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I had the occasion last week to cook some Southern food for friends. My book club read Eudora Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter and I thought it would be fun to make it a Southern afternoon. I’d been a little sick so I decided to keep it simple. I whipped up some pimento cheese and served it with celery sticks a la Watershed. Then I made a caramel cake. I’ve only ever had this cake at funerals or pot luck suppers on the South. John Edgerton in Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, in History calls it “another of the South’s old favorites.” Basically, it is white cake with caramel icing. There are plenty of shortcuts for making a “quick and easy” version, but I wanted to do it the old fashioned way. That is, by caramelizing sugar in a cast iron skillet.

I decided to turn to my “community cookbooks.” Everyone has at least one of these on their shelf. I don’t know if other regions of the country rely on them so much, but every Southern cook has at least four that he or she relies upon for old fashioned recipes such as caramel icing. In Mississippi the ones that stand out to me are Bell’s Best, Come On In, Southern Sideboards, and for those of us with Southern Louisiana ties, Talk About Good. I’m sure I’m missing a few, but these are the ones that I turn to most often. I was reading M.F.K. Fisher’s Serve It Forth recently and was mildly irritated by what I considered a snobbish comment about community cookbooks:

“…to be passed by quickly are…those hideous pamphlets sold by ladies’ aid societies in small towns….whose broken covers and limp yellow pages clutter every American cookbook shelf of decent age, are utterly useless unless you know some of the women whose prize recipes are printed in them. Then, if you are feeling ill-tempered, you can curl your lip at Mrs. Sophia Jamison’s prune whip, and surreptitiously steal Cousin Annie Fink’s little trick of stirring three chopped marshmallows into the —”

How can she talk about these little nuggets of culinary wisdom like that? These home cooks are in many ways keeping culinary traditions alive. In The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture “Foodways” volume, there is an entry for “Cookbooks, Community,” in which the author mentions that these cookbooks have been studied since the 1980s as cultural artifacts. If the community cookbooks are often the only place I can reliably turn to for authentic Southern recipes, then I don’t think they are “utterly useless.”

After cooking the cake I went back to Fisher’s remark and I think I see what she means now. Often these home cooks submitted recipes that had never been written down formally before. Or, they left out steps (intentionally or not) that will make or break the recipe. I realized that I could have used a little more information on making the caramel icing. Although it tasted good, it didn’t turn out quite right. I should have cooked it a bit longer so that it was more “spreadable” and less “pourable.” See how it’s kind of dripping down in the picture above? It shouldn’t really do that. Still, everyone said it was delicious, so I guess it turned out ok. I’ll let you know how it goes next time. Another important point about some community cookbooks, at least one I have, Bell’s Best, is that they are so difficult to navigate that it’s almost impossible to find what you need. The index is arranged topically with such obscure topics as “Mens, Microwave.” Something as simple as chili can be found under “Soups,” “Meat,” or maybe “Men’s,” with each recipe in each section being different.

The following recipe was found in Bell’s Best under “Cakes,” but other recipes were also under “Frostings.”

Caramel Icing

2 3/4 c. sugar
1 stick butter
3/4 c. milk
1 tsp. vanilla

Caramelize 3/4 c. sugar in saucepan. Mix 2 c. sugar with the milk in another saucepan; bring to a rolling boil and pour it over the caramelized sugar, stirring constantly. Cook until it comes to a soft ball stage, 2 or 3 minutes (this is where I didn’t cook it long enough, I think. It bubbles up like molten lava and it took me by surprise) Add butter and vanilla flavoring; beat with an electric mixer. Spread on cake layers.
Mrs. Curtiss (Hattie) Hale, Columbus Club