Cookbooks: More than recipes _ clues to Mississippi history
HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) — Recently, four women visited the McCain Library and Archives at the University of Southern Mississippi. They weren’t doing research on some arcane subject or looking for data on some aspect of Southern living. No. They were on the hunt for recipes.
The archives is home to thousands of cookbooks from around Mississippi and the nation. The ladies certainly found their recipes, but what they may not have known is that cookbooks can offer a lot more information than how to bake a cake or cook a roast. They can tell us about our history.
“What we’ve discovered is that every single one of these cookbooks — given some time, has a story to tell,” said Andrew Haley, associate professor of history at Southern Miss.
Haley works with Jennifer Brannock, University Libraries’ Curator of Rare Books and Mississippiana, on the cookbook compilation.
“This is a collection that about five or six years ago consisted of 15 or 16 cookbooks,” Haley said. “Now we have 6,000 to 7,000.”
Haley and Brannock took it upon themselves to supplement the archives’ assemblage of cookbooks. They went to estate sales and put out a call for donations. They got 2,500 cookbooks in one fell swoop from a Corinth resident.
“Food is a part of this state,” Brannock said. “Cookbooks were sources that were being tossed, ignored.
“We have the largest collection of Mississippi cookbooks in the country. These resources that no one wants have value to researchers.”
The oldest book in the collection is “The Tried and True Cookbook: Ladies and Society of the Presbyterian Church” — out of Laurel in 1906. There are other locally authored Pine Belt and Mississippi cookbooks along with professionally authored books from Fannie Farmer to Julia Child.
But it’s the community cookbooks that give Haley and Brannock a peek into local history.
“I was shocked at the stories that jumped off the page,” Haley said. “These are the kinds of historical documents that don’t always make it into the archives.
“They get thrown into the bin.”
Haley said he can discern the female influence in the blossoming Pine Belt towns by examining their cookbooks.
“Looking at the individual books — (from the) PTA, alumnae of Southern Miss, Junior Auxiliary, Girl Scouts — these are the women of Hattiesburg,” he said. “All of these cookbooks are the work of women to turn a town into a community.
“These women’s stories are rarely told.”
Haley points to a cookbook published by Laurel’s reigning queen of the social calendar — Catherine Gardiner. It includes exotic recipes like Egg and Cream Soup, mysteriously titled “Egyptian Soup,” along with dishes with ingredients for poorer, rural county inhabitants like scrapple, and three recipes for gumbo.
“You get different social classes represented and Northerners and Southerners bridged,” Haley said. “It creates a virtual communal table where everyone can eat.
“You get a story of a town built by these individual groups.”
Ruth Crossgrove was a prolific contributor to the Gardiner cookbook. Her husband, Charles, probably worked for one of the Gardiner’s concerns. Her recipes provided stark contrast to some of the costlier offerings.
“Crossgroves’ Julienne Soup combined carrots, turnips, celery and stock, (compared to) the elaborate Cream of Vegetable Soup featuring ‘as many kinds (of vegetables) as possible provided they do not strain,’” Haley said.
Crossgroves’ simple soup was served with “snippets of toast,” while Gardiner’s multi-ingredient offering was served with carefully buttered and toasted croutons.
Haley said the evolution of a town can be seen in the Calhoun City High School cookbook, published in the 1960s. The Depression wiped out the lumber industry in Calhoun City, but the economy was brought back to life with a garment factory where many women worked.
“You look at this cookbook and you see the emphasis on food that’s convenient — casseroles,” Haley said. “Women were working.
“The cookbook can clue us into changes in the city. It wasn’t something the newspapers reported, but it’s reflected in the cookbooks.”
Haley said he can also see that Mississippi was made up of many different ethnic groups by looking at the cookbooks.
“We think of Mississippi as having a particular type of cooking — Southern cooking,” he said. “But the cookbooks suggest a multitude of cultures.
“You get these Southern dishes combined with an eclectic mix of international dishes. You have the sense of Mississippi as an isolated backwater, but that’s not what the cookbooks suggest.”
Haley said cookbooks are a personal thing to many people, but the breadth of information they contain can reach the state.
“Cookbooks are this window on how everyday people lived their lives,” Haley said. “We are learning the traditional things historians want to know.”
Information from: The Hattiesburg American, http://www.hattiesburgamerican.com