A League of Their Own
July 3, 2012 | by Margaret Eby
The local Junior League cookbook is the culinary bible of the Southern home. Every kitchen of my Alabama childhood had at least one well-worn copy of Magic, the Junior League of Birmingham’s 1983 recipe collection, with an enticing yellow-spiral binding and entries on everything from shrimp salad to banana pudding. Some would also have a copy of Palates, Platters, and Other Such Matters, the JLB’s 1950 edition, notable for its more liberal inclusion of lard and mayonnaise. Like every Junior League cookbook, the recipes were sourced from the community and thus varied wildly both in quality and in method of preparation. Still, the hand-me-down wisdom from Birmingham’s residents on how to properly prepare venison skewers or pimiento-cheese eggs had an authority that no celebrity chef or French instructor could muster. They were part of the trusted pantheon that my parents, whose taste ran more to grilled fish and apple pies than deep-fried catfish and layer cakes, would consult whenever a dish needed some extra flair. When I moved up to New York for college, my mother bequeathed me the most useful items she could think of for the journey: a ceramic teapot, a CD of Thin Lizzy’s greatest hits, and a copy of the newest JLB cookbook, Food for Thought.
It was part homesickness, part tiring of the endless meal-plan tuna melts that caused me to leaf through Food for Thought for more than just the pictures and familiar contributor names. (In scanning the index of recipes, certain contributors jumped out: the mother of a junior high crush, the organizer of the reception of my first and only debutante event, the family for whom my high school auditorium was named.) Sandwiched between essays waxing nostalgic about grits and poking fun at California cuisine were the dishes that taught me how to cook in earnest. After teenage years full of longing for escape from my muggy Southern home, I began, in my little dorm on 116th Street, clumsily making vats of overly spiced gumbo and punch bowls of mint juleps for my bewildered but grateful roommates. Even the names of the dishes felt comforting and restorative: spoon bread, bourbon-maple sauce, chow-chow. On trips back for Thanksgiving and Christmas, I stuffed my suitcase with jars of file powder, boxes of instant roux, and homemade cheese straws. I scoured Manhattan for alligator sausage and fresh okra. I complained so heartily about the lack of decent barbecue that my twenty-first birthday present from my parents was a shipment of Dreamland ribs, shipped up in a Styrofoam cooler steaming with dry ice, complete with a jar of sauce, a set of plastic bibs, and a loaf of Sunbeam white bread, the kind you can compress into a single palm-size, doughy ball.
The Junior League itself, a network of charitable groups that promotes community volunteerism, is far from a Southern invention. Founded in Manhattan in 1901, the League began as a place for young well-off girls to do social work on the Lower East Side. Eleanor Roosevelt herself joined to teach scrappy young lasses calisthenics. But the cookbooks, conceived as a fund-raiser, originated in 1940 in Augusta, Georgia. Today there are some two hundred volumes of regional cuisine from various Junior League branches, from Santa Fe to Akron, Ohio, to Pasadena. In many areas, the spiral binding and laminated covers of the early books gave way to slick, professional, coffee-table editions. The JLB’s latest cookbook, Tables of Content, published in 2006, has lavish photo spreads taken outside local landmarks: soups and stews in front of the Civil Rights Institute, breads and pasta lined up on a table outside the giraffe enclosure at the Birmingham Zoo.
Newer Southern Junior League cookbooks like Tables of Content and the Jackson, Mississippi, League’s Come On In! have their merits. The diet-conscious can find fare that isn’t as heart-stopping as butter cake and fried chicken, and the shiny spines would blend into a shelf lined with more professional tomes. But there’s something that’s been buffed out of the pages that I miss. What’s wonderful about the Junior League cookbooks is their amateurism, in the purest sense of that word. The meals sprang from busy sunlit kitchens, dinner parties, and family Christmases. There is passion there, and a friendly messiness; there’s no glint of test-kitchen steel. Junior League cookbooks have the feeling of a neighbor writing out something on a scrap of paper and passing it on. They’re not sets of instructions so much as a book of careful advice.
Part of the joy of flipping through the volumes is spelunking through the bits of social history and mannerisms that line the pages. In Charleston Receipts, collected in 1950—it’s the oldest Junior League cookbook still in print—Low-country traditions bubble up between lines of measurements. Between sections on appetizers, drinks, and sweets, there are sprinkling of advice on what to bring for a proper picnic. Each chapter begins with a verse in Gullah, the regional Creole dialect, hinting at the racial division between hostess and cook. The receipts are a mixture of dishes from white Charlestonian residents and their servants and even slaves, Beef Wellington and Dah’s Browning (dah being a localism for a black nursemaid). Mrs. Alton Pringle, a revered Charleston cook and plantation owner in the nineteenth century, had one recipe for calf’s head soup to which a contributor gave the highest compliment: “A colored cook who worked in her household once remarked, ‘When she puts in de buttah, ah turns ma back.’”
Some recipes are also evidence of the harshness of the Reconstruction, like the instructions on how to broil squirrel, “the finest and tenderest of all wild meats.” But others are points of regional pride, small boasts in the form of dishes. In Savannah Style, there’s a small essay on Savannah hospitality that brags about a hundred-year-old waffle recipe so good that “when President Taft once visited … he downed a complete breakfast and then seven entire waffles.”
Often, alongside the preparation instructions, there are tidbits of where the dish came from—passed down from relatives, imported through trips, or discovered at a dinner party. One of my favorite passages is a contribution from Eudora Welty, a sustaining member of the Jackson Junior League, who published her onion-pie recipe in their Southern Sideboards. “This is from a recipe Katherine Anne Porter gave me, and she got it in France,” Welty notes. “These little pies are served hot at the wine festival.” The result is a crusty, tangy little cheese tart, the pastry equivalent of a fried onion ring. When I made it in my Brooklyn kitchen for some willing guests, I imagined the brick porch where Welty and her friends ate meals, maybe supplementing the pie with a little bourbon on a cool spring evening.
Southern Sideboards is a more recent addition to my collection, one I picked up while perusing the cookbooks in my parents’ cupboard. As I flipped through the pages, exclaiming over one recipe for Country Captain that the contributor had copied for President Roosevelt’s cook, my mother eyed me warily. “It’s a good book,” she said. “But you’ll have to get your own copy.”
Margaret Eby is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.