Classic Cookbooks—More Than Just Recipes (Part 2)

Many of the cookbooks in my mother-in-law’s vast collection reflected the love of Southern cooking that she never left behind when she moved to Buffalo as a young mother.  One of my favorites is The Southern Heritage Cookie Jar Cookbook in which the diversity of cultures that make up the Southern U. S. is naturally reflected.  In fact, the Cookie Jar Cook book“Introduction” states that baked goods called “Southern cookies” refer to baked sweets of many origins, styles, and names.

The first chapter, “Colonial ‘Cakes,’” describes the cake-like recipes (now often grouped in the “cookie” category) of the European countries from which the early settlers immigrated.  Along with background stories are period illustrations of home and family as well as photographs of the baked goodies.  These early recipes sometimes reflect the “Americanization” of recipes to make use of available goods in the New World.  Included are numerous variations on macaroons made originally with almonds by the English that could now be made with ground-nuts (peanuts); ginger cakes earlier sweetened with treacle, sugar, or honey now prepared with molasses; shortbread from Scotland; and Naples biscuits or ladyfingers.

Juliet Gordon low and the Girl Scouts (girlscouts.org)

Juliet Gordon Low and the Girl Scouts (girlscouts.org)

Probably the easiest of all cookies to bake are those that are simply mixed up and dropped by the spoonful onto the baking sheet.  Chapter 2, called “Drop and Bake,” tells of the sesame cakes made with the African benne seed (reflecting the African slave heritage associated with many Southern recipes) and enjoyed by Thomas Jefferson.   Some of the cookies this President enjoyed were also flavored with vanilla, first imported by Jefferson from France.   Along with recipes with interesting names like Hermits, Rock Cookies, and Defense cookies, this chapter includes the recipe for Juliette Gordon Low Cookies and tells of the founding of the Girl Scouts.   Low, who was incurably deaf and childless, had moved back to Savannah from England in 1860 after her husband died.   Illustrations include a picture of an exquisite portrait of Low in evening attire, a picture of cookies carried in baskets as they were delivered prior to 1934, and a photograph of Low as a mature Scout leader with some of her girls, a staid-looking group compared to the modern Girl Scouts and their leaders who are unavoidable annual signs of early spring at local intersections and shopping centers throughout the United States.

The Conner Toll House (ultimatelandsale.com)

The Conner Toll House
(ultimatelandsale.com)

When the cook is willing to exert a little more effort, he or she might want to consult Chapter 3, “Roll To Cut, Chill To Set.”   Readers who have visited Mount Vernon may have heard stories of how our first President enjoyed the pleasant domesticity his wife Martha provided him in his “retirement.”  This care included, we’re told, serving the sugar cakes that were “rolled thin and ‘cut rather large.’”  In 1929 the Frigidaire Corporation provided refrigerator owners with the first published recipe for ‘chill-slice-and-bake’ cookies.    This chapter once again entertains with an anecdotal story behind Walden’s Ridge Toll House Sugar Cookies.   The toll road that was used to cross Walden’s Ridge in the Chattanooga area of Tennessee was built in 1852 by Josiah N. Anderson.  Later, James C. Conner moved to the ridge and built a log cabin that offered travelers a place to spend the night and enjoy some cookies and buttermilk before crossing the mountain.  Until 1974, Conner descendants occupied the Toll House, which has now been restored as a repository for artifacts associated with Cumberland Mountain culture.  An added treat is an illustration of a Gordon Wetmore watercolor of Walden’s Ridge Toll House.

George Washington Carver (nps.gov)

George Washington Carver (nps.gov)

For those who really want to work hard, Chapter 4, “Shaped and Pressed,” explains how some cookies have been created by the use of wafer irons, pipes, and rosette irons.  The recipe for Peanut Blossoms is one of the simpler cookies and includes a brief history of the peanut in America.  First brought to America from Peru, it had become a staple of the Cherokees’ diet, but was completely new to the European immigrants. The peanut was called variously “goober,” “ground-nut,” “earth-nut,” “ground-pea,” or “pindar.”  After the cotton economy of the South was decimated by the boll weevil, it was George Washington Carver, who experimented with the peanut and is credited with many of the uses we have today for the peanut and products made from it.  (Though not mentioned in this cookbook, the campus of Tuskegee University located in Tuskegee, Ala. boasts a fascinating museum dedicated to Carver and his ingenuity.)

The fifth chapter, “Of Bars and Squares,” may be preferred by those who are of the drop and bake sort and explains that ”rolling out and cutting” can easily be revised to say “press into a pan.”   Perhaps the most popular bar “cookie” is the brownie, the recipe for which first appeared in print in the 1897 Sears, Roebuck & Company catalog.  The reader is treated to an amazing number of brownie-like recipes (including blondies when chocolate is not the defining ingredient).  Traditional, chocolate-based brownies can be flavored with chocolate in assorted forms (cocoa, unsweetened chocolate such as that required for Lady Bird’s Texas Brownies, chocolate syrup or chips, and German chocolate) and may be chewy, cake-like, or crisp.  Non-brownie bars, of course, include what seem like an infinite variety of fruits, nuts, spices, rum (an item quickly made available by the New England settlers), and assorted other local ingredients.

The final chapter, “Bake and Celebrate,” details the background of cookies associated with cultural celebrations that give the Southern cuisine some of its many flavors.  They include the lebkuchen of the Germans who settled in Texas in the 1800s, the krumcakes of the Norwegians who settled in that state in the later 1800s, the Symbol cookies of the Jewish Chanukah celebration, the Dutch speculaas eaten in celebration of St. Nicholas Day, and the Minorcans’ St. Augustine Fiesta Butter Cookies.

Southern Cooking and The Southern Heritage Cookie Jar Cook book are just two of the cookbooks that I occasionally enjoy perusing for both recipes and a little history.  Does anyone else have a recipe that’s fun to make partly because of the history associated with it? 

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