* Biscuits and Buttermilk: A New Year and New Directions

Barn in rural Virginia (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

After a long fallow period, spent baking (and eating) many Christmas cookies, I have decided to bloom/cook where I am planted, so to speak.

Lately I’ve become more intrigued by the cuisine that surrounds me, here in the American South.  After all, I’ve basically been a Southerner for over 30 years. Although many cookbook authors write about the South, I feel that something’s missing in most discussions, chiefly an in-depth examination of the English and French impact on the cuisine. There’s a real dearth of information about  the influence of other Europeans, including the  immigrants who worked in the coal mines and textile mills.

I plan to write a lot about Southern food this year, in particular looking at historical material and stories related to Virginia’s culinary history, from the first days of the Virginia colony to the present. No chronological pattern to follow, no rigid agenda, just quirky things and stories that interest me. As you’ve probably noted, I’ve redesigned the background and the header portrays late-fall cotton fields near Windsor, Virginia.

I still have never really seen any analysis of, say, community cookbooks from places where Virginians settled after going West – it will be fun to see if there’s anything left of the English and French dishes likely to have been served in the years prior to people going West through the Cumberland Gap, etc. And I do think that although African slaves really did affect cooking here in Virginia, I don’t think enough has been done yet to look at other influences.

For a long time, I’ve sensed the truth of that old adage, “Virginia is the Mother of America,” or rather she is the mother of American cooking, her pots and pans serving up the food that traveled across the endless prairies in the covered wagons, spooned into pewter plates around campfires in sod-covered lean-tos, food that fed miners and lumberjacks, farmers and fishermen.

Virginia, from the beginning, was a culinary melting pot. And the stories behind the recipes and ingredients promise some great fun and terrific insights into how people lived.

Take, for example, a story about Glen Alton, the summer home and working farm of  a Mr. Clarence Alvans Lucas, President and Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Bank of Giles County from 1933 to 1965, who lived to be 100 years old (1887-1987). He and his wife Evangeline no doubt entertained large numbers of guests, serving them dishes made from the grapes and apples that Clarence grew on the farm. Sometimes unexpected guests arrived, as demonstrated by this story from The Roanoke Times in 1937:

“A bear, overcome by his love for pork, raided the larder of C. A. Lucas, at his summer lodge, Glen Alton, on north fork of Big Stoney creek Thursday night, and made off with a large ham.”

House from pagoda
Lodge/house at Glen Alton, Virginia (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

08 – High on a Mountain

© 2013 C. Bertelsen


  • The South. To an outsider it is the most marvelous culinary kaleidoscope. And, yes cookbooks are a perfectly valid research resource for the modern socio-geographer-historian. In fact there is one assertion in David Burton’s “French Colonial Cookery”, (Faber & Faber,London, 2000 ISBN 0571190243) Which I would love to have verified. Or not. Or just set in context.
    He says (p134) that the 1980s saw a huge culinary shakeup in Cajun cooking, “due to the extraordinary talent for publicity of just one chef, Paul Prudhomme.” He claims that Cajun was fairly dull before Prudhomme.
    I like using Chef Prudhomme’s book, but it does strike me that so many ingredients are supermarket ingredients. Philosophically I don’t object to that – the average food hunter these days uses a loaded credit card and a trolley. It is good to help people make the best of what is available to them. That availability question is a complex matrix of income, family structure, schoolchildren, transport, location; the basic realities of city life.
    Burton’s description of authentic Cajun -long cooking in a medieval cauldron of fresh swamp bugs? Well, maybe authentic is not too practical in an urban apartment.

    • Hi Tony, all true. I will be interested in delving more deeply into that question as well. The Prudhomme thing. Burton’s book is a fascinating one, but I find it rather frustrating, because while the research he did was basically good, he left out a lot of things and he never really explains why the French women in the colonies did not produce the cookbooks and other writing that British women did.

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