(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.