Classic Cookbooks—More Than Just Recipes (Part 1)

I begin by admitting that I am a native Georgian who likes to cook, and I imagine that partially explains my fascination with Southern cookbooks and recipes.  I have several boxes of recipes, many of them handwritten by my Southern Cooking 6mother, my grandmothers, my aunts, and women who have been neighbors and friends.   I have also amassed a very large collection of cookbooks.  Two of these have emerged as personal favorites as they have given me much more than instructions for how to make a cookie or prepare a roasted chicken.  The first, Southern Cooking by Mrs. S. R. Dull, was given to me as a wedding gift in 1973; the second, The Southern Heritage Cookie Jar Cookbook, a publication of Southern Living magazine, was originally a part of my mother-in-law’s massive collection which needed a home when she moved to a retirement village.

In his “Introduction” to his mother’s classic Southern cookbook, S. R. Dull, Jr. provides a brief biography quoting his mother saying that she was born “in the forks of Hunger and Hardship Creeks.”  Following her mother’s early death, Henrietta Dull became her father’s helper at home and at his job as the railway station master in Flowery Branch, Georgia.  After moving to Atlanta, she married and had six children before her husband’s health failed.  She turned to her cooking expertise in order to support her family and was soon well-known as a caterer who prepared such popular items as chicken salad, cheese straws, and beaten biscuits in her own home.

Mrs. S. R. (Henrietta) Dull

Mrs. S. R. (Henrietta) Dull

Mrs. Dull, as she preferred to be called, later became the food editor for The Atlanta Journal’s Sunday Magazine and first published Southern Cooking in 1928 as a collection of recipes readers had previously seen in the newspaper.  Next, she was hired by the Atlanta Gas Light Company in their Home Service Department, the first such entity in the country.  Her job involved visiting the homes of people who were transitioning from kitchens equipped with wood-burning stoves and needed to be taught to properly use gas stoves.  (I myself recall that in the homes of my grandmothers, the kitchens were long equipped with both types of stoves since they believed that certain foods were better when cooked the old-fashioned way.  The old wood stoves also created a warm, cozy room in houses without central heating.)  Mrs. Dull later taught housewives to use electric stoves and became well-known for her home economics lectures and cooking classes.  She once was invited to New York City by the state’s governor  to teach housewives to cook Georgia yams.  By the time she died at the age of 100, she had been chosen in a contest conducted by The Atlanta Constitution (the Journal’s rival daily paper) as one of “The South’s Ten Most Prominent Women.”

The first chapter of Southern Cooking is called “The Kitchen” and begins with the sentence “The woman is the heart of the home, and the kitchen is the heart of the house.”  Mrs. Dull gives specific details on how to create a kitchen that is “convenient, usable and cheery” and includes directions as to the ideal size of the room, the best location for the windows, the sink, and the placement and height of the table.  She flavors her description with personal comments such as “Nothing gets on a woman’s nerves quite so much as working in a dark, poorly ventilated kitchen.”  She explains how to choose and care for refrigerators and ranges and prepare a meal including specific amounts of time that should be allowed for various foods.

Illus. by Steve Dohanos

Illus. by Steve Dohanos,
CLICK to enlarge.

In succeeding chapters, the author explains what is meant by the various parts of a meal from cocktails and soups to desserts and includes recipes and serving suggestions in each of these categories.  She adds a chapter detailing menus for specific meals and concludes with a twenty-third chapter explaining how to set a table (with close attention to detail such as placing the water glass at the tip of the knife), place napkins (to the left of the fork and in such a way that the open corner is at the lower right hand corner), and serve food (all dishes being passed to the left).  This chapter continues with one of my favorite sections called “Good Kitchen Stunts” and makes it very clear how resourceful Mrs. Dull could be.  The reader is told, “A brush that is better than one you can buy is made of flannel, folded several times and fitted into a clothes pin” and “When there is no funnel to fill a bottle use half an egg shell with a hole in end; place on bottle and use as a funnel.”  In her final section titled “Household Hints,” the reader learns that mildew can be removed by soaking the item in sour buttermilk and spreading it in the sun.

Many parts of Mrs. Dull’s “cookbook” may be considered dated, but even those sections provide an entertaining and educational look at the history of cooking and the various aspects of feeding and caring for a family for which women have traditionally been responsible.  As many of us know, our party guests often end up in our kitchens, especially if we have followed Mrs. Dull’s advice and created a cheerful atmosphere.    One chapter actually seems au courant as she explains how to can vegetables and fruits and make pickles, “putting up” food now being quite a popular class taught at such establishments as The Cook’s Warehouse.    While I suspect most of us are happy that some of the formality has left the dinner table, I imagine many of us enjoy an occasional meal that is at least somewhat structured.  I have personally found Mrs. Dull to be an excellent resource on occasion—not only for her delicious recipe for caramel cake icing, but also as a reminder of which way to fold those danged napkins.

Part 2 of my post on cookbooks that are “more than just recipes” focuses on The Southern Heritage Cookie Jar Cookbook, a book that provides the interesting history of specific types of cookies and illustrates the cultural diversity that characterizes “Southern” cooking.

Do any of you have a favorite cookbook that has been passed down in your family or that you have found to be particularly enlightening in some way?


8 thoughts on “Classic Cookbooks—More Than Just Recipes (Part 1)

  1. Even though I’m not much of a cook, my favorite cookbook is one of family recipes that my mother, then in her 80s and with poor eyesight, typed up, decorated with cut-outs from magazines, printed, bound, and gave to family members. For the cover, Mama copied a landscape watercolor her mother had painted.

    The cookbook is almost more a history book. Recipes include Aunt Della’s Mush or Spoon Bread, Mother’s Blackberry Wine, Roast Squirrels, English Monkey (made with eggs, not monkeys), and Syllabub, with the notation “It will keep in the refrigerator for a week–provided the refrigerator is locked.”

    • I know those cookbooks are treasured by those who received them, Chris. I have several cookbooks prepared by the women of my family’s church. The names of the contributors are given along with the recipes and serve as fond reminders of church and community gatherings and the wonderful women who were such an important part of my young life.

  2. My mother kept a little wooden file box containing all her favorite recipes and written in her own hand. Although it isn’t a “book,” it is a source of family history and one of my inherited treasures. When my friend Bob Feezor decided to finish the cookbook his mother, Betty Feezor (a television personality in North Carolina) was compiling when she died, he included several of my mother’s recipes as well as a few of mine. My copy of “Feezor Family Favorites” is in ruins because I consult it so frequently. Whenever I want to make my “LSU Red Beans and Rice” I have to look there for my own recipe. Recipes not only nourish us, they connect us.

  3. Linda, I, too, have a fair number of my mother’s handwritten recipes. When I use them, I can’t help but think of particular times when I’d watch her making the cornbread dressing for Thanksgiving, the lemon icebox pie for Sunday dinner, and so on and on. Thank heavens she wrote some of them down. I’d love to take a look at your mother’s collection. Our grandmother produced some wonderful cooks, didn’t she?

  4. My grandmother had one of Mrs. Dull’s cookbooks, and even
    though she was a wonderful cook herself, she still referred to it on
    occasion and passed it along to my mother who used it for years.
    It now resides with my oldest nephew who is the family’s best cook
    and caterer, and I know the tradition will carry on. “Southern
    Cooking” was re-issued five or six years ago, so it is once again
    available to the public. Such a treasure.

  5. One of my favorites is my mother’s copy of “Taste of Georgia.” She made notations in a number of the recipes and I use it to prepare for family reunions. One of my nieces frequently asks, “Do you have Granny’s recipe for . . .?” If the answer is not in the file box, we can usually find it in the cookbook. It is such a sweet connection with both my mother and my niece.

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