At my house, a home-cooked meal usually involves ingredients that someone else cooked first. A classic chicken dinner starts with a rotisserie-cooked bird from the grocery store-I'll handle the rice, the lima beans, and the iced tea, thank you. Spaghetti supper? Nothing beats a jar of Paul Newman sauce doctored with sautéed onions, tomatoes, chopped garlic cloves, red peppers, and mushrooms.
Small wonder that, of the thousand-plus books in my home, the cookbooks are among the least-used volumes-second only to the gardening books.
Now comes Julie & Julia, the blog-turned-book-turned-film about Julie Phillips, a New York City secretary who, in one year, cooked her way through Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Despite not having seen the movie yet, the Julie/Julia presence is everywhere. Mom loved the film. My neighbor just bought the paperback. A friend in Athens went to an "...Art of French Cooking" brunch, where each guest brought a dish prepared from the cookbook, now number one on the New York Times "Hardcover Advice" bestseller list.
All of which propelled me to give my cookbook shelf another look, where I found a story I'd overlooked-a culinary journey through Savannah's history, unfolding in recipe collections that read like memoirs, revealing the many communities that make our city so interesting, so maddening, and so fattening.
Savannah Style, by the Junior League of Savannah, is the first cookbook I owned, a 1983 birthday gift from my mother. The first chapter, "Spirits" affirms our reputation as a history-rich city with a celebratory bent, giving a nod to the Chatham Artillery before confessing that its namesake punch, of brandy, whiskey, rum and champagne "conquers like a cyclone." In making and remaking the Savannah Red Rice on page 115, somehow I missed the essay "Culinary Delights" describing typical 19th century Savannah fare of okra soup, shrimp and prawn pie, and terrapin soup.
What you won't find in Savannah Style are many details on the lives of African Americans or working class whites. On my cookbook shelf, the closest I came was Sallie Ann Robinson's Gullah Home Cooking, The Daufuskie Way. Now living in Savannah, Robinson grew up on Daufuskie Island. She shares her family's Gullah recollections, and the recipes-‘Fuskie Crab Patties, Conch Soup with Smoked Neck Bone, Smuttered Rabbit-that she learned from her mother, prepared on a wood burning stove using water pumped from an outside well, about the same time that I learned to heat Chef Boyardee's Ravioli on the stove by myself.
The Scott Kids' Cookbook II offers another history lesson, vintage 1991. That year, Harriet Meyerhoff's sixth grade class at Scott Middle School wrote to celebrities, national and local, requesting their favorite recipes. The 50-page photocopied and comb-bound collection includes then-Governor Zell Miller's Banana Pudding recipe (yes, he uses Nilla Wafers), Fried Artichokes from School Superintendent Patrick Russo, Brenda (Mrs. Norman) Schwarzkopf's Sour Cream Peach Pie, WTOC news anchor Doug Weathers' Chili, and a Red Velvet Cake recipe from Leola Williams, the mother of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Her son was sworn in just a month before Williams sent in her contribution.
For those seeking comic relief along with great recipes, The Pirates' House Cook Book is the Dave Barry of Savannah recipe collections. Although written by Sarah Gaede, the book oozes the sweet goofy charm of the late Herb Traub, who made The Pirates' House Restaurant of the 1960's and 1970's a legend for its kitschy pirate theme and generous hearted atmosphere as well as its food.
In addition to using restaurant menu classics, Gaede and Traub solicited many recipes from friends and employees, and gave their book a liberal sprinkling of helpful notes. For Lillian Marshall's Baked Country Ham, it's evident that keeping the oven door closed is vital to the recipe's success. "DO NOT OPEN OVEN," it states in large caps, then adds three lines later "WITHOUT OPENING OVEN DOOR." It finishes with this note: "It's a good idea to tape the oven door closed so you won't forget and open it."
The Parties section outlines how to set up "A Bar for 50" in Savannah style. "If you are entertaining a lot of Yankees, you might want to add a bottle of rye" to the local staples of vodka, Scotch, gin and bourbon. "How to Give an Oyster Roast" has a streamlined ingredients list-1 bushel of oysters for every 10 - 15 people, cocktail sauce, and beer. In the oyster roast"recipe" they add, "Hard as it may be to believe, some people do not like oysters. Toss some hot dogs on the edge of the boiler plate for them, or send out for fried chicken."
If I ever take on a Julie and Julia style cooking project, The Pirates' House Cook Book is where I'll start, beginning with the recipe on page 177, contributed by former waiter Brian Storz, now a lawyer in Oklahoma. Ingredients? Two pieces of bread, butter, and jam or jelly. The dish? Buttered toast. And the helpful note: "For more toast, use more bread."
I can almost hear the Hollywood movie offers pouring in.