Recently, I presented my “Cook Like a Soldier” program
at The Museum of Early Trades and Crafts (METC) over
in Madison, NJ. Now, usually when I do this, I’m outside,
with a pot of soldier’s rations cooking over a fire, and it’s
all rather informal. I’m able to chat with folks in a leisurely,
give-and-take fashion, while sharing food and bits ‘n pieces
of information as I go. This time, however, seeing as it was
to be given inside the Museum, the situation called for more
of a straight-forward, linear talk, as in one with a beginning,
a middle, and an end.
Now, back when I was preparing the “straight talk” version,
I struggled a bit with melding everything into a cohesive
whole. After taking a few stabs at it, trying this, and then
that, it suddenly hit me! I’d utilize one of my favorite
activities, namely that of debunking historic food myths.
So I decided to demonstrate throughout the course of my
talk (both directly and not), why a certain story regarding
a dish purportedly served to soldiers at a particular point
during the Revolutionary War is nothing but pure fakelore.
And what is that dish? Why, Pepper Pot, of course! (more
details on the story’s content later; either that, or you’ll
just have to attend my program sometime!).
Everything was ready, and I eagerly awaited my “Big Day”
at METC. In the meantime, I found a few spare hours in
the days beforehand and did a little additional research.
As a result, I made a startling discovery about an original
historic receipt for Pepper Pot (yes, the dish, itself, DID
and DOES exist).
You see, there’s a facsimile of the Carolina Rice Cook Book,
compiled by Mrs. Samuel G. Stoney (1901), that’s included
in The Carolina Rice Kitchen, The African Connection (1992),
which was written by the noted food historian Karen Hess.
And in her work, Hess discusses in detail the contents and
possible origins of a receipt for Pepper Pot found in the first
book (Carolina Rice), where it’s attributed to The Carolina
Housewife (1847), by Sarah Rutledge. (Did you get all that?
I know, it’s a little confusing!) In any case, long story short,
here’s the problem: IT’S NOT THERE! It doesn’t exist! Yep,
there’s NO receipt for Pepper Pot in Rutledge’s book!
I made this shocking discovery when I searched the Index
of my copy of Housewife and didn’t find Pepper Pot. Well,
I thought, I know sometimes receipts, for whatever reason,
aren’t in the section where you’d think they’d be (in this case,
soups), and instead, they’re in another. So I combed through
ALL the possible alternatives. Again, nothing. Then I looked
through the ENTIRE Index, line by line. Still no Pepper Pot.
Finally, I thought, maybe the receipt IS in the book, and,
although it was (inadvertently?!?) left out of the Index, it’s
nevertheless located somewhere, and I just have to hunt
carefully for it. So, I searched the ENTIRE BOOK, looking
up and down every single page. And I did so TWICE. Alas,
a receipt for Pepper Pot was nowhere to be found.
I couldn’t believe it! Good golly, how can this be? Didn’t
Mrs. Stoney verify where the receipts she was given came
from? Didn’t she check and re-check her sources? Did she
simply not catch this? Or, if the receipt was submitted by
another person (to Stoney), what of her? Did she goof up?
Or (heaven forbid!), was it done on purpose? You know,
perhaps the receipt was created out of whole cloth, but
then attributed to The Carolina Housewife in a desperate
attempt to legitimize it?
And, holy moly, how is it that the famous Karen Hess didn’t
notice any of this?!? Had she never looked all that closely
at Rutledge’s book? Wasn’t she even curious to look at
the receipt she was going to write so much about? In its
original location? Just to see what else was in the same
section or on the same page? Or, heck, just to verify that
it was copied correctly by whoever submitted it to Stoney?
And yet, Hess dissects it as if it was written by Rutledge
(or at least included it in her book). She offers details
about the Southern author’s background and speculates
where she may’ve gotten the Pepper Pot receipt.
Golly. What a mess! So many questions, but no answers.
This whole affair is incredible!
Of course, now the treasure hunt is on to find the true and
original source for the Carolina Rice Cook Book’s Pepper Pot
receipt. There’s one that’s somewhat, but not entirely, similar
in The Cook’s Own Book, which was compiled by “a Boston
Housekeeper” (aka Mrs. N.K.M. Lee). The thing is, it was
published in 1832, 15 years before Rutledge’s book. And
in Boston, of all places! Also, as those who’re familiar with
Cook’s Own know, it’s an encyclopedia of receipts that’ve
been gleaned from other works, but not one is attributed
to any specific work.
There ARE a few other 19th century, even some earlier (18th
century), Pepper Pot receipts. However, none of them match
the one in Carolina Rice. I’m still looking, though. If I ever
find it, I’ll let you know. And of course, if anyone out there
hears of, or finds, the illusive matching Pepper Pot receipt,
please DO let me know. Until then, the mysterious case
of the phantom receipt remains unsolved.
Oh, and here’s the receipt for Pepper Pot that’s NOT found
in Sarah Rutledge’s The Carolina Housewife (1847), but IS
found in The Carolina Rice Cook Book (1901), compiled
by Louisa Cheves Smythe (Mrs. Samuel G.) Stoney:
Take one-half peck of spinach, pick and
boil it as for dinner; drain off the water,
and chop it up fine. Put into a soup-kettle
6 quarts of water, 3 pounds of beef or
veal, about 1 pound of pork, which must
be scalded to draw out the salt, a piece
of ham with the ham bone is preferable,
and boil about an hour. Then add the
spinach, a dozen potatoes, or 4 pounds
of yam, 3 plantains peeled and cut up
into pieces about 3 inches long, and small
dumplings. Let all these ingredients boil
together slowly for four or five hours. Just
before serving add some pickled peppers
(cut up) and 1 or 2 long red peppers. If you
have crabs or lobsters previously boiled, add
a small quantity, pickled fine, about half hour
before serving. Serve with rice.
And, hopefully, everyone is aware that good ol’ Mrs. Stoney
was the wife of the chairman of the Carolina Rice Kitchen
Association, of Charleston, SC. In fact, her cookbook was
published by that very entity. Also, that the current name
Carolina Rice has absolutely NOTHING to do with the rice
that was grown in the American South during the 17th,
18th, and early 19th centuries. It was selected merely
because it was available and, according to a spokesperson
for the maker, Rivianna Foods, Inc., ” ‘they had simply
liked the name.’ ”
And finally, the receipt for Pepper Pot from The Cook’s Own
Book (1832). Note the similarities and differences between
this and the one above:
Take as much spinach as will fill a good
sized dish, put it in a saucepan without
any water, set it on the fire, and let it
boil; then drain off all the liquor, chop
the spinach very fine, and return it
to the saucepan, with the water just
drained from it, more water, onions,
three or four potatoes, a lettuce or
head of endive cut small, the bones
of any cold roast meat, if you have
them, and half a pound of bacon; put
the whole on the fire, and when it has
boiled for about an hour, put in a few
suet dumplings; leave it twenty or
thirty minutes longer; season it well
with cayenne, and serve.
Interestingly, there are two Pepper Pot receipts in Cook’s
Own. The second, however, is a nigh exact copy of one
in Maria Rundell’s A New System of Domestic Cookery
(London, 1816). And it, according to Hess, demonstrates
perfectly that she (Rundell) “understood it very well.”