Charleston Receipts

What do a state-of-the-art medical database and a 50 year old cookbook have in common?

Wilmington NC – [Click the Listen button to hear Wally's commentary.]

Medline is the state-of-the-art database that anchors the practice of modern medicine. Originally it only had articles that were published after 1966, but during the last ten years that horizon has been pushed back to the 1950s.

The folks at Medline want to push things back even farther and include articles published in the early twentieth century. Not everyone thinks that's a good idea. Those folks say that old articles do not have what they call "practical importance."

In this Postcard from the Digital Age we're going to talk about a far less technological means of preserving things of practical importance: a Junior League fund raising cookbook first published in 1950.

One of my favorite dishes is Red Rice. It's made from rice and bacon and onions and tomato paste. The woman who introduced me to Red Rice also introduced me to the Charleston Receipts cookbook where she found the recipe for Red Rice.

The cookbook was put together by twenty-one members of the Junior League of Charleston, South Carolina in 1950 to raise money for the Charleston Speech and Hearing Center. The first printing sold out in two weeks. Since then it has sold more than three quarters of a million copies in more than thirty printings.

I asked my favorite preparer of Red Rice why she loved this half-century old cookbook. She said, "It's a pre-can-of-mushroom-soup cookbook."

The American food industry spent millions during the Second World War to develop new technology for dried and frozen foods to feed the troops. After the war they set about recouping their investment.

Before the War, those foods had been sold as luxury items, mostly to vacationers in resort towns, or as novelty goods. The industry needed more than that, though. They went after the mass market.

Ads trumpeted the supposed benefits of frozen food, sometimes claiming that frozen vegetables were better than fresh. These packaged foods were portrayed as among the "conveniences and economies of modern-day living." Cooking, by contrast, was portrayed as drudgery, something to finish in as little time as possible.

The women who created the Charleston Receipts obviously didn't see cooking as drudgery. Their book tells us how they created the dishes of a rich culinary tradition as it was practiced before canned cream of mushroom soup. But there's more here than old ways of making cornbread.

Anyone who's read a cookbook knows that cookbooks are about far more than cooking. There are glimpses of history. You get a glimpse of history from the title. "Receipts" is the old word for recipes. You also get a glimpse of history from the recipes themselves.

Mrs. Samuel G. Stoney's Black River Pate is described as "an old French Hugenot dish that has been in our family for years." Eve's Christmas Plum Pudding recipe, delivered in verse, had, we're told, been used by the family for six generations in the United States. There are also Gullah verses and illustrations of Low Country scenes.

The Charleston Receipts cookbook gives us a window into a culture and time. It helps us understand our history and enrich our lives. It offers us a richness and wisdom that our time alone cannot produce. That's why both old recipes and old medical journal articles are worth preserving.

The Medline articles that come from what seems like ancient history include ones that medical professors kept and passed down to their students as fuzzy reproductions of copies made on ancient photocopiers. The professors kept them and shared them because they had practical value. That's worth keeping.

The recipes of Charleston Receipts are different. They give us a way to reach across time to other folks, much like us and to understand just a bit of what their world must have been like. That's worth keeping, too.