The Lady From Chatham, Virginia

Patricia Mitchell

Patricia Mitchell

Southern hospitality is not gone with the wind, at least not in Chatham Virginia. Food writer Patricia Mitchell,* owner of the now-closed Sims-Mitchell House Bed & Breakfast, makes sure of that. And you can’t expect anything less from a woman who called her first 1968 Mustang “Penelope.” You know, after Odysseus’s wife, who kept the home fires burning and the soup bubbling while the hero was off slaying monsters and avoiding Sirens.

Every day Mrs. Mitchell’s guests enjoyed baked concoctions at breakfast that would cause Scarlett O’Hara to swoon, even without tight stays or Rhett Butler lurking around.

Most of the recipes that Mrs. Mitchell served come from old-timey cookbooks, musty letters, and books originating in the climate-controlled atmosphere of library archives or antique hat boxes stored in Great-Aunt Hilda’s attic.

For Patricia Mitchell not only cooks the old-fashioned way and lives in a stately Italianate-Victorian house—she also researches and writes about food history, bringing long-forgotten material alive after rooting around in obscure sources that most people never see. She mused on why she does what she does:

I’m foolishly sentimental and I love my homeland. Intellectually and emotionally I have probably over-romanticized the South, but it gives me pleasure to think of the South as a warm and welcoming woman. And a good woman likes to cook.

Mrs. Mitchell grew up in Chatham knowing little about cooking other than how to boil water. Cooking was the province of Lucille Breakley, her family’s African-American cook. Only when Mrs. Mitchell eloped did she really learn how to wield a wooden spoon. And boy, did she cook up a storm after that.

Beginning with a few recipes, cobbled into a small pamphlet and made available for her B&B guests, Mrs. Mitchell moved on to writing a series of quaint little books, which she calls her “Inklings” series. It all started when one of her guests—the director of a local history museum—suggested that she market her work to museums and gift shops.

Two-thirds of a million copies and 100 titles later, the little lady from Chatham, Virginia runs a very successful cottage industry.

The books span no more than 37 pages, covered with thick, textured paper—similar to the construction paper that grade-school-age children cut with blunt-nosed scissors—and stapled down the middle in two places. A few editorial errors sprinkled here and there carry the homemade touch, conveying a sense that Grandma’s recipes are only a stained index card away. It’s simple to visualize the author bent over the table in her huge country kitchen, scraps of paper and articles spilling like loose flour all over the table, taking notes, mixing the ingredients for her books while a pot of soup simmers on the stove.

Her easy-to-read books serve as a jumping-off place for greater in-depth study of her various topics, which range from Southern cooking in all its permutations to French cooking in early America or what presidents supped on in the White House over the years. In a “byte,” the books resemble “appetizers,” but all contain extensive footnotes, witnessing the immense amount of work and loving care going into each one. These days, her children–Jonathan, Sarah and David–assist her in producing the books; Sarah, in fact, dreamed up the original cookbook series and now authors one of her own, “Vintage Designs,” which focuses on fashion and design.

When asked what impact she wishes for her work, Mrs. Mitchell responded,

I want people to love their native (or chosen) soil and to understand
her history and traditions. – That applies to people everywhere, not
just the South. Loving a location or a region or a nation or even
Planet Earth in general gives individuals something to think about
beyond themselves and their routines and personal difficulties. I
want people to feel entertained, informed, and, hopefully, inspired
by things I write. I want them, too, to get a sense of connection to
others and to the past.

Patricia Mitchell stretches the idea of Southern hospitality a lot farther than the groaning table of family reunions and Sunday suppers. Through her writing, she opens up the door and invites everybody in to the feast.

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Sold at many museums and other establishments near historical sites across the Unites States, Mrs. Mitchell’s books are also available by direct mail from the Mitchells. Contact them at answers@foodhistory.com, Sims-Mitchell House, P.O. Box 429, Chatham, VA 24531, or 800-967-2867. See a complete list and description of the “Inkling” series and the Vintage Design series at http://www.mitchellspublications.com/. Order a few copies for Christmas gifts to surprise your favorite cooks. Or just a few to keep for yourself. (*No, Ms. Mitchell claims no blood ties to Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone with the Wind.)

© 2008 C. Bertelsen

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7 comments

  1. David Spicuzza

    Some years ago I had the pleasure of working with Patricia. We both wrote articles for the Community Standard magazine in New Orleans during the mid-1970′s.I hereby decree that Louisiana stakes a claim on at least part of the back-story of Patricia’s foodwriting obsession.
    I also think I gained a few pounds just reading this delicious article.

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