What’s the future of Southern cooking? For Sean Brock, it’s already written, published in books that are more than a century old (and in some cases, two).
The James-Beard Award winning Chef at Charleston’s Husk and McCrady’s, lauded for his preservation and reinvention of Southern foods, says he is “obsessed” with vintage cookbooks. The limited-edition, letterpress-printed, crumbling tomes have been used by generations of Southerners but remain largely forgotten — except by culinary bibliophiles like Sean.
He consults them every day. And he thinks any serious fan of Southern cooking should take a look too.
These books, some of the earliest records of Southern culture, line the shelves of Sean’s Charleston home. An avid collector, he talks about the books like a kid at Christmas. “When you hold a vintage cookbook in your hands, you are holding people’s history,” he says. He searches around the country for rare cookbooks (with an emphasis on late nineteenth and early twentieth-century), scouring for ideas to use at his restaurants — like the perfect rice waffle or Brunswick Stew. “Most of the dishes at Husk come from my favorite vintage cookbooks. I use them every day.”
Some nights, when the restaurants close, he invites his cooks to come over, and they pore over piles of the antiquarian treasures. “It’s exciting to see young cooks poring over this knowledge. Plus we have fun going through the newspaper clippings and poems that fall out. These books are alive.”
Although most of these originals are hard to find (and very expensive), many are available in reprints (noted in links).
1. “The Unrivaled Cookbook and Housekeeper’s Guide” by Mrs. Washington 1885
Sean calls it the definitive text of Southern cooking, the go-to for many of the dishes he serves. (He loves its recipe for boiled peanuts and the Deer’s Head Soup a la Malmesburry, flavored with marigold and laurel.)
The book means so much to Sean, he launched a nationwide major search to find a rare original copy, which he gifted to Dr. David Shields, a University of South Carolina professor whose work focuses on preservation of heirloom vegetables and Carolina Gold Rice. “He taught me that you must understand the history of Southern food to understand it’s future.”
2. “What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking” by Mrs. Abby Fisher (1881)
“This one is important for many reasons, including that it’s one of the first cookbooks to be published by an African-American,” Sean says. Fisher, born a slave in Mobile, AL, moved to San Francisco after the Civil war and became a successful caterer, known for her recipes like oyster pie and pepper mangoes.
3. “The Carolina Rice Cookbook” by Mrs. Samuel Stony (1901).
Mrs. Stoney compiled 237 traditional rice dishes in this text, a staple in Brock’s kitchens. “I’m obsessed with rice,” Sean says. “The rice cakes that I serve with pimento cheese are a derivation of this period, when everyone ate rice three times a day.”
4. “Southern Cooking by Mrs. S.R. Dull” (1928)
“What’s fascinating is that this book has completely different way of cooking from the ‘Unrivaled Cookbook’ because it represents a different era of cooking,” Sean says. “It was more convenient to cook in 1928 — you can see that in the way the recipes were written.” Penned by a popular columnist for the Atlanta Journal, i’ts filled with not just individual recipes but menus for special occassions, along with 30 pickle recipes. “Whoa, a clipping of a recipe for cucumber ketchup just fell out of the book,” he says, flipping through the pages. “That one is going on the menu at Husk.”
5. “The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery” (1984) Edited by Linda Garland Page and Eliot Wiggington
Although it’s the most modern book on the list, it contains more than 500 traditional recipes from Appalachia. “It’s one of the few books that really documents my heritage, so I really feel connected to it.” In addition to recipes like fried quail, seven-day cole slaw and sassafras tea, it also details methods of preparing and preserving foods like curing pork and preparing wild game.
6 & 7. The Virginia Housewife by Mary Randolph (1825), “The Carolina Housewife” by Sarah Rutledge (1847), and The Kentucky Housewife by Mrs. Lettice Bryan (1839)
“The Housewife Books are all classic because they have recipes for everything,” Sean says. (Think: “How to Ragout Breast of Veal” to how to make arrow root pudding.) “I love all the stuff in the Kentucky Housewife with cow’s heads. When was the last time you walked into a restaurant and saw cow heads? But that used to be the norm.” One of his favorites from “The Kentucky Recipe” contains instructions on how to boil turkey with oysters.
8. Mrs. Hills Southern Practical Cookery and Receipt Book (1872)
“I love the way this is organized. There’s a section on vinegar, a section on vegetable, a section on sauces,” he says. He’s particularly interested in preparation methods for vegetables that once fell out of favor, like salsify, a root vegetable now experiencing a resurgence.
9. A Colonial Planation Cookbook by Harriet Pinkney (1770)
“This one shows how important the French influence was to Southern cooking during this era,” he says. “But it also teaches you how to wash carpet and make paint. Pretty handy.”
10. The Southern Gardener and Receipt Book by P. Thornton (1845)
“When it comes to saving seeds, I look to this book,” he says. “And it also has directions on how to hunt bees. Bee hunting is trendy now, but our ancestors did it back then all the time. This book shows you how.”
We want to know: What’s your favorite cookbook?