Top 10: Sean Brock Shares The Greatest Southern Cookbooks You’ve Never Read

August 16, 2012 | By | Comments (28)
Chef Sean Brock

Photo Courtesy of the Neighborhood Dining Group

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?  

Related Links:
Southern Living: The Perfect Eating Day in Charleston, South Carolina 


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  8. Jane

    So glad to see someone else include Helen Corbitt! It’s always been my favorite.

    August 29, 2012 at 4:31 pm
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  10. Rory

    The Southern Cook Book by Marion brown. I have editions ranging from 1955 to the 1960s. Ultimately I will find the original edition but I have made many of her recipes!

    August 23, 2012 at 11:17 pm
  11. Sara

    Y’all have to include Gourmet of the Delta when naming classic cookbooks of the South. The recipes and menus transform everyday staples into culinary delights. And every southern gal should know how to make Oysters Johnny Reb. Seriously.

    August 23, 2012 at 2:57 pm
  12. Katherine

    The Pillsbury Famiy Cookbook; The Complete Cook Book For The Modern American Famiy, The Pillsbury Company, 1963
    My sisters and I learned to cook from this book. It’s made in a three ring binder, which was very different for it’s time and even had a built in book stand. So many pages have been worked hard over the years, there are many very living repairs. I was able to talk my mother into giving up our family copy. So my goal is to copy the recipes we used the most while growing up and make a scrapbookstyle family cookbook for my sisters and their children as well as my own daughter.
    Food is such a great part of a family’s legacy, and it’s so important to pass it down.

    August 22, 2012 at 11:02 am
  13. Sandy

    I have worn out my River Road books. Helen Corbitt’s Cook Book is also great. (She was the Nieman Marcus cook.)

    August 21, 2012 at 3:47 pm
  14. JoAnn Kebodeaux

    The Talk about Good series published by the Junior League of Lafayette Louisiana, is one of the best series for young cooks to learn the basics…I have collected them all and use them regularly…

    August 21, 2012 at 12:47 pm
  15. Karen

    River Road Recipes… There are two books and I have just about worn them out.

    August 21, 2012 at 10:50 am
  16. chefdebbicovington

    Celebrate Everything! by Debbi Covington of Beaufort, SC is a brand NEW must-have southern cookbook!

    August 20, 2012 at 9:51 am
  17. PickleJuice Productions LLC

    Reblogged this on PickleJuice Productions.

    August 20, 2012 at 6:46 am
  18. PickleJuice Productions

    Celebrate Everything! by Debbi Covington in Beaufort, South Carolina has endless delicious recipes!

    August 20, 2012 at 6:45 am
  19. Goa Flowers

    The limited-edition, letterpress-printed, crumbling tomes have been used by generations of Southerners but remain largely forgotten — except by culinary bibliophiles like Sean.

    August 20, 2012 at 5:52 am
  20. Scott

    I think Woman’s Home Companion Cookbook from 1946 should be in every southern cooks home.

    August 17, 2012 at 5:43 pm
  21. Pam Combs

    I like looking for those little recipe boxes and old cookbooks at yard sales . I have found some very good recipes in these little finds . I also have seen the collections of cookbooks of Sean Brock and they are fabulous !

    August 16, 2012 at 10:52 pm
  22. Erin Shaw Street

    Thanks for sharing your favorite cookbooks. Jim, what a treasure to have your mom’s recipe box. And Karen, we love hearing that you still make good use of our 1989 book. No matter what food you serve, it’s all about creating memories.

    August 16, 2012 at 10:00 pm
  23. Kelly

    The Last Course, Claudia Fleming

    August 16, 2012 at 7:10 pm
  24. Karen Vittorio

    Honestly, (and I’m not saying this to kiss up) my most treasured cookbook is The Ultimate Southern Living Cookbook, 1989. My mother gave it to me not long after I married in 1989 and I’ve used it more than any of my other 11 cookbooks. I still remember the very first meal I made for my husband – Beef Bourguignon – ambitious for me at the time, considering my kitchen skills, but a huge success nonetheless. Sadly, both my marriage and my mother are gone, but my Southern Living cookbook and I will never part. :~)

    August 16, 2012 at 2:20 pm
  25. Jim

    I love my mothers little recipe box. It has recipes from my grandmas and aunts in it. I’m biased though.

    August 16, 2012 at 1:53 pm
  26. Linda Woodworth

    I love my passed-down copy of Mrs. Dull! Also like Four Great Southern Cooks 1980

    August 16, 2012 at 12:51 pm
  27. Shannon

    Mountain Measures and River Road

    August 16, 2012 at 12:30 pm
  28. Kullervo

    The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook: Stories and Recipes for Southerners and Would-be Southerners

    August 16, 2012 at 12:07 pm

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