* 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

11 thoughts on “* Biscuits and Buttermilk: A New Year and New Directions

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. To a non-American as well, this project sounds fascinating. Especially the way you’re telling the stories. (Do you follow The Austerity Kitchen blog at The New Inquiry? If not, I’m sure you’ll like it.)

  4. Hi Nancy, there’s some Texas in my background, too. I know that lots of people don’t consider Texas to be the Deep South, but it seems to me that the eastern side leans that way food-wise. That’s something to discuss, is it not: just what is Southern historically and contemporarily?

  5. Hi Carstens, Happy New Year to you, too! The good thing about teenagers eating the ham is that if they left any, at least you could eat it! I am not sure about the leavings from a bear … .

  6. I failed to mention that both of my grandmothers came from the South (eastern Texas and West Virginia) and cooked Southern food, so that’s what my parents thought of as food. And they in turn cooked it, even though we didn’t live in the South until I was 17. My paternal grandmother’s heritage extends back to Jamestown and I’ve traced her family migration through North Carolina and Georgia after they left Virginia.

  7. I was irritated at the teenaged relatives who got into a ham that was intended for a later event. Knowing that people lost hams to marauding bears puts that situation into its proper perspective. (I will gallantly refrain from comparing hungry young males and marauding bears. Well, ok, I guess I just did.) I look forward to your future posts. It is an area that hasn’t been explored and I’ll learn much from your blog. Happy New Year!

  8. I have always found Virginia to be a special state – not only did it produce important and vibrant Americans but it seems to be a combination of several types of cuisine – that DelMarva feel as well as Southern. I often forget it’s Southern because it’s not a Gulf State state (and you will have to forgive me for that) I live in Texas another of those peculiar Southern states that aren’t a typical Southern state, here rather than the colonial, piedmontese Southern cusine, we get a western, hispanic southern style. It’s fair rougher than Virginia which I view as a more cultured and smoother style. I look forward to your thoughts. Happy New Year.

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