(NOTE: See the companion recipe piece on the Recipes blog of this web site.)
The genesis of what we now know as Southern U.S. cooking is arguable.
Depending on who you ask, the regional cuisine was mostly derived from black slaves and their descendants, or from American Natives who taught European settlers how to survive on locally available foods, or by a combination of climate and the serendipitous collision of all those food cultures.
Less arguable is the lady who did more than most to collect and promote what became known as Southern cuisine – Henrietta Stanley, aka “Mrs. S.R. Dull” to her legions of fans.
Moses did not invent the Ten Commandments, but he certainly did codify them in the Bible. Likewise, Mrs. Dull did not invent Southern cuisine, but she certainly curated the tradition with her landmark cookbook “Southern Cooking.”
The first edition of her masterpiece was published in 1928 and, with the second expanded edition in 1941, “Southern Cooking” has been mostly in print ever since, and hailed by experts and fans as a definitive work.
Mrs. Dull’s place in the pantheon of Southern chefs is partly an accident of time. She happened to be born in 1863 and died at age 100 in 1964, allowing her to bridge two vastly different ages.
Born In The Old South, Lived To See The New South
“Born in the midst of the cataclysm of the Civil War, Mrs. Dull witnessed a literal technological revolution in the kitchen, from open hearth to cast-iron woodstove, to gas, and finally, to electricity,” reads the forward in the 2006 edition of her cookbook by the University of Georgia Press.
Henrietta Stanley was born on her family’s plantation in Laurens County, Georgia. By her own account, she began at a very early age to learn about cooking from the kitchen workers in her home, likely including popular recipes and cooking methods direct from the Antebellum period.
Later, she moved to the Atlanta area and married Samuel R. Dull of Virginia. The couple had six children, and she continued to hone her cooking skills as a homemaker all the while.
Then tragedy struck. Her husband developed incapacitating health problems, and Mrs. Dull was forced to go to work to support the family, doing the only thing she felt qualified to do.
At first, out of necessity she cooked dishes for the ladies of her Baptist church. Her cooking came into such demand that she soon started a successful catering business. Eventually, her growing reputation caused her to start giving “cooking school” classes to an ever-wider audience of devotees.
“She kept no record of the number of schools she held in the South — but they added up to hundreds, and wherever she went she always demonstrated before a packed house,” Atlanta newspaper food editor Grace Hartley recalled.
Mrs. Dull’s first real celebrity deal came when the Atlanta Gas Light Co. hired her in 1910 as a spokesperson and promoter for their new gas stove – a new and unprecedented alternative to cooking with wood or coal.
Perhaps sensing an opportunity to build further on her personal brand, Mrs. Dull approached the Atlanta Journal and asked to write a regular food column. In the early going, she was paired up with a more experienced writer at the paper named Margaret Mitchell, who later wrote the novel “Gone With the Wind,” for writing help. Mrs. Dull took over the column solo after a bit.
Oh, and the recipes she turned out, column after column, were deemed glorious by her readers from near and far. There was such demand for them that rather than continue to respond to ever more requests for clippings and reprints, she decided to compile them into a cookbook.
Please Pass The Possum
Some of the recipes were quite old, and might be deemed outdated by today’s standards. For instance, her recipe for ‘possum starts with putting lime into a gallon of boiling water and scalding the meat quickly so as to be able to pull off the hair.
“Scrape well – remove feet, tail, and entrails – like you would a pig,” she advises. “Cut off ears, remove eyes and head if desired. Pour hot water over it and clean thoroughly.”
But other recipes seem as contemporary as today, and so authoritative as to leave little doubt you are reading the work of a cooking master.
Mrs. Dull’s angel food cake recipe was deemed so superior by fans that it was called “arch-angel” cake to show how it towered over any others. Other classics include any of her several cornbread concoctions, pickled watermelon rinds, and full Thanksgiving & Christmas Dinner menus that included items such as scalloped oysters, roast pork and ambrosia. Her Japanese fruit cake became standard holiday fare in many Southern homes.
Mrs. Dull’s 1941 update to “Southern Cooking” brought the total to 1,300 definitive recipes.
Her growing renown had come to the attention of a large New York book publisher, Grossett & Dunlap, which published the book. That version alone sold 200,000 copies, a large number in those days.
Hanging With Walt Disney
She was photographed with famous celebrities such as Walt Disney, and did endorsement deals with companies such as White Lily Flour.
But all along, Mrs. Dull stayed true to her craft and remained devoted to the kitchen, and her fans knew it.
In her own forward to the 1928 edition, Mrs. Dull wrote: “I have been careful, in my selection of recipes, to publish only those which I know to be good and can recommend, and I am sure that if care is taken in the measurements of ingredients and the instructions for mixing them are carefully followed, even the most inexperienced housewife will be rewarded with success.”
Her original dedication still stands in later editions, and shows Mrs. Dull returned the favor of her most fervent fans’ affections: “Dedicated to my friends, the women of Atlanta, of Georgia, and of the South.”
“Many Southerners will fondly remember Henrietta Dull’s ‘Southern Cooking’ as the other sacred book in their childhood homes,” wrote Nathalie Dupree, author of ‘New Southern Cooking,’ in her review of the latest edition. “I’ve long thought it is one of the most important Southern cookbooks of the twentieth century.”
The latest edition of Mrs. Dull’s classic cookbook, published by the University of Georgia Press, can still be purchased online, and still rings with authenticity about the Southern experience and good food.
There is a particular public TV show in Tennessee that we like because it explores the relationship between people and the land and the environment in that state. And in the course of that examination, it also brushes up gently against what it means to be Southern.
We find it easiest to plumb the nature of Southern-ness when it's approached from an angle rather than head-on, since the topic is so elusive. It's kind of like seeing something that was previously only hinted at out of the corner of your eye, and suddenly it becomes familiar.
The show, "Live Green Tennessee," is a staple of WCTE, the Cookeville, Tenn., public television outlet serving the Upper Cumberland region that encompasses Nashville and environs.
Long-time host Melinda Keifer has the grace to let her subjects do most of the talking, and has the gift of eliciting their core interests, and the passions that motivate them.
The show pledges to explore the agricultural heritage and local wisdom of the region. Along the way, "Live Green Tennessee" ends up being as much about places as it is about people.
Here are links to a few of the stories from the show that stood out for us:
Here the Native Plant Rescue Squad, led by founder Gary Moll, works with builders and developers to move endangered plants -- of which there are an estimated 457 species in this area of East Tennessee -- from the path of construction and into other safer landscapes.
The Honey Man of Maryville, Tenn., Howard Kerr has been beekeeping for 50 years, and has a few insights to impart about his sweet science.
The annual Bonnaroo Music Festival in Manchester, Tenn., is more than just an outdoor showcase for outstanding music acts. The event organizers also ensure 30-plus tons of refuse are reclaimed via recycling and composting during the four days of the festival. How cool is that?
Roger Payne, owner of Miracle Mountain Farms of Cookeville, Tenn., is the undeniable star of this foray into sustainable farming. He demonstrates in a fascinating way how old tires are the ideal vessels for his green vision.
In this piece that may be the most popular of all "Live Green Tennessee" stories, CC Gardens founder Charlie Crawford of Nashville shows exactly how to grow heirloom microgreens, and how to turn a hobby into a commercial green enterprise. Kudos to Charlie for his generosity!
Betty Talmadge was the wife of a U.S. Senator from Georgia, and a bigger-than-life socialite and hostess in Washington D.C. back in the 1960s-1970s. Invitations to her bridge games were much sought-after, but her dinner parties were the stuff of even more renown.
Betty specialized in traditional Southern fare, emblematic dishes such as fried grits, braised quail, Brunswick stew and cucumber mousse among them. But it was with her pork dishes that she attained her true culinary glory. There was an element of the brash entrepreneur about Betty -- she even started a multi-million dollar ham curing business on the side while her husband, Democrat Herman Talmadge, ran the family political operations.
It must have been a fairly contentious relationship because Betty apparently learned that Sen. Talmadge was divorcing her while watching the television news.
His disclosure did not go unanswered. Not long thereafter, Betty testified against her ex-husband before the Senate Ethics Committee, revealing that bundles of $100 bills had been stashed in an overcoat at their home, money The Washington Post later reported as unreported campaign donations and reimbursements for nonexistent office expenses. The full Senate censured him, and Talmadge lost re-election to a fifth term.
Betty may not have pondered overly long before coming out with the name of her first cookbook: "How To Cook a Pig (and Other Back-to-the-Farm Recipes)."
After the cookbook was published, a newspaper reporter asked Mrs. Talmadge how she had mustered the nerve to slaughter her first pig.
"Real easy, honey," she said. "I just thought, 'You little male chauvinist, you,' and I went to it."
Here is an excerpt of one of her more exotic (i.e. probably foreign to most readers) pork recipes:
PICKLED PIGS' FEET
To pickle, place clean, chilled feet in brine for 15 days to 3 weeks. Make the brine by dissolving 1 pound salt, 1/4 pound sugar, and 1/4 ounce saltpeter in 9 cups of water. Weight the feet to keep them from floating above the solution. Keep pork cold (36-to-40 degrees Farenheit) throughout the pickling period.
To cook, simmer cured feet slowly until they are tender. Then chill them and pack them in cold, moderately strong vinegar, to which can be added spices such as bay leaves or all-spice. Use the feet at once, or keep them in the vinegar for about 3 weeks.
Betty Talmadge's cookbook, "How to Cook A Pig and Other Back-to-the-Farm Recipes" can still be purchased on Amazon.
The debate over health care in America is not something new, but rather something old. At one point, it focused on “granny-women,” folk healers who relied on herbal medicine and ancient traditions to treat their patients – apparently with some success.
The granny-woman phenomenon arrived in the New World starting in the 1700’s with successive waves of Scots-Irish immigrants who brought their old ways with them, including their home medicine practices. These healers were especially common in the Appalachian region where doctors were scarce.
Midwifery in some areas of Appalachia was dominated by granny-women even into the early 20th century.
In his 1921 book “The Southern Highlander and His Homeland,” author John C. Campbell said of the granny-woman tradition: “Though superstitious she has a fund of common sense, and she is a shrewd judge of character. In sickness, she is the first to be consulted, for she is generally something of an herb doctor, and her advice is sought by the young people of half the countryside in all things from a love affair to putting a new web in the loom.”
Some of the remedies the granny-women used were red clover, sassafras, cherry bark and pennyroyal, often brewed into a tea, as well as various roots, some of them now obscure. The concoctions treated congestion, chills, colds, pregnancies and sometimes an assortment of serious maladies.
One intriguing conviction is that granny-women tended to run in certain families – they were sometimes believed to have inherited the power of healing from a parent. In this matter, their skills were regarded as a “gift.”
Along the way, the granny-women of Appalachia traded some of their knowledge with neighboring Cherokees who were there before them, and the two folk healing traditions rubbed off on one another.
Partly out of belief, and partly out of necessity, many of the folks in remote mountain areas of Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and North Carolina came to rely on granny-women. By some accounts, up to half of the births in the Appalachian region in the 19th century were managed by granny- women.
But their eminence in rural healthcare in the region was not to last.
In an insightful 2005 dissertation at East Tennessee State University, scholar Harriet P. Masters recounted how granny-women were vanquished by a powerful medical lobby.
“The early twentieth century saw the granny-women discredited and subject to elimination as a result of a purposeful campaign conducted by the male-dominated medical profession,” Masters wrote. Forcing the granny-women to give up their work may not have been that hard, considering that they were not an organized group and mostly did not take money for their work.
Masters concluded their banishment may have been unfair.
“Using knowledge of herbal remedies, the granny-woman played an integral part in the survival of the inhabitants of the region, especially related to childbirth.,” she asserted.
Today, midwifery has again regained some of its popularity and trust among pregnant women in the United States. There has also been a recognized trend by Americans toward more reliance on herbal medicines in recent years.
But whether “granny-women” can make a comeback is still a question without an answer.