COLUMBIA, Missouri -- The mysterious Lady of Charleston who penned the Carolina Housewife cookbook in 1847, fell in with the idea that a lady's name was to be in print only three times in her life: at birth, wedding, and death (word is out now --looking at you, Sarah Rutledge). Her book of 500+ recipes, concerned with "sending up the simplest meal properly dressed," and items more fancy, reads out the life and times of the country at its publication. While I'm as intrigued as the next gal by how to dress calf's head in imitation of turtle (p. 41), it's the 1979 introduction written by her descendant, Anna Wells Rutledge, that drew me in first.
Tide, time, rivers, timber, transportation, trucks, ferries, bridges, and defense, Anna says, often pinpoint place, food, and communication during times of upheaval. Ain't it the truth? Her words remind us that our current virus contagion isn't the first go-round for strange, sometimes horrific, events affecting whole populations--and that food is often a harbinger of great shifts.
In the early times of the U.S., Anna remembers the way Charleston men strolled home to dinner at 3 p.m. and went back to work for a short time afterwards, before that pre-Civil War life was over; how great clouds of passenger pigeons still flew in the 1870s; and later, in 1911, how the rice fields were swept away in a great hurricane. Carolina Gold rice, once the premium rice in the West (and a story for another post), was washed down river along with the livelihoods of the planters. The 100-plus rice recipes in the Carolina Housewife were forever marked as from the before-time.
In these days of pandemic, loss of livelihood and movement, there are parallels. In the re-set going on in the world, there are times when "a clean table-cloth and a smiling countenance," that Sarah Rutledge advised are not enough. Sarah was worried about "meals too bad for dissimulation" whose memory "does not speedily die." Delicately put, Lady of Charleston, but we know you meant you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. Sarah wanted us to have the food knowledge of kitchen-seasoned matriarchs, of scarcity, of making something more than a "an illusion over an indifferent dinner."
This reminder that food can go a long way to soothe, makes me take to the kitchen. Lucky us, to have kitchens, groceries, and people that will take the risk of stocking both. Everyone wants enough set by, as the saying used to go, should the need arise. I, perhaps like others, have felt the urge to have a tower of tomato sauce of my very own, but scarcity is not now the problem here in the U.S.
As I cook, breaking news reports roll out like a movie. Remember when the big screen theaters showed films on pandemic and people paid good money to go? The swash buckling science hero saved the day, I'm told. I could never watch those shows, knew I would only see the people left in the margins that weren't saved. As reports come in that less developed countries are next in line for the spread of COVID-19, it breaks my heart. Many won't have supply chains like we do, many won't have food to allay the severity of the illness. The movies I wouldn't watch are now unreeling in front of my eyes.
While I have no way to ease the coming days, right now my six tomato sauce cans and I stand ready to do Sarah Rutledge proud. I fall back on her advice and will simmer and stew comfort as I can. We won't know the length and breath of this health crisis for some time, nor how it might shift the foods that end up on our tables. I can withstand an indifferent meal or three if you can.
Please be well in these times of trouble where ever you are in the world.