This blog is a story in progress. It started just a couple days ago; how long it will last, who knows? It began with the discovery – or if you will, rediscovery – of a treasure.
We just moved into a new home, and we are in the process of unpacking everything. For us, a great deal of the unpacking consists of books. We have books of all kinds, from my son’s Boynton books he’s had since he was tiny to my medical library to books that my husband and I inherited from his maternal grandmother and mostly have not read. Those books were unpacked seven years ago when we made the move to our previous residence, which was a small apartment that looked like a library exploded in it and in which we had trouble keeping track of our books, and many of them were repacked for this move with scarcely a glance at their covers. The treasure that I found in the unpacking this time is just such a book.
This book is a cookbook. One that came to us through his grandmother, but it wasn’t hers first. We have her cookbook as well, which is from the Great Depression, and is useful in many ways, but this book would have been her grandmother’s. It dates from 1867, just after the American Civil War, and was written by Mrs A. P. Hill (widow of the Hon. Edward Y. Hill of Georgia). It was written by a Southern woman to Southern women facing an extraordinary set of circumstances and quite difficult times. Just reading through the introduction to the book gave me a glimpse into their lives that no history book has ever portrayed.
We are not just now in a condition to sacrifice much to fancy or ornament; we must address ourselves to the useful and substantial. Every mother, wife, and daughter must now become a practical operator in the domestic circle. Each should be emulous to excel in neatness, industry, usefulness, and economy. The days for romance have passed, if ever they existed; the night for the dreamy visions of elegance and luxury in connection with a life of indolence has suddenly given place to the day of enterprise and industry. A crisis is upon us which demands the development of the will and energy of Southern character. Its prestige in the past gives earnest of a successful future. … The race of good cooks among us is almost extinct. What shall be done to bring back the good old times, when a knowledge of good housewifery demanded for the health and comfort of every family was not considered too low for the attentions of any lady? – from Mrs Hill’s New Cookbook, introduction by E.W. Warren of Macon, Georgia.
In the fragile pages of this book, I have found wry humor mixed with very practical advice. I haven’t read all the way through yet. I skimmed it here and there, curious about its contents, and that curiosity has me hooked. Mrs A.P. Hill has become a new-found friend. Her recipes are imprecise compared with the careful measurements of other such tomes that I own by modern chefs, but her imprecise cookery is its own charm. She gives proportions and tells you how to use eyes, nose, and ears as well as tongue and mouth to judge what is going on during the cooking process. There are no digital thermometers in her world, no electronic timers, no ovens with precise heat controls. It’s all done with the senses and some good horse sense.
I have decided to cook using her recipes and methods in my modern times. I am not giving up my stove to chop wood or my indoor plumbing, but I am going to use my senses, and her ingredients (when I can get them) and bring back a bit more of the art of cooking in my life. This journal will document how I do. Like Bilbo Baggins, I will mark down my journey – both good and ill – so that like Gandalf, you the reader may see my successes and my missteps.