My original copy of Charleston Receipts from my grandmother. It was a wedding gift dating back to 1952.

Humble and Historic: Community Cookbooks and Their Ability to Preserve a People and Place in Time

Erica Lovelace Cooks


Christmas, 2016. I opened an unassuming package with a handmade tag from my grandmother. Inside was a slightly worse for wear, wire bound cookbook titled, Charleston Receipts. Amongst the chaos of other family members ravaging through their gifts, she said, “that cookbook was a wedding gift from my mother-in-law.” This being the wedding to her first husband, my dad’s dad, in December 1952.

Charleston Receipts by the Junior League of Charleston, South Carolina was a popular gift to new Southern brides. The book insists on using the word “receipts” as that language was appropriate to the times in which the recipes originated. It contains 750 recipes that were popular in the Low Country and continue to be so — Deviled Crabs (three ways), She Crab Soup, Hush Puppies and Coconut Cake. It remains the nation’s oldest Junior League cookbook in continuous print.

The Gullah Geeche people: those descendants of the formerly enslaved residing off the Carolina and Georgia coasts. Source: Gullah Geechee Corridor.

Uniquely, the book features poems and verses in the local Gullah dialect. The Gullah people are descendants of Africans who were enslaved on the rice, indigo, and cotton plantations of the Low Country. Think of the Gullah language as a mixture of many languages. Readers are encouraged to pronounce the passages vocally. Many recipes in the Gullah food culture were passed down from generation to generation through the spoken word exclusively. Their recipes feature ingredients from the African Diaspora, like peanuts, okra, rice, yams, peas, hot peppers, sesame seeds, sorghum, and watermelon.

Charleston Receipts also reveals a turning point in history. America’s economy was booming after a hasty exit from World War II. It was heavily dependent upon the industrialized war machine. No where was this sea change more evident than in our food system. What was once a food culture based in using fresh, local ingredients grew into one that fetishized pre-packaged, pre-cooked, canned and processed for your convenience. Home-grown and home-cooked meals were becoming a thing of the past but not for the ladies of the Charleston Junior League. They were determined to keep their food traditions alive.

“People have been more than kind, In writing us on what they dine, And just how you should cook it.”

These community cookbooks are worth collecting because they preserve the values, recipes and food traditions of a people and place in time. As with Charleston Receipts, recipes from the Low Country were in danger of being lost in the flow of popular culture or made obsolete by convenience. Documenting these food traditions should be considered an act of heroism.

In addition to preservation, community cookbooks were a way for women to fundraise money for essential causes. This included everything from women’s suffrage campaigns; to clean hospitals for Civil War soldiers; to community gardens. In its original 1950 debut, Charleston Receipts sold all 2,000 copies in four days, at $2.50 per copy. Proceeds from the sales were donated to the Charleston Speech and Hearing Center.

More still, community cookbooks remind us to eat simply, seasonally, locally and without pretension. Sometimes, they highlight ingredients that are no longer found in our modern pantries and kitchens. Yes, the Bluff Plantation Cooter Pie can be considered simple, local eating — cooter being the local freshwater turtle species. Some other interesting and uniquely Low Country recipes from Charleston Receipts include:

Palmetto (Heart of Palm) Pickle: a canning recipe that involves using the hearts of the low hanging Sabal palm. Photo courtesy of Modern Farmer.
Scripture Cake: a recipe using literal Bible verses to delineate the ingredients and instructions of baking the cake. Photo courtesy of Southern Living.
Hopping John: a traditional dish found in loads of Low Country homes containing field peas and rice. It’s said to bring you good luck if eaten on New Year’s Day. Photo courtesy of Laura’s Lean Beef.

What I love most about community cookbooks is that they exist as a blantant protest against the trendy or what publishing companies deem to be in fashion:

“They diverge from the flawlessly styled photographs and aspirational tone of the contemporary cookbook — instead, taking a practical and personal approach, and documenting life not as it could be, but as it is,” says Priya Krishna in her aptly titled article, The Community Cookbook Is Reborn for a Time of Scarcity and Sharing.

Here are other community cookbooks and their historical significance to the American South:

1) Georgia Cooking with Sweet Vidalia Onions by Evelyn Carollo-McLemore Rogers (1982). This book features recipes using the elusive, sweet and native-to-Georgia, Vidalia onions. The book was published by the owners of a cafe in Vidalia, Georgia that cooked recipes using the sweet allium namesake. Speciality ingredient books like these also served as forms for people to pre-order bushel-size quantities of crops for the upcoming season.

2) The Art of Saltville Centennial: A Century of Good Cooking (1896–1996) reprinted by the Friends of the Museum of the Middle Appalachians, Saltville, VA. Proceeds from the cookbook helped fund the museum built near the operational salt mine. The mine provisioned Civil War troops and has been an employer in the area since 1780. The museum houses both modern and pre-historic artifacts from Saltville. It’s a fascinating collection of recipes that highlights both the town’s reliance on salt production but its unique blend of Eastern European influences.

3) The African-American Heritage Cookbook: Traditional Recipes & Fond Remembrances From Alabama’s Renowned Tuskegee Institute by Carolyn Quick Tillery (2005). This book is both a cookbook and historical account of the famous school founded by former slave Booker T. Washington. It contains over 200 recipes from many Tuskegee graduates including Crab Bisque, Peach Pandowdy, and Dr. Carver’s Peanut Cake with Molasses.

So the next time you’re at a yard or antique store, be sure to browse the unassuming, spiral-bound cookbooks splattered with the delicious histories of other people’s kitchens.



Erica Lovelace Cooks

Hapa Southerner living in San Francisco | North Beach. Documenting recipes, collecting cookbooks, and writing. Marketing by day.