Writers can find inspiration from just about anywhere. And if you are cookbook author Sheri Castle, and you happen to be asked by Southern Living to write about one of your favorite topics— community cookbooks —you know you’ve found gold.
Just about everyone has had (or at least seen) a community cookbook. These are the (usually) spiral-bound paperbacks filled with recipes from church groups, the Junior League and other organizations. The cookbooks are used as fundraisers and are famous for sometimes having two or three versions of the same-named recipe with just a few ingredients or measurements altered.
Castle has a collection of about 150 of these books. Some were inherited from her mother and grandmother; some she has found. “The quirkier the better,” she says.
Her collection, and Southern Living’s catalog of 45,000 published recipes, served as inspiration for Castle’s latest cookbook, “The Southern Living Community Cookbook: Celebrating Food & Fellowship in the American South.” I was able to talk to Castle about the book and what she learned while writing it. Castle will be in town tonight, teaching a cooking class at Charleston Cooks! at Cross Hill Market.
You read 45,000 recipes from Southern Living. What was your process for choosing just 200 recipes for print?
It took three months to read the recipes in order, from February 1966 to 2014. I tried to define what “community” would mean in this case. Readers’ recipes were the social media of the past. Shared recipes (in community cookbooks or in Southern Living) would have notes in the margins that would be passed along.
I eliminated recipes from Southern Living staff; recipes that could no longer be made because ingredients are extinct (an example: Dream Whip was a powdered whipped cream popular in the 1960s that is no longer on the market but was very popular in recipes from that time. Therefore recipes calling for Dream Whip did not make the cut); or recipes that were considered too gimmicky.
What I kept were recipes that have stood the test of time or were very community-specific (gumbo, for example) or showcased a particular cooking technique. Also, I kept the recipes that were the most popular or had the best story attached to them.
What was the most surprising thing that you found during your research?
Southerners are genius at using fresh produce. In a discussion of Southern food, it is all about the vegetables. Whether it is a condiment or side, vegetables define the South.
And... the word “fried” may mean to saute (in light oil or butter) or braise as well as to deep fry. The word itself becomes a vocabulary problem that is misunderstood by folks outside of the region and has contributed to the misconception that EVERYTHING in the South is fried.
I was also surprised by the Southern point of view. In the research, I found that there has always been ethnic food in Southern Living and diversity in the recipes. There is also an amalgamation of ethnicity in Southern cooking. For example, there’s a recipe in the book from a gentleman originally from India, now residing in Oxford, Miss. (Okra Fries with Yogurt Sauce). It uses fresh okra and tomatoes and roasted peanuts (ingredients popular in both cultures), but it’s his use of garam masala (an Indian spice mixture) that makes it special in the community.
My personal favorite is the Big Easy Barbecue Shrimp. It’s shrimp roasted in a seasoned butter sauce and served with bread to sop up the sauce.
That’s another word, “sop,” that non-Southerners may not comprehend, bless their hearts. They don’t know what they’re missing.
The overall favorite, most-requested recipe from Southern Living is Hummingbird Cake. It became popular in the 1970s and has yet to fall completely out of favor.
A couple of recipes that I included in the cookbook are ones that I found intriguing without being too weird: Milk Punch (think a lighter, make-ahead version of eggnog) and Governor’s Mansion Summer Peach Tea Punch (garden party perfection: sweet tea with mint, peach nectar and fresh peaches, lemonade and ginger ale and club soda for fizz).
Finally, in your Acknowledgments, you write that “A good cookbook is a found poem.” Could you elaborate on this?
No one submitting a recipe to Southern Living or to any of the many community cookbooks ever thought that they were writing folklore. They may have just been looking for their name in print. But reading through these recipes is really reading a cultural history, a family memoir. These books and recipes showed people’s priorities, how they celebrated and suffered. They are a complete collection of lives.
People may hold their breath when out in the world but no one ever is holding their breath when they are sharing recipes.
Makes 6 servings
2 large eggs
1 sleeve of saltine crumbs, finely crushed (about 1 1/2 cups)
1 quart fresh oysters, drained and rinsed
Whisk eggs until well-beaten in a shallow bowl. Pour cracker crumbs in a second shallow bowl.
Working with a few at a time, dip oysters in egg and dredge in cracker crumbs. Place on a pan in a single layer. Chill 2 hours.
Pour oil to a depth of 1 inch in a Dutch oven; heat to 350 degrees
Working in batches, fry oysters 3 to 4 minutes or until golden brown. Do not add more oysters at one time that can float freely in the oil. Drain on paper towels. Serve immediately.
Sauteed Greens and Winter Squash with Olive Oil-Fried Eggs
makes 2 servings
2 cups butternut squash cubes (1 small squash)
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
1 medium onion, halved and thinly sliced
10 ounces mixed baby greens (mix or use spinach, chard or baby kale)
1/4 cup hazelnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped
2 teaspoons dry sherry
2 to 4 large eggs
1/4 cup (1 ounce) crumbled goat cheese
To prepare salad, preheat oven to 450 degrees. Toss squash with 2 tablespoons olive oil; spread in a single layer on a baking sheet, and sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Bake 20 minutes or until squash is tender and golden brown, stirring occasionally.
Cook onion in remaining 2 tablespoons hot oil in a large skillet over medium heat 10 minutes or until onion is tender.
Add greens, hazelnuts, sherry and squash, tossing to coat. Sprinkle with remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring often, 2 minutes or just until greens begin to wilt. Divide between 2 serving plates. Cover to keep warm.
To prepare eggs: pour olive oil to a depth of 1/2 inch into a small nonstick skillet (about 1 cup of oil for a 6-inch skillet). Heat oil over medium-high just until it begins to smoke. Reduce heat to medium. Break 1 egg into a ramekin or small bowl. Holding ramekin as close to the surface as possible, carefully slip egg into oil. (Egg should sizzle, and oil might splatter.) Baste egg by rapidly spooning hot oil over it for about 30 seconds or until white is firm and crispy on edges. Remove egg from oil using a slotted spoon, carefully dabbing bottom of spoon with paper towels to absorb excess oil. Place egg atop cooked green mixture, and sprinkle with kosher salt to taste. Quickly cook the remaining eggs, one at a time.
Sprinkle goat cheese over greens mixture. Serve immediately.
Sweet Potato Curry with Shrimp
makes 14 cups
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 cups diced sweet onion
1 cup diced celery
1 cup diced carrots
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 tablespoon curry powder
1 pound Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and diced
1 pound sweet potatoes, peeled and diced
2 cups chicken broth
1 (13.5 ounce) can unsweetened coconut milk
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 cups fresh corn kernels (about 6 ears)
1 pound peeled, large raw shrimp
Toppings: toasted coconut, thinly sliced green onions, coarsely chopped roasted peanuts
Heat oil in Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add onion, celery and carrots; cook 8 minutes or until tender. Add garlic and curry powder, and cook, stirring, 1 minute.
Add potatoes, sweet potatoes, broth, coconut milk, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, stirring often. Reduce heat, and simmer, stirring occasionally, 20 to 25 minutes or until potatoes are tender.
Stir in corn and shrimp, cook 4 to 5 minutes or just until shrimp turn pink. Serve immediately with desired toppings.
Vegetarian version: substitute 2 cups shelled edamame (green soybeans), thawed, for the shrimp. Substitute vegetable broth for chicken broth.