Kentucky Fried Chicken sounds, well, Kentucky … right? An iconic food in both style and type that has long been associated with the Bluegrass State. But this modern incarnation of fowl falls much further along the evolutionary food chain than the edibles that fed the Commonwealth’s earliest residents and laid the foundation for Kentucky food culture. In his book Kentucky’s Cookbook Heritage: Two Hundred Years of Southern Cuisine and Culture, retired University of Kentucky anthropology professor John van Willigen examines several links on that chain and sheds new light on how recipes, cookbooks and our relationship with food define our social interactions, reflect our economic condition, and lead us from farm to table and back again.
Anthropology—the study of human development, culture and behavior—was always an area of interest for van Willigen. “I remember stuff as a kid … National Geographic, seeing different places. I was looking for a community to belong to, and that was what interested me.” Wanting to be involved in something that had real-world applications, van Willigen chose the subfield of applied anthropology, a discipline he describes in his academic work Applied Anthropology: An Introduction as “anthropology put to use.” Field work in India, Indonesia and rural Kentucky dealt with issues such as social aging, tobacco farming and the day-to-day role of food in the lives of Kentucky families, and provided a foundation for van Willigen’s writing.
The seed was planted for a study of Kentucky cookbooks more than two decades ago when van Willigen authored or co-authored a series of three books: Gettin’ Some Age on Me: Social Organization of Older People in a Rural American Community, written by van Willigen; Tobacco Culture: Farming Kentucky’s Burley Belt, penned by van Willigen and Susan C. Eastwood; and Food and Everyday Life on Kentucky Family Farms, 1920-1950, a collaborative effort between the professor and his daughter, Anne van Willigen. Kentucky’s Cookbook Heritage and Tobacco Culture are part of The University Press of Kentucky’s Kentucky Remembered: An Oral History Series and fostered a desire in van Willigen to write about what he calls Kentucky foodways. “I needed a chapter on cookbooks,” he said, “but there was so much information it would have been way too long. Things progressed from there.”
As van Willigen perused 175 years of Kentucky cooking and cookbook history, conducting dozens of interviews to create Kentucky’s Cookbook Heritage, two distinct threads emerged: the position and responsibilities of women in the household, and the role of African Americans in Kentucky’s changing gastronomical landscape. Both shaped the direction and abundance of cookbooks published, and each reflected the cultural changes that were taking place across the Commonwealth.
Cooking styles and the foods used underwent a metamorphosis, too, as cooks changed venues and methods according to emerging cultural norms. Recipes were generally family-based and shared orally rather than written down. Those that were first published follow a simple, no-nonsense style. “The earliest cookbooks were very basic,” said van Willigen. “You had the name of the recipe and a list of ingredients. That’s it. Maybe there would be a brief procedure included, but not much.” Cookbooks today can be as lengthy as a novel, including ingredients, step-by-step instructions, photographs and any number of details about the dish being prepared. “People eventually became more adventurous,” said van Willigen, “and more interested in correct procedure. The difference between then and now is significant.”
The word “local” has become a modern mantra in the vernacular of fresh food culture and is a selling point for farmers markets, food co-ops and restaurants anxious to capture the patronage of the health and economically conscious. But local also reflects the convenience of the nearby grocery store and the ease with which folks can access foods from all over the world at any time of the year. As van Willigen pointed out, however, that wasn’t the case more than a century ago. “Local in 1840 was completely different than local in 2014,” he said. “People had their own garden or farmland and their own animals. The commitment to local products was not talked about in that way, but that’s exactly what they had.” In The Kentucky Housewife, Kentucky’s earliest known cookbook—originally published in 1839—author Lettice Bryan included more than 1,300 recipes that reflected the season, the bounty and the availability of ingredients. “Mrs. Bryan’s recipes were about meat slaughtered at home and what was there on the farm,” van Willigen said.
Many of the early cookbooks van Willigen researched were written by women who, though generally knowledgeable of the foods being prepared, were not the ones doing the cooking. “From 1839 to 1875, there were very few cookbooks published,” said van Willigen. “These books were often upper-class women’s projects that reflected their circumstances. There were servants doing the cooking for the household and large group events. After the Civil War, you begin to see a shift.” With the abolition of slavery and an overall change in economic circumstances, changes in cooking and the collection and sharing of recipes began to occur. “Women had to focus on cooking themselves,” said van Willigen, “and there was a loss of knowledge along with people.”
This loss of knowledge became a catalyst for the cookbook industry as women who were formerly in charge of a cook or cooking staff found themselves responsible for feeding the family. Van Willigen references well-known Southern food and culture writer John Egerton’s quote in Heritage: “One of the most fascinating and ironic indicators of the pervasiveness of this social pattern was the spate of post-Civil War cookbooks aimed at white women who found themselves quite literally help-less after the Civil War.” Van Willigen emphasized how this shift led to an increase in cookbook publishing by white, and eventually African-American, women. “We can see foodways and the African-American situation related, and I was surprised to see such committed entrepreneurs. It was tough for women to have an economic life.”
Van Willigen came across three women in his research for Heritage who fit this profile and stand out in his memory: Atholene Peyton, Nannie Talbot Johnson and Jennie C. Benedict. Peyton, listed in the Notable Kentucky African Americans Database, was a Louisville native and 1898 graduate of the city’s Central Colored High School. She taught domestic science at that school and was an instructor for the Neighborhood Home and Training School for Colored Boys and Girls in Louisville, and the National Training School for Women and Girls in Washington, D.C. In 1906, she penned Peytonia Cook Book, which followed a science-based, precise format, and was the first Kentucky cookbook published by an African American. “I believe it was one of her proudest accomplishments,” said van Willigen. “In her personnel file under honors, it reads: ‘Wrote the first Negro cookbook.’ ”
Bourbon County native Nannie Talbot Johnson, listed as Mrs. W.A. Johnson per the patriarchal order of the day, published What to Cook and How to Cook It in 1899 and its companion Cake, Candy and Culinary Crinkles: A Companion of What to Cook and How to Cook It in 1912. What to Cook focused on procedure as well as ingredients, and Cake provided the reader with instruction on style and presentation and led to a connection to an iconic American cookbook family. “Mrs. Johnson worked in Louisville and at a Methodist camp in northern Michigan,” said van Willigen, “where she taught cooking to Irma Rombauer, the Joy of Cooking author.” In Heritage, van Willigen references the memoir of Rombauer’s daughter, who notes: “The Johnson School was perhaps Mother’s only exposure to formal culinary training. But it brought out her unusual and at first rather inexplicable flair of decorating cakes.” Van Willigen added, “A copy of What to Cook is in the library at Radcliffe, the former women’s college at Harvard.”
Jennie C. Benedict is a name familiar to many Kentuckians, particularly those native to Louisville. Born in 1860 in Harrods Creek, she quickly displayed an interest in cooking. In Heritage, van Willigen notes the acknowledgment and gratitude expressed by Benedict in her memoir Road to Dream Acres to her African-American caregiver for instructing her in the kitchen. “… [A]n important foundation for her cooking skills was the teaching during her girlhood of ‘my dear old black Mammy’ who predicted she would be a ‘fine cook some day.’ ” After several years as a wildly successful caterer, Benedict entered the restaurant business in 1911 with Benedict’s, a beautifully appointed eatery on Fourth Street in the heart of downtown Louisville. “She had a restaurant in a time when not many women were in business,” said van Willigen. Though she published her first cookbook, A Choice Collection of Tested Recipes, in 1897, Benedict is best known for a later title, Blue Ribbon Cook Book, which enjoyed several reprints. Oddly, the recipe for her eponymous Benedictine spread is not included.
Authors such as Peyton, Johnson and Benedict brought science to cooking and cooking to the masses in a way that reflected the changes taking place in society. “You see more precise measurements and much more detail included,” said van Willigen. As technology developed and the variety and availability of food increased, attitudes toward meal preparation changed. “In the 1940s and ’50s, the focus was on convenience,” said van Willigen. By the 1960s, the first hints at a shift away from domesticity enjoyed a paradoxical existence with a growing love of cosmopolitan cooking. Van Willigen joked, “There is a metaphor here. You have two very successful cookbooks published at nearly the same time: Mastering the Art of French Cooking and I Hate to Cook.” The love of international foods and cooking styles grew steadily. “There was a slow inclusion of ethnic cuisine with things like spaghetti, pizza and chop suey,” said van Willigen. “Also, there was more concern over how you were cooking. It was about authenticity.”
When asked about iconic Kentucky foods, van Willigen shared an interesting observation: “Many recipes for traditional dishes only appeared in later cookbooks. Things needed more explanation, and these tended to include narratives about the dish.” Foods that many associate with the Bluegrass State are regional items that reflect the immense diversity in Kentucky cuisine. “John Egerton wrote that Kentucky stands out as the most well-developed food culture,” said van Willigen, “and our cultural foundation starts with food.”
In Heritage, van Willigen explains the loss and gain of knowledge about what we eat and where it comes from, and how this contributes to both our culinary diversity and need to access cooking via the written word. “The limits of the foodshed have changed from the garden spot near the house, the adjacent fields and pastures, and the cellar to far distant and largely unknown locations. With this people have less and less knowledge of where food comes from, how it is produced, what are the circumstances of the producers, and whether or not it is wholesome and safe to eat. A major part of our culture has been taken from us. One of the consequences associated with these changes is a loss of knowledge and skill. One might say in certain realms we have been de-cultured. At the same time, we do learn new food knowledge. I may not know how to slaughter and dress a chicken but I have workable knowledge of nutrition and I can prepare a credible pad Thai. Some argue that our interest in cookbooks relates to our separation from the production of food.”
Van Willigen’s Kentucky’s Cookbook Heritage: Two Hundred Years of Southern Cuisine and Culture, due out in September (and now available for pre-order from The University Press of Kentucky), challenges the reader to examine the origins of various dishes and cooking styles and to view cookbooks in the same vein as an archaeologist would view an artifact. From Heritage: “Cookbooks are like archaeological strata. They all reflect something of the era within which they were created. What they show is not what life was, but a complex and hard to fathom tracing of the reality as it existed for the person or persons that created them.”