for example, all of this with the scholarship of James McWilliams, whose Revolution in Eating (New York 2005), received a number of enthusiastic reviews, presumably from readers unfamiliar with the facts that the book addresses.

McWilliams cannot be accused of any doubt about the significance of his topic, as his bombastic subtitle indicates. It is no less than the claim that “the quest for food shaped America;” unlike Stavely and Fitzgerald, no nuance or restraint for McWilliams.

Like Karen Hess, whom he apparently consulted but does not cite (his examples of ingredients mimic hers), McWilliams discounts the American character of the recipes that Amelia Simmons offers her reader: “American Cookery might be American in name, but in content it’s as British as warm stout beer [sic].” (McWilliams 230) Any perusal of American Cookery, however, demonstrates how Simmons had begun recording the adaptation of British foodways to New England conditions; she simplifies a number of British models and transforms others, including the Indian pudding, chowder and Johnnycake highlighted by Stavely and Fitzgerald.

McWilliams does credit Simmons with spawning “a series of local American cookbooks” and considers The New England Cookery by Lucy Emerson, published in Montpelier during 1808, “the most impressive and telling example.” (McWilliams 230) His discount of Simmons and emphasis on Emerson, however, entail a certain irony, for she tracks American Cookery verbatim in a rather glaring example of the penchant for wholesale plagiarism shared by many cookbook compilers of the time.

By now it should be no surprise that Stavely and Fitzgerald circumvent the Emerson trap; aware of the publication (they cite a recipe from it), they make no claim to its historical impact while characteristically refraining from attacking its ‘author.’ We could present more examples of problems with A Revolution in Eating, but this is not a review of that book; the interlude is offered only to amplify the achievement of Northern Hospitality.

 

6. A great debate: The place of the pie.

To return to the pies, coincident reasons contributed to their decline. They are relatively hard to make and their opponents gave domestic cooks an excuse to give up on them. Furthermore, at least in the United States, “pies were often so poorly made that disapproval on health grounds by the day’s nutrition experts merely confirmed the public’s suspicions based on direct experience.” (Stavely 257) This supple interweaving of cause and effect typifies Northern Hospitality.

pies_greyscale_sm.jpg

As an aside, it is not possible to resist relaying another insight about pie from Northern Hospitality: “the term itself may derive from the habit of the magpie to collect all sorts of odd bits for its nest.” (Stavely 257) The disclosure not only piques the readers’ interest but also obliquely reminds them just how ubiquitous the mixed pie had been.

A casual dipper into the book might wonder why, if pie became anathema, the authors include over fifty historical recipes for them, but an answer rewards the more diligent reader. The history of New England of course antedates the 1820s for a longer period than it succeeds the decade, and it took longer to kill pies there than in other regions. Stavely and Fitzgerald touch on both topics and point to yet another causal factor:

“For two and a half centuries New Englanders did indeed hew to the English tradition, taking much of their local bounty, combining it with imported luxuries when they could, and baking it all up into an array of meat, fowl, and fish pies…. Perhaps predictably, the end of New England savory pie-making coincided not only with the rise of health-food fads but also with an insistence upon Yankee-style plainness that resulted in the banishment of most of the enhancements and flavorings that had made the earlier pies so glorious.” (Stavely 256-57)

 

7. Admiration and adaptation.

The reason why so many English as well as New England figures feature in the analysis is straightforward; until the twentieth century the region’s cuisine was intertwined with that of the archipelago, and it remains anchored in the British tradition.

That is not to say that Yankees slavishly reproduced English dishes. Under the influence of the region’s confident cookbook writers, it developed a cult of ‘plainness,’ not merely from frugality but also as a marker of virtue. These authors arrived at their conclusions by different paths, but as the nineteenth century progressed, an ethos much like the locavore movement began to emerge. Indigenous ingredients, no longer the default food for subsistence, became celebrated as evoking a self-consciously superior regional culture. Purity of flavor as an expression of regional identity also became prized in a confluence of practicality, ideology and culture.

The New England cuisine that did develop was distinctive, but by no means disjunctive, as anyone who, like the Editor, dined in rural Massachusetts as late as the 1970s could attest. Its antecedents had emerged by the middle of eighteenth century, and recognizably New England dishes had appeared in print by 1797 with the publication of American Cookery by    Simmons: “There may be an underlying continuity in method of preparation between many English and American dishes, but in the application of methods to new ingredients Simmons was the first to record the emergence of a distinctly American cuisine.” (Stavely 45)

 corn_on_plate.jpg

It was an exercise that recut English recipes to include New World ingredients, and for the first time American dialect permeates a cookbook; Indian corn not maize, molasses not treacle, ‘emptins’ for fermentation lees to use as yeast, and the first appearance of the Dutch-derived ‘cookey.’

 

8. A fearless and formidable reformer.

The Americanization of English models (and celebration of previously scorned subsistence foods) took time to evolve; clams, for example, first appear in American editions of English cookbooks early in the nineteenth century, and 1833 marks the first mention of them by an American, Lydia Maria Child. (Stavely 158) Despite the appearance of indigenous dishes, however, “dependence on British sources and techniques continued to be a major factor in New England’s culinary evolution” well into the nineteenth century. (Stavely 46)

Child is a fascinating figure, a principled polymath who lived in straitened circumstances all her life despite achieving great stature as a writer. Her husband “had a greater knack for becoming involved in protracted and expensive legal wrangles than for the practice of law or the wielding of an editor’s pen” so it fell to Child to support the family. (Stavely 48)

She seems to have been fearless; in 1824 at the age of twenty-two she published a novel centered upon the love affair and marriage of an Indian man and Puritan woman. Hobomok: A Tale of Early Times aroused considerable controversy due to its interracial couple although, as Stavely and Fitzgerald wryly note, “the story appealed to a New England audience whose newfound concern coincided with the dwindling numbers of actual Indians in the region.” (Stavely 47)

That was just the beginning; Child went on to become an influential writer, editor, reformer and composer. Her staunch abolitionism would hurt her career, but did not prevent her cookbook, The American Frugal Housewife, from reaching a majority of American women during the 1830s. (Stavely 51) That audience found in her work what has become the embodiment of flinty New England. “Child’s readers are encouraged to move beyond genteel ostentation in order to be able to practice two virtues: one--generosity--usually associated with aristocracy; the other--usefulness--the quintessence of practical New England.” (Stavely 55)

Child, however, was too supple an intellect to engage in regional chauvinism. Her abolitionist tracts highlighted northern profit from the slave trade and reproached the owners of “Northern ships and Northern capital… engaged in this wicked business.” (Stavely 60, citing Child, Appeal) She worried too that New Englanders were losing their traditional industrious frugality. As Stavely and Fitzgerald observe:

“Alluding to a standardized contrast with the South in which Northerners remained possessed of these virtues would have run counter to her rhetorical design.” (Stavely 60)

Not that Child was not enamored of New England; she did, after all, write ‘Over the River and Through the Woods.’

 

9. England and New England.

What, however, of the food? Like Simmons, Child simplified English models and adapted them to American conditions. If the addition of cranberries alters the traditional English batter pudding, a chicken pie with striations of salt pork, pastry and “an egg or two, if you have plenty” appears reminiscent of sea pie, and baked beans are cooked with pork in the Early Modern English style without molasses or other sweetening.

 

eggs201.jpg
An egg or two.

Stavely and Fitzgerald describe much of the food they discuss as ‘Anglo-American.’ During the three decades following the Revolution, New Englanders in particular re-embraced all things English as their cultural inheritance. Practical considerations also favored British culinary practice. “The superiority of English and American roasting techniques,” for example, “was widely acknowledged, even by the French.” (Stavely 199)

Northern Hospitality demonstrates that even as late as the dawn of the twentieth century, a distinctive New England cuisine remained rooted in the British tradition. Despite popular notions to the contrary, the British influence still lies unnoticed within American foodways for, as Clementine Paddleford observed over fifty years ago, New England

“can claim more dishes to her credit than any other region in the United States. Her specialties are acclaimed nationwide, having traveled inland by waterway and covered wagon; New England food, like her houses and furniture, followed with the frontier.” (Paddleford 2)

 

10. A reputation on the rise.

If that fact too has been lost on most Americans, and the influence of New England now is more real than apparent, the foodways of the south suffer from no such neglect. Barbecue, Geechie, Gullah, Carolina low country, Cajun, Creole and the Madeira drenched dishes of Savannah; these culinary dialects fire the popular imagination and the press, and for good reason.

A number of remarkable southern cookbooks have appeared over the last few decades, an accomplishment that, despite a few good books of its own, New England has not matched. Authors including Scott Atcheson, Richard and Rima Collin, Damon Lee Fowler, Edna Lewis, Donald Link, Bill Neal, Scott Peacock, Paul Prudhomme and others have written cookbooks bound to be classics.

Restaurants in the south also offer southern dishes of distinction. Charleston and New Orleans alone support an astonishing number of places that feature outstanding renditions of their foods, and similar outposts lie scattered throughout the old confederacy.

This phenomenon also gives the reputation of southern food more heft than its cold weather counterpart. Not much remains, for example, of old New England food in the ambitious kitchens; places like Colony in Boston, Windswept Farms and the South Shore Grill in South County, Rhode Island, survived for relatively short runs as long ago as the 1980s; Jasper White closed his flagship Jasper’s after a longer lifespan to concentrate on casual restaurants, including a consultancy at the Legal Seafoods chain.

 

11. A different kind of reconstruction in the south.

 

No place has engendered more excitement than Husk, Sean Brock’s ambitious newcomer in Charleston. Husk attempts nothing less ambitious than the resurrection of flavors that nobody has tasted in nearly two centuries. It has been called the best new restaurant in the United States, and Brock received an adoring profile from Burkhard Bilger in the Halloween issue of The New Yorker. It is a discursive piece that addresses the origins and history of southern food as well as the exciting efforts of southern farmers to recover landrace crops and heritage breeds.

 Seam_Brock_Husk.jpg
Sean Brock of Husk

 

Bilger is good on contemporary agronomy and husbandry. He goes foraging on Edisto and Johns Islands for wild mustard, peppergrass, Sea Island red peas, sea bean, sheep sorrel and other exotica with Glenn Roberts and Richard Porcher; Brock would cook with their discoveries that same day.

Roberts is no woodsy hobbyist. He operates a sophisticated operation at Anson Mills that grows seeds and sells both them and the ensuing crops that grow to other farmers as well as chefs nationwide. Seeds arrive in South Carolina from research stations, seed banks and private collectors all over the world, to cross with feral plants from ditches, farm borders and vacant lots. “The roadside,” he says, “is now the field site.” (Bilger 49) Although Bilger does not mention the fact, Anson Mills must be best known for the grits it produces from heirloom corn. Their texture and flavor are utterly superior to standard commercial varieties like Quaker, and Quaker grits are not at all bad.

Roberts’ methods mirror the practice of farmers in what historians call “The Age of Experimentation” in southern agriculture during the first half of the nineteenth century. “In his telling,” as Amanda Hesser cautiously notes, “after the American Revolution, hundreds of varieties of rice flourished in plantations and paddies along the coast of North Carolina and Georgia. The flavor of Carolina rice made it world famous…. ” (Hesser) In “True Grits” and on his website, Roberts depicts the Low Country as positively Edenic in culinary terms, a narrative that puts paradise above profit in the minds of slaveholding planters. Indeed, Roberts fails to mention the business motives or practice of these planters at all.

Like them, Roberts “lets his plants mutate and hybridize naturally” to see, or taste, what he gets. (Stavely 49) Bilger quotes him as saying that “[w]e work in epiphanies. If the taste isn’t remarkable, you won’t get anyone’s attention. It has to be astoundingly good.” (Bilger 49) Conventional supermarket considerations like appearance and shelf life are irrelevant to Roberts.

As antebellum Experimenters realized, factors beyond genetics also influence flavor. They found that the sequence of crop rotation mattered; “rice tastes best when planted after field peas, sweet potatoes after collard greens, and barley after butter beans.” (Bilger 44) By the 1820s Carolina and Georgia planters had, according to Roberts, implemented “the most elegant farming system on the planet.” Sea Island rice planters not only rotated crops to protect the soil and enhance their flavor, but also utilized a seventeen year cycle based on their perceptions of both the earth’s variable orbit and discrepancies in seasonal length. (Bilger 44)

 

12. Historical struggles.

Bilger, however, is no Stavely or Fitzgerald, and when he turns more generally to the history of southern food things get a little ugly. He relies solely on Hess to cite “the African roots of even the fanciest plantation fare,” but historians, including Stavely and Fitzgerald, have called into question (however politely) her conclusions. She finds nothing particularly American about Amelia Simmons, ignoring the many pathbreaking factors enumerated in Northern Hospitality, for example, and like many of her claims this one is a gross overstatement. (Bilger 41)

Bilger also cites unidentified “old farming journals” that “uncover an alternative history of American cuisine” while dismissing the “the corseted cooking schools of Boston and Philadelphia” as an influence on southern food. Southern books, however, are apparently a different matter; “cookbooks such as ‘The Virginia Housewife’ have shown the quirky industriousness of early kitchens.” (Bilger 41) This is at best problematic because his example of an early recipe undermines the claim.

 

13. The peregrinations of the calf’s head.

 

In fact, and excepting Louisiana, a special case in all things, the foodways of the antebellum north and south are not altogether dissimilar. Bilger’s chosen recipe, for ‘Mock Turtle Soup of Calf’s Head,’ does appear in The Virginia Housewife by Mary Randolph, which first appeared in 1831. The problem with his conclusion is the appearance of virtually indistinguishable recipes elsewhere. It was a “favourite English soup,” as Eliza Acton observed in 1845. (Acton 39) She includes two variations of it and a similar recipe for undisguised Calf’s Head Soup.

Calfs_head.jpgThe English did not get the soup from Randolph; recipes have appeared in print in England since at least the early eighteenth century. Ralph Ayres, head cook at New College, Oxford, wrote a recipe for hashed calf’s head that is essentially a thick soup at least as early as 1721. Twenty-six years later Hannah Glasse includes six recipes for calf’s head in The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy; as we have noted before, it was the bestselling book in the English language over the course of the eighteenth century, and sold as well in North America, in both American and English imprints, as it did in Britain.

Other transatlantic bestsellers from England also included recipes for ‘mock turtle’ before The Virginia Housewife. Mrs. Raffald published two, and another three for calf’s head, in 1769; ‘Mock-Turtle’ is the featured soup in The London Art of Cookery, first published during 1783 and which also has three recipes for hashed calf’s head; then in 1806, Mrs. Rundell added a pair of mock turtle recipes (two other ‘mocks’ start with cowheel instead of head) and four more with calf’s head instead in the title.

It turns out that calf’s head was a favorite of New England too. Simmons (Hartford) has a 1796 recipe ‘To dress a Calves’ Head. Turtle fashion.’ Lucy Emerson (Montpelier) reproduced it (and plagiarizes the rest of Simmons too) in 1808 and Child (corseted Boston cooking school) followed in 1833.

Nor is mock turtle soup limited to antebellum authors. Mrs. Lincoln, who also ran a cooking school in Boston and wrote or co-wrote a number of popular cookbooks, published recipes for mock turtle soup into the twentieth century, and renditions also appear in Philadelphia imprints of the same era. So it is not southern, ‘quirky’ in any historical sense or limited to ‘early kitchens.’

 

14. Linkages along a longitude and across the sea.

It is unclear whether or not Bilger doubts the culinary validity of “the oldest divide in Southern culture, between slave cabin and big house, pot likker and plantation sideboard--between eating low on the hog (meaning pig’s feet) and high on the hog (meaning tenderloin).” After making the distinction, he cites Hess on “the African roots of even the fanciest plantation fare,” and the calf’s head but also states that “Brock is really trying to blur those distinctions.” (Bilger 41)

Plantation_in_us_south.jpg

The presentation is sufficiently confused to raise doubt about the views of Bilger himself. If, however, antebellum southern cooks were blurring the distinction between high and low cuisine, that hardly sets them apart. Simmons, Child and other New England women already had begun to ‘confer prestige’ on ‘everyday fare’ like the calf’s head that he finds so typically southern.

Nor does agricultural innovation define a southern identity. It also was the Age of Improvement across the United Kingdom, where crop yields increased dramatically under the tutelage of Arthur Young and other itinerant agronomists. Young, who has been called the greatest of English writers about agriculture, published fifteen books on political economy, four novels and numerous pamphlets, edited forty-five volumes of the Annals of Agriculture beginning in 1784 and wrote twenty-five books on farming, including A Course of Experimental Agriculture in 1770, some three decades before Bilger (erroneously) dates the onset of the Age of Experiment in the American south..

Husbandry improved in Britain; cattle got bigger and heavier to produce more milk as well as meat. Unlike our own age of factory farming, and much like the antebellum south, these advances in efficiency did not come at the price of animal suffering, human health or palatable food. The pigs that British farmers raised, the Berkshires, Tamworths and other ‘heritage’ breeds, are the breeds so prized by Fergus Henderson, Blumenthal, Brock and other revivalists on both sides of the sea.

Which leads to another unhappy observation about “True Grits;” the culinary elephant in that room is Britain. In Bilger’s telling it gets no mention and has had no imprint on the south. He and Roberts both give due credit to slaves for encouraging planters to rotate crops and for introducing African ones like benne or okra, but fail to mention the Scottish Enlightenment theories that exerted so much influence on the practices and perceptions of those planters. They too saw themselves as enlightened economic ‘improvers’ and that as much as anything else drove their innovations in agricultural practice beginning in the eighteenth century, as Joyce Chaplin has explained in An Anxious Pursuit, her trenchant and delightful study of planters in the lower south.

 pigs_-_cattle005.jpg

 

Bilger identifies “heritage breeds like Tamworth and Berkshire” that Brock and others want to raise, but not their English origin, and the inference is clear that these breeds are somehow southern. (Bilger 50) Nor does Bilger mention all the British foodways that have endured to a greater extent in the American south than anywhere else, arguably including Britain itself, at least in some aspects of its cuisine.

Two decades ago Bill Neal found British survivals throughout the south, foods that have become unfamiliar to other Americans and Britons alike. Neal made no case for British dominance; instead, his insight lay in giving its foodways any place at all in the southern tradition. He understood, unlike Bilger or others including Hess, Betty Fussell and Florence Fabricant, that a number of European preparations “passed directly into the tradition with little or no change” and all of the examples he cites are British. (Neal, Biscuits xi)

Baked goods alone include bannocks, baps, cracknels, crumpets, manchet, rusks, scones, velvet cakes and wigs, all described in a chapter of recipes entitled “Our British Heritage.” (Neal, Biscuits) It is the only chapter in Biscuits, Spoonbread & Sweet Potato Pie, Neal’s investigation of the southern culinary tradition, devoted to the influence of a single nation. Nothing there, nor any other whiff of the British kitchen or field, reaches “True Grits.”

 

15. On to our time.

If it is unfair to hold a journalist to the standard of a historian, Bilger also struggles with contemporary topics. He writes that “cable television” made Brock a chef but the examples (Julia Child, the Galloping Gourmet and Justin Wilson) are terrestrial creatures. After citing Hess and nobody else, he states that “their work has never sparked a revival” in southern food which, he claims with a contradiction, “has had no lack of would-be saviors, but [] has proved mulishly resistant to change.”

Which way does it go? Does this cuisine require salvation or reinvention? The answer is neither. Chefs all over America have been serving authentic as well as innovative southern food of quality for years. Neal’s restaurants in Chapel Hill, which led Craig Claiborne to concur in The New York Times that “the regional dishes of this country are as worthy of preservation as the nation’s monuments and architecture,” were themselves national destinations during the 1980s. (Remembering ix)

 

Edna_Lewis.jpgTo offer only one of many other examples, Café Nicholson, the authentic southern restaurant that Edna Lewis operated beginning in the 1940s, was a mandatory station on the Manhattan glitterati circuit then and for decades thereafter. Southern food, like British food in Britain, has in fact enjoyed a certain vogue in the United States over the past few years. Blumenthal and Brock are outliers only in the extreme rigor that they bring to their chosen cuisines.

As for Husk, Bilger considers it rustic and characterizes its style as “stripped-down.” The clientele looks to him like “red-faced farmers and retired schoolteachers, double-wide tradesmen and grandparents out for dinner with their children.” (Bilger 52) That, however, was not the case during any of our visits, when the diners looked more like college professors, professionals and food freaks, and not a child in sight. None of this should surprise when Husk requires eons of foresight to obtain a reservation for what in fact is a most elegant set of rooms.

Bilger wonders in conclusion “whether a regular kitchen wasn’t the best place for this food after all” and mentions chicken bog, cornbread (also, of course, a traditional New England staple), grits and smoky pork. (Bilger 53) Not so fast; the food at Husk is not so plain. There is bok choy and goat cheese, a terrine of layered lamb, soft shell crab sauced with minted peas and the pig’s ears came wrapped like spring rolls in lettuce leaves. The menu is recognizably southern but in no way time bound and that, we think, is the genius of the place.

Husk is reviewed in the practical, where recipes for melted butter, chicken bog and other dishes worthy of preservation also appear.

 

Sources:

Eliza Acton, Modern Cookery for Private Families (London 1845)

Burkhard Bilger, “True Grits,” The New Yorker (31 October 2011)

Joyce Chaplin, An Anxious Pursuit: Agricultural Innovation and Modernity in the Lower South, 1730-1815 (Chapel Hill 1996)

Lydia Maria Child, The American Frugal Housewife (Boston 1833)

(Boston 1833)

Lucy Emerson, The New England Cookery (Montpelier 1808)

John Farley, The London Art of Cookery (London 1783)

David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (New York 1989)

Jane Jakeman (ed.), Ralph Ayres’ Cookery Book (Oxford 2006)

Mrs. D.A. Lincoln et al., New England Cook Book (Boston 1906)

James McWilliams, A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America (New York 2005)

Julia Moskin, “Vanquishing the Colonel: Farmers work with chefs to restore Southern cuisine’s dignity,” The New York Times (28 December 2011)

Bill Neal, Biscuits, Spoonbread & Sweet Potato Pie (Chapel Hill 1990)

Moreton Neal, Remembering Bill Neal (Chapel Hill 2004)

Clementine Paddleford, How America Eats (New York 1960), republished as The Great American Cookbook (New York 2011)

Elizabeth Raffald, The Experienced English Housekeeper (Manchester 1769)

Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife Or, Methodical Cook (Philadelphia 1824)

Maria Eliza Rundell, A New System of Domestic Cookery (London 1806) 

Amelia Simmons, American Cookery (Hartford 1796)

Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald, Northern Hospitality: Cooking by the Book in New England (Amherst 2011)