The invention of southern cooking. Also cupcakes

Most of you probably have at least one charity cookbook on your shelves — those cookbooks compiled by women’s organizations and sold to raise money for a good cause. Thousands of charity cookbooks have been published in the United States since the 1860s, and most never passed beyond the borders of the towns that wrote them. A few, though, went on to far bigger things, and this story concerns the first small-town cookbook made good.

This cookbook began life in 1876 as The Centennial Buckeye Cook Book, the project of the women of the First Congregational Church in Marysville, Ohio. Estelle Wilcox, a former resident of Marysville who had moved to Minneapolis, edited the collection, wrote its introduction, and handled its publication. Initial sales raised two thousand dollars for the church.

That would have been the end of the book — and enough to satisfy the women of Marysville — but Wilcox and her husband decided they had a gold mine on their hands. They bought the copyright, established themselves as the Buckeye Publishing Company, and for the next twenty-eight years cranked out revised editions of the original cookbook. Most bore the title Buckeye Cookery, but the Wilcoxes also published editions in various cities around the U.S., a German translation for immigrants to the upper Midwest, and a southern adaptation they called The Dixie Cookbook. Buckeye Cookery, And Practical Housekeeping: Compiled From Original Recipes (Minneapolis: Buckeye Pub. Co., 1877), digitized and introduced by the Feeding America project at Michigan State University Libraries.

The Dixie Cookbook, which came out in 1883, is a fascinating piece of history, not just of culinary history, but of the history of southern identity. Nearly twenty years had passed since the Civil War; whites had long since “redeemed” the South (as they said) from Reconstruction-era Republican governments; and the mythology of the Lost Cause was starting to form, along with misty romantic notions of the Old South that would, forty years later, reach their apotheosis in Gone with the Wind. Before the Civil War, the standard (and nearly the only) southern cookbook was The Virginia Housewife, written by Mary Randolph in 1824, and though it showed the origins of what we think of as “southern cooking” — recipes for fried chicken and stewed okra, for example, are essentially unchanged in two centuries — it was not all that different from cookbooks published a hundred miles to the north, and there was certainly nothing pointedly southern about it. The South, as a place, hadn’t entirely been invented yet in 1824.

You might think, then, that something called The Dixie Cookbook would more thoroughly reflect regional cuisine and culture. But in fact it was almost an exact reprint of Buckeye Cookery. Most of the recipes were identical; only their attributions were changed to hide their Yankee origins. A recipe for “Almond, Hickory Nut, or Cocoa-Nut Cake” was submitted by Mrs. J. W. Grubbs of Richmond, Indiana; for Dixie Cooking Wilcox simply left off the “Ind.” — et voilà! Southern cooking! Other contributors, like Mrs. J. Holland of New Castle, Indiana, lost their hometowns entirely, though telltale commas remained after their names — evidence that the pages of the southern edition hadn’t even been uniquely typeset. Even recipes southerners today like to think of as particularly southern were identical to their Ohio versions — “Fried Spring Chicken” was simply American in an age when most people lived on farms or in small towns and absolutely everybody owned a cast-iron skillet.

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There were, however, some unique contributions from southerners to the Dixie edition. The most entertaining was “Southern Rights Cake” — which, despite its name, was nothing more than a light gingerbread.

Southern-Rights Cake. Three eggs, one tea-cup sugar, one of butter, two of flour, scant half cup New Orleans molasses, half a table-spoon each of cinnamon, sifted ginger and allspice, half a tea-spoon soda, half a wine-glass brandy, cream butter and sugar; beat spices and yolks of eggs together, dissolve soda in molasses, whip whites to a froth, and add last, a little at a time, alternating with the flour. (Best baked in small pans and frosted.) —Mrs. S. P. Hill, Ga. The Dixie Cook-Book, rev. ed. (Atlanta: L. A. Clarkson & Company, 1885), 78.

Gingerbread was far from uniquely southern; if anything it was more common in New England and the north-midwestern states first settled by New Englanders. Every self-respecting American woman in the 1880s was leavening her cakes with beaten egg whites, because mechanical eggbeaters made that job far easier than it had once been. They were frosting everything in sight, too, with white meringue-based frosting, for the same reason. Only the touch of brandy calls up anything particularly southern (it harks back to a Mary Randolph gingerbread recipe, actually). But, really, these could have appeared anywhere in the country — like nearly everything else in the cookbook.

Now, this isn’t to say that there is, or was, no distinct regional style of cooking in the South. But a lot of southern cooking isn’t as southern as some southerners like to think; in many cases it’s only that the South stayed rural longer, and kept those rural traditions longer, than most of the rest of the country. By the 1880s those traditions were already being overlaid with manufactured symbols of regional identity — manufactured in Minnesota, of all places. And The Dixie Cookbook sold — well enough to go through multiple editions, well enough to have lasted as a minor classic. Like hotcakes. Or rebel flags made in China.

Recipe: “Southern-Rights” cupcakes

Right — I promised cupcakes. Since it’s nearly the sesquicentennial of the firing on Fort Sumter (on Tuesday!) and I just know you all are wondering what to serve at your commemorative galas, I’ve adapted Southern Rights Cake. As Mrs. Hill suggested, I baked them as cupcakes, and frosted them. To my frank surprise, they were really good, though I warn you, they’re a wee bit involved.

Use your favorite white frosting; I didn’t have the energy for Italian meringue the night I made these, so I did a cream cheese frosting, and the slight tang played well off the spice and molasses. Whatever you use, leave out the vanilla extract (which would be anachronistic as well as unnecessary), and don’t do anything silly like coloring the frosting.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 3 eggs, separated
  • 2 tablespoons brandy
  • 2 cups flour (White Lily, or any all-purpose)
  • 1 heaping teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 heaping teaspoon allspice
  • 1 heaping teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 cup molasses

Procedure

  1. Cream together the butter and sugar until white and fluffy. Add the egg yolks, one at a time, beating 20 seconds after each addition, then stir in the brandy.
  2. In a second bowl, whisk together the flour, spices, salt, and baking soda. Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture alternately with the molasses, beginning and ending with the dry.
  3. In a third bowl, whip the egg whites to stiff peaks. Fold these gently into the batter.
  4. Spoon the batter into prepared cupcake tins, filling each about 3/4 full, or use a 9-inch round or 8-inch square cake pan, if you prefer. (I found that the recipe made, somewhat inconveniently, 14 cupcakes.) Bake at 350°F for about 18 minutes or until a cake tester just comes out clean. Cool on a rack, then frost as desired.

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