Perhaps nowhere in the United States have traditional British foodways proven more influential and resilient than in the American south, notwithstanding a robust African influence and a climate at considerable variance from the British Isles. New England, with its Anglophile past and northern weather, would seem like a more logical repository of the British culinary tradition. The region remains an outpost of British food, as anyone fortunate enough to have dined at the house of the Editor’s grandmother in Massachusetts could attest, but Jasper White and others properly note that waves of nineteenth century immigration, particularly from Italy and Portugal, have exerted “a most profound influence” on Yankee foodways. (White xii)
That influence was largely absent from the south before the twentieth century. Outside of New Orleans, a special case in all things, and a few smaller coastal enclaves, European immigrants had not yet found their way south in significant numbers.
Somewhat like Ireland, the south has persevered with certain dishes that the British themselves had a tendency to neglect as the twentieth century wore on. For example, Jane Grigson noted in 1974 that spiced beef “was a favorite of English tables of the past, especially at Christmas time, and it is still to be found regularly on sale in Ireland.” Mrs. Grigson added that it had virtually disappeared from England until Elizabeth David just managed to resuscitate the dish by offering a recipe to Harrods in 1958. (English Food 184) Country Captain, is another example, that, while altered from its precursor from the Raj, is both a staple of southern tables and invisible in Britain. Arabella Boxer has noticed more generally that American cooks have done much to preserve otherwise neglected English foodways, including terminology as well as recipes. (Boxer 3-4)
Bill Neal found cooks in the American south preparing cracknels, manchet, wigs and other British baked goods unfamiliar to most Americans, and a number of the superb southern recipes from Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis bear a deep British stamp. (Neal 103-05; see, e.g., Lewis & Peacock 10, 43, 96-97, 116-17, 229, 255, 256) John Martin Taylor includes some twenty-four index entries under “British influence” in Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking, his engaging cookbook on the food of Charleston, its hinterland and the Gullah islands. (Lowcountry 336)
Cheese straws provide an example of something a little like Country Captain, a food whose association with its adoptive culture in the American south has become stronger than that with its British parent. These ‘straws’ or biscuits--the terms are interchangeable, and most southern cooks bake them in a round cracker shape--are made from a simple cheese and flour pastry laced with cayenne. They still may be found in Britain, and appear elsewhere; the Dutch have good ones and Fannie Farmer included a recipe in the 1918 edition of the Bostonian classic. No place, however, has adopted the snack with the prevalence and enthusiasm of the American south. As both Taylor (in Gastronomica 60) and Neal have noted:
“Cheese straws are made by every good cook throughout the Southern states. They are a staple of the cocktail table, which Southerners, unlike other serious imbibers, pay special attention to, and they are superb morsels to nibble upon with bourbon and sherry.” (Neal 58)
Like many southerners, Neal was enamored of cheese straws, and offers alternative versions of them along with several recipes that use the dough in other dishes. His ham and sauerkraut pie, in which the filling sets in custard, is a particularly good study in harmonious contrast. (Neal 58-64) Neal too notes that most straws produced today in the American south are in fact “round like little biscuits” rather than elongated like a straw and acknowledges their British origin. As Neal explains:
“Cheese straws came from England and, despite the superb true cheddar, often were made solely from Parmesan, which has been imported into England for centuries. Samuel Pepys buried his Parmesan to protect it from London’s Great Fire in 1666.” (Neal 58)
At least one website concurs but, like Neal, offers no source for its conclusion: “Food historians believe that cheese straws originated in England with different recipes for cheese biscuits.” (wisegeek)
Taylor demurs, claiming cheese straws for the south. He cites both the absence of a recipe in two modern sources and the inclusion of one in an American cookbook published in 1887. These citations are problematic, however, and Taylor’s presentation of his subject is somewhat confused. In the Fall 2008 issue of Gastronomica he writes variously of cheese straws that
“.... I’m reasonably sure that they are a fairly recent--meaning not much more than a century old--American culinary phenomenon, even if the first printed recipe I have found is in a British cookbook (the notoriously plagiarizing Mrs. Beeton).” (Gastronomica 60)
“.... I am reasonably sure that they first appeared in print in the late nineteenth century, and on this side of the Atlantic.” (Gastronomica 60-61)
-before he returns to Mrs. Beeton-
“The first published recipe that I’ve found is in The Book of Household Management, printed for Isabella Beeton in London in 1861. Most scholars believe that most of Beeton’s 2,100 recipes were lifted from other sources… nevertheless I have yet to find an earlier recipe.” (Gastronomica 62)
-then surmises that the hot climate-
“.... would  explain their recent popularity in the Caribbean, though few recipes featuring any cheese at all appear in cookbooks from the islands prior to the 1980s. Perhaps the recipe went to Barbados with southerners vacationing there in the twentieth century; more than likely, it arrived with cruise ships. Perhaps it then traveled to England with British vacationers. However they arrived there, by 2005 cheese straws were being proclaimed the ‘King of Canapes’....” (Gastronomica 63)
En route to Barbados?
It is difficult what to make of all this, but giving Taylor’s quoted text its least nonsensical reading in light of his other arguments, he seems to be making a case that Mrs. Beeton the ‘notorious plagiarizer’ took the recipe from a southern cookbook, or perhaps the unpublished notes of a southern cook, and passed it off as her own.
Tarring poor Isabella Beeton as ‘notorious,’ however, is both misleading and unfair. In fact she was not a cook at all, did not pretend to be one, and, as Kathryn Hughes has pointed out, “[t]there is nothing in Mrs. Beeton’s book that has not been taken from another source.” (Hughes 370) It has been popular in some circles to disparage Household Management since Elizabeth David savaged the book in 1968 for appropriating the contents if not format of recipes previously published by Eliza Acton, whose work David quite properly admired. (David 35; Hughes 189) It is undisputed that Household Management did include passages based on Acton’s work, as well as on the work of authors including Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Raffald, Alexis Soyer and others. That, however, hardly sets her apart.
Hundreds of other writers published cookbooks containing recipes obtained elsewhere in both Britain and the United States during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. “Copyright issues were vague, the particular provenance of any recipe being hard to track” and appropriating recipes without attribution “reflects the way that cookery books had been put together since time immemorial.” (Hughes 183)
For example, Hannah Glasse, whose celebrated Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747) was the publishing phenomenon of the century, appropriated much of her material. “Widowed and with a clutch of children to support, Glasse wrote from expediency and, like most of her contemporaries, stole recipes shamelessly from other books.” (Colquhoun 200) Bradshaw and Lambert (various editions including ones published in 1748 and 1754) in turn copied from both Glasse and The Accomplish’d Servant Maid by Eliza Johnston, also first published in 1747. (Lehmann 396-97) A casual glance through any of the many cookbooks published in the United States during the nineteenth century reveals scores of the same recipes reproduced by different authors without citation. Many of them originated in British publications.
Mrs. Beeton and her husband, the publisher of Household Management, “simply follow[ed] the practice of copying other people’s recipes,” a practice that accelerated during the course of the nineteenth century:
“By working in this way the Beetons were anticipating a trend from the second half of the century whereby cookery books were often written by publishers’ wives. Publishers needed cheap (or, better still, free) copy and, from their incestuous dens in Paternoster Row or the Strand, they had convenient access to the most popular books already on the market.” (Hughes 189)
One thing does set Mrs. Beeton apart from other borrowers of recipes: Many of her sources knew that their material would appear in print under her name. Much of Household Management had originated in Mrs. Beeton’s column for one of her husband’s periodicals, the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine and it “in turn drew heavily on the contributions of the magazine’s readers, who were solicited for their own tips, stratagems and family recipes.” (Humble 9) The response to these requests for contributions was overwhelming.
Taylor provides no evidence that any of these readers either lived in the American south or knew anything about its food, and none of the secondary sources addressing Household Management indicates that Mrs. Beeton consulted any American publication or received any recipe from a correspondent in the American south. Indeed, while subsequent British authors included American recipes in their cookbooks, and Mrs. Beeton includes Belgian, Dutch, French, German, Indian, Italian and Portuguese preparations in hers, American food is “a cuisine notably absent from Beeton’s geographical meanderings.” (Humble 19, 23)
If the story of Mrs. Beeton does nothing to indicate that cheese straws originated anywhere other than in England, what about Taylor’s other sources? He sets much store in the fact that “[n]either Jane Garmey nor Jane Grigson, both of whom wrote extensively about British cooking in the 1980s, offers recipes for what [he] consider[s] cheese straws.” (Gastronomica 60)
Garmey, however, did not ‘write extensively’ about British food in the 1980s; her primary subject is gardening. She did produce two books during that time, but neither of them pretends to offer a comprehensive survey of traditional British food. Great British Cooking: A Well Kept Secret is adequate as far as it goes in its stated aim of introducing British food to Americans. It also includes some unfortunate anachronisms (for example tomato paste in steak and kidney pudding) and does not pretend to go particularly far: Garmey includes the explicit disclaimer that the “collection of recipes I have assembled is in no way comprehensive or complete” and omits any number of traditional British dishes. (British Cooking xvi)
Her subsequent effort, Great New British Cooking is what its subtitle promises, a collection of “innovative contemporary recipes and modern renditions of splendid traditional dishes.” It is not in the least a historical effort. Most of the recipes are included only because they appear on restaurant menus and many of the relatively traditional ones are variations on themes from the earlier book. As Garmey explains:
“This book is my attempt to bring American readers a sampling of some of the new recipes I have come across in Britain and to give some sense of the variety of food that one can find there today. It should not in any way be considered an inclusive picture of contemporary British food or British chefs.”
(New British Cooking 11)
Mrs. Grigson did write extensively about British food, and for a period of decades, not just during the 1980s. It would be mistaken, however, to conclude that the absence of a recipe for cheese straws from her writings indicates its absence from the English canon. She was not particularly interested in the cocktail culture; did not include sections on starters, snacks or savories in English Food or The Observer Guide to British Cookery; and omitted an English staple, bread and butter pudding, from both books, apparently because she did not like it. (English Food; Observer Guide 57)
Then there is Elizabeth David. Taylor concedes that she refers to “the beloved English cheese straws” but finds the reference ‘ironic’ because David does not include a recipe in Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen, which first appeared in 1970. (Gastronomica 60; Spices, Salt 25)
Taylor’s sense of irony is misplaced. David was a lifelong pursuer of the exotic (not to say erotic) who was more interested in broadening the sensual reach of her readers than in chronicling specifically British foodways. She has no great affection for English food, and Spices, Salt and Aromatics arguably is her least satisfactory book. It also is mistitled, for its contents are neither limited to seasonings nor comprehensively English. David characteristically eschews the “commonplace” and instead offers her readers “Parmesan biscuits” as “an alternative” to cheese straws--which Taylor does not disclose. (Spices, Salt 25) David also omits English classics, including steak and kidney pudding, roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, trifle and others, but does include recipes for aubergine a la Tunisienne, beef Indienne and paella Valenciana.
The notably selective citation of British sources by Taylor belies the fact that cheese straws have been ubiquitous in British cookbooks since Mrs. Beeton. Examples include Soyer’s Standard Cookery by Nicholas Soyer (1912; reference as accompaniment to turtle soup rather than recipe); Good Cookery by W.G.R. Francillon (1920); Good Savouries by Ambrose Heath (1934; three recipes); Good English Food by Florence White (1952); The Constance Spry Cookbook by Constance Spry and Rosemary Hume (1956); Good Simple Cookery by Elisabeth Ayrton (1958); The Belfast Cookery Book by Margaret Bates (1967); English Recipes and Others by Sheila Hutchins (also 1967); The Cookery of England, also by Elisabeth Ayrton (1974); Clubland Cookery by Robin McDouall (1974) and Arabella Boxer’s Book of English Food (1991) among many others.
Given the inclusion of a recipe in the 1861 edition of Mrs. Beeton, along with the dates of these other publications, Taylor’s speculation about Barbados and cruise ships is bizarre and contributes nothing to a search for the origin of cheese straws.
Among the volumes just cited, Hutchins is the most tantalizing. Her book is a compendium of traditional British recipes from historical sources, often reproduced in facsimile. She links cheese straws to a recipe, turtle soup, rather than to a particular author, and while much of the text on the soup, and some concerning the straws, appears in quotations, Hutchins does not identify the author either of some passages about the soup or the quotation on straws. She traces turtle soup in Britain back to the early eighteenth century; Kate Colquhoun places the first published recipe in 1727. (Colquhoun 211)
The prestige of the soup grew following its introduction. “During the Regency and for the best part of the nineteenth century the turtle was ‘esteemed the greatest luxury which has been placed upon our tables.’” (Hutchins 37) The instructions that accompany this unattributed statement are entitled “Cheese Straws for Turtle Soup,” introduced by another unsourced quotation: “These are to be tied together with baby ribbon to match the table runners.” (Hutchins 38) Does the recipe for cheese straws date back as far as its companion? As interesting as this may or may not be, at this writing it remains mysterious and therefore inconclusive, which leads us back to Mrs. Beeton via the Oxford English Dictionary.
First, however, it is only fair to examine the only other apparent basis for Taylor’s argument that cheese straws originated in the American south. He dates the first recipe for “a cheese straw per se” to The Original White House Cookbook cowritten by Hugo Ziemann, ‘steward of the White House,’ and a Mrs. F.L. Gillette, which was first published in New York during 1887. It is unclear what Taylor means by ‘per se,’ but the citation is problematic for several reasons, even if we table the question whether a book based on work done in the District of Columbia and published in New York qualifies as southern.
If Taylor means by ‘per se’ that Ziemann used the term ‘straw’ in the title of the recipe whereas Mrs. Beeton omitted it, then he may claim a pedantic point that disregards common practice; as previously noted, many cooks historically have made cheese straws in different shapes. (Neal 58) Like Mrs. Beeton, Taylor himself omits the term ‘straw’ from the title of his own recipe, which predates the Gastronomica article by sixteen years. He bakes his ‘straws’ as thin crackers and calls them “cheese pigs” because of their shape (although, more recently, he apparently has made them in the shape of an elephant; maybe he is a Republican). (Low Country 42)
A more fundamental problem for Taylor is the British influence that marks some of the recipes in the White House Cookbook. Examples include Country Captain, curry, potted foods, both mock turtle and mulligatawny soups, Scotch mutton broth, Charlottes, gooseberry fool and recipes from the famous chef at the Reform Club, Alexis Soyer, including “Soyer’s Recipe for Force Meats.” Two cheese rabbits follow the recipe for cheese straws itself.
In any event, the argument based on Zieman’s book is rendered moot by the Oxford English Dictionary’s quotation of the Young Ladies Journal. In 1874, the Journal, based in London, published “[t]hree recipes for making cheese straws.” (Journal 475) According to the OED, this represents the first appearance anywhere of the term ‘cheese straws’ in print (OED), in England, thirteen years before Taylor’s first American source. Curiously, he cites the OED reference to the Ladies’ Journal without either disclosing that the Journal was an English publication and included actual recipes for cheese straws, or noting that it predates his other sources.
Perhaps, however, it all comes back to the everpresent Mrs. Beeton. Taylor does not mention the fact, but The Book of Household Management and its mistitled cheese straws appeared in print in the United States in 1871, earlier than any of the books cited in his Gastronomica essay. (wisegeek) That, in tandem with the Young Ladies Journal, would appear to settle the issue.
Eliza Acton, Modern Cookery for Private Families (London 1855)
Anon., The Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford 1971)
Anon., “What are Cheese Straws?,” www.wisegeek.com (31 January 2010)
Isabella Beeton, The Book of Household Management (London 1861; New York 1871)
Arabella Boxer, Arabella Boxer’s Book of English Food (New York 1991)
Penelope Bradshaw & ‘M. Lambert, Confectioner,’ Bradshaw’s Valuable Family Jewel (London 1748)
Kate Colquhoun, Taste: The Story of Britain Through Its Cookery (New York 2007)
Elizabeth David, Spice, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen (London 1970)
Jane Garmey, Great British Cooking: A Well-Kept Secret (New York 1981)
New Great British Cooking (New York 1985)
Jane Grigson, English Food (London 1974)
The Observer Guide to British Cookery (London 1984)
Kathryn Hughes, The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton (New York 2006)
Nicola Humble, Culinary Pleasures: Cookbooks and the Transformation of British Food (London 2005)
Sheila Hutchins, English Recipes and Others (London 1967)
Gilly Lehmann, The British Housewife: Cookery Books, Cooking and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Totnes, Devon 2003)
Edna Lewis & Scott Peacock, The Gift of Southern Cooking (New York 2003)
Bill Neal, Biscuits, Spoonbread & Sweet Potato Pie (Chapel Hill 1990)
John Martin Taylor, Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking (New York 1992)
“Cheese Straws,” Gastronomica Vol. 8 No. 4 (Fall 2008)
Jasper White, Cooking From New England (New York 1988)
Hugo Ziemann & F.L. Gillette, The Original White House Cookbook (New York 1887)