The connection between cookbooks and history

 Brunswick stew

Cookbooks can serve as snapshots of the period in which they were written. Many books from the 1990s, for instance, feature the sparse plating and ingredients that rose to prominence during that decade (hello, truffle oil). But even beyond the obvious connections with what we eat during any given time, cookbooks can shape how we view historical events. An Epicurious interview with professor Carrie Tippen explores the ways that differences in a specific recipe's narratives speaks volumes about how the writers "formulated Southern history, memory, and identity."

Tippen approaches the subject by studying different recipes for a single dish -  Brunswick stew. As with many foods, the origin story for the stew varies, with three different areas claiming it as their own. The most frequently quoted story is that the stew, a combination of barbecued meat and vegetables, was created by an enslaved cook named Jimmy Matthews, who concocted the dish one evening at his owner's hunting camp in Brunswick, Virginia.

In examining recipes for the stew from nine different Southern cookbooks published from 1981 to 2011, Tippen found that earlier books included some version of the Jimmy Matthews story, although many of them were whitewashed. For instance, one cookbook describes Matthews' owner as his "employer". Some newer descriptions of Brunswick stew skip the origin story altogether. These recipes describe the stew in terms of a family tradition or other personal narrative. This omission is essentially the rewriting of history, says Tippen. "Erasure is the inevitable consequence of this turn from history to memory," she writes in an article published in Food and Foodways, "supplanting the innovations of African American and Native American cooks and marginalizing their share of Southern culture and identity."

The article examines how Tippen became interested in this field of study, and how she chose Brunswick stew as the focus of her recent research. It also explores how cookbooks could explore history in a different way that doesn't marginalize people.

Photo of Official Brunswick stew from The Washington Post, indexed by an EYB Member

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