Cookbooks function as histories, ethnographies, memoirs, journals, scrapbooks, and celebrations of a community or self. No cookbook is merely a utilitarian compilation of recipes, a set of directions simply guiding readers on how to cook. The diversity of the Southern table has been chronicled, celebrated, and complicated for two centuries in print.
Mary Randolph’s The Virginia House-Wife (1824) showcases the influence of Indigenous American and African culinary contributions. What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking (1881), written by a South Carolina freedwoman named Abby Fisher, traces the links between Africa and African American techniques and recipes. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ Cross Creek Cookery (1942) fuses the short story form with an ethnographic study of the rural north central Florida hamlet the Pulitzer Prize-winning author called home. Community cookbooks including Charleston Receipts (1950) and Baton Rouge’s River Road Recipes (1959) are sometimes our best glimpses into how people eat across the South.
More recently, cookbook writers have built sustainable careers and produced bodies of work that show creativity, craftsmanship, scholarship, and literary merit. “A cookbook author lures the reader into the kitchen through all sorts of tools,” Toni Tipton-Martin writes in The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks, including “portraits, poetry, culinary authority, and the promise of delicious food.”
Cookbooks like Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor’s Vibration Cooking; or The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl (1970), Edna Lewis’s The Taste of Country Cooking (1976), Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen (1984), and Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking (1985) now rank as countertop classics and masterpieces of culinary literature.
This project explores the careers of Jessica B. Harris, Lisa Fain, Martha Foose, Nancie McDermott, Nathalie Dupree, Nicole A. Taylor, Poppy Tooker, Ronni Lundy, Sandra Gutierrez, Sheri Castle, and Virginia Willis.
Through recipes and words, the women featured in this oral history project fed countless eaters and readers worldwide. They pay homage to traditional Southern fare and they innovate new dishes. Their work enriches our understanding of the region.