My first foray back into blogging is not a new recipe, but a combination of what my husband’s folk would call a “humble brag” and a reading recommendation. Many of you may not know that my birthday falls shortly after Christmas so sometimes there is a bit of overlap and it not unusual for birthday fun to drag on into the new year. With my online birthday mad money (thanks Dad and Sue!) I fulfilled one of my bucket list culinary library purchases: a copy of the revered Southern writer Eugene Walter’s contribution to the Time Life Foods of the World series from the 1970s, “American Cooking: Southern Style.” Since shortly after high school I’ve gradually collected most of the entire series, both the hardcover explorations of each country’s culinary traditions along with the spiral bound book of recipes, like the penny-pincher I am, putting nearly the entire series together somewhat randomly by picking them up in thrift stores and rummage sales and used bookstores for a dollar or two.
Mr. Walter’s book has been elusive. As a well known and much loved writer, artist, actor, theatrical designer, home entertainer and goodwill ambassador of the South across the countries in which he lived, his contribution (including consultation from James Beard and Michael Field, tweee!) rarely turns up in a bin of used books and especially not where I now live in North Carolina. Digging through musty volumes at my local Goodwill (where I have found several others from the series) I imagine all the households across the region passing down their copies to the next generation or single editions from the series remaining on shelves next to a battered copy of the local Junior League cookbook when all the other books have been tossed or donated.
Those of you who have searched for your own copy will hopefully appreciate what follows. I have seen and continue to see copies of this book sold for around $80-90 dollars. Copies that are damaged, copies that come without a spiral bound recipe book, and copies of uncertain condition are right now on the market for even more than $90 so I cannot imagine the confluence of events that produced this result: The book was purchased from a Seattle bookstore (who will remain unnamed as I plan to scour their online offerings for time immemorial) for the sum of eight dollars plus three dollars shipping. It arrived in my home beautifully wrapped in brown paper, encircled with recycled cardboard to protect it during shipping and then wrapped in its own carefully folded white paper at the center, not unlike a fine roast from the butcher. A complete set. And when I say complete, I mean that the hardcover book and the spiral bound recipe book were encased in the original full color binder meant to ensure that the happy couple remained bound together for life. I am still bubbling with joy and astonishment. The 1971 first edition copy (did I mention that?) shows little wear, other than a few dings and a little discoloration on the cardboard binder, possibly that from sitting for 42 years on a dusty bookshelf, and a small notation inside in pen “from Hillard 12-22-73”
My luck may have been a combination of the bookseller’s desire to rid themselves of a volume on cooking no North Westerner thought they should touch (flour coated lard fried vegetables, no?) a nation-wide Paula Dean backlash (y’all, she is just misunderstood), and the suspicious disbelief on the part of any potential online purchaser of a book that such a thing priced SO under market could be of any value. But I hope it’s because Santa knew that what I really wanted for Christmas wasn’t on my wish list.
As a treat for this incredible find, I also finally purchased a new copy of Eugene Walter’s book “The Happy Table of Eugene Walter: Southern Spirits in Food and Drink,” where Mr. Walter writes effusively about the southern tradition of “cocktails” and the use of liquor in southern dishes (as well as some recipes for foods to go with drinks). The recipes look great, but buy the book for his delightful take on the history of liquor and foods of the region and his storytelling woven throughout, including the origin of the word “cocktail” and his comments on a “dry” South. I have no idea if what he’s written is historically accurate, but as we know, the true delight in a story is in the telling and not in the truth of it.