Southern Food Historian Rebecca Sharpless discusses a new edition of Two Hundred Years of Charleston Cooking released in 2021 by University of South Carolina Press. Sharpless added a new critical introduction to the historic cookbook, first published in 1930 from a New York press as a collaboration between Blanche Rhett, Helen Woodward, and Lettie Gay. Woodward had married into a family with South Carolina ties and for a time rented a home that shared a courtyard with Rhett. As Woodward tells the story, she wanted to send some recipes back to her Northern connections, and Rhett suggested she write a book of recipes instead. Gay tested the recipes in a New York kitchen, standardizing measurements and translating them to a wider audience.
Sharpless immediately foregrounds the Northern sensibility that informs the rhetorical situation of the book. Published just a few years before Gone With the Wind, the cookbook represented a version of Charleston’s sumptuous antebellum past to an audience with an appetite for consuming moonlight and magnolias.
Sharpless’s 2021 introduction asks the question, “What do readers today need to know to put the book in context?” Sharpless uses most of the limited space of the foreword acknowledging the uncredited contributors to the cookbook and offering more information about those named in the book. Sharpless is especially – and rightly – critical of the ways that Two Hundred Years
erases the contributions of enslaved people, and when it does offer credit, it is usually demeaning and patronizing in its depictions of African American domestic cooks as “magical” and unscientific. Sharpless reminds today’s readers that “It is a book of white nostalgia, not black.” And the final words of the foreword could not be any clearer: “Two Hundred Years of Charleston Cooking
stands as a double monument: to the rich foodways of the Lowcountry and the efforts of White Charlestonians to put a pretty face on White Supremacy.” With this caveat, Sharpless does acknowledge some extraordinary women from Charleston’s elite classes who make significant contributions to the book and have remarkable stories of their own, still waiting to be told.
Sharpless encourages 21st century readers to use the cookbook in their own kitchens; the instructions and ingredients are as accessible today as they would have been in 1930. However, she cautions readers to read the nostalgic textual interludes between recipes with skepticism, and to maintain an attitude of respect for the enslaved and anonymous contributors who made Low Country cuisine into the hot cultural commodity it is today.
Rebecca Sharpless is professor of history at Texas Christian University. She is author of Fertile Ground, Narrow Choices: Women on Texas Cotton Farms and Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865-1960. Her newest book, Grain and Fire: A History of Baking in the American South, is forthcoming from University of North Carolina Press in Spring 2022.
Carrie Helms Tippen is Assistant Professor of English at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, PA, where she teaches courses in American Literature. Her 2018 book, Inventing Authenticity: How Cookbook Writers Redefine Southern Identity (University of Arkansas Press), examines the rhetorical strategies that writers use to prove the authenticity of their recipes in the narrative headnotes of contemporary cookbooks. Her academic work has been published in Gastronomica, Food and Foodways, American Studies, Southern Quarterly, and Food, Culture, and Society.
Carrie Helms Tippen is Assistant Professor of English at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, PA, where she teaches courses in American Literature.