300 Years of Black Cooking in St. Mary’s County Maryland — book review
Compiled by Citizens for Progress; 134 pages; Copyright © 1975 by the St. Mary’s County Bicentennial Commission; trim-size 8.5″ × 5.5″, landscape format; paper cover with comb-binding.
Originally produced in conjunction with the U.S. Bicentennial, 300 years of Black Cooking in St. Mary’s County Maryland gathers together recipes from Maryland’s southernmost county, St. Mary’s. The book might have more accurately specified the time as 333 years of black cooking, given the first black slaves were brought to St. Mary’s City (Maryland’s first capital) in 1642. Marvin C. Joy, Chairman of the St. Mary’s County Bicentennial Commission wrote in the Introduction, “An outstanding group, the Citizens for Progress, has compiled a book of treasured recipes used in both black and white households prior to, during and after the American Revolution.”
This book follows a rather common model whereby members of a community or group donate their favorite recipes for publication in order to help commemorate an event or raise funds for an organization. I’ve seen many such cookbooks organized by churches or for something like a town’s centennial. Recipes are grouped in typical cookbook fashion, by courses and ingredients, with each credited to the person who donated it.
300 years of Black Cooking in St. Mary’s County Maryland offers a straightforward grouping of its recipes, but they are not listed in a Table of Contents at the beginning of the book. Instead, the Index, which runs from pages 124 through 130 lists all the items in order. Headings include:
- Meats (which includes creatures of the land, sea, and sky),
- Casseroles & One Dish Meals,
- Canning & Preserves,
- and Miscellaneous.
Beneath the headings, each recipe is listed with its page number. Given the book is laid-out in a landscape fashion, it is only natural to lay it out flat (which is one of the things a comb binding is great for, as it makes it easy for a cook to read a recipe while working in the kitchen). In this arrangement, the entire book resembles a single 8.5″ × 11″ page, with one page above the other, instead of being side by side.
In this landscape format, the text is arranged in two-columns, which starts at the top left corner of the top page, then moves to the top right of the same page, before jumping to the top left of the lower page. The problem with this arrangement is that your eye will tend to want to read down the entire left column of the top page and then the bottom page, before moving to the top-right column of the upper page and then read down through the right-hand column of the bottom page — but it just doesn’t work that way.
Black cooking recipes
300 years of Black Cooking in St. Mary’s County Maryland includes a number of variations on classic southern dishes. There are at least five recipes for rolls, three or four for biscuits, and just as many for corn bread. There are also two recipes for Southern Maryland Stuffed ham (see “Southern Maryland stuffed ham: an overview” for information on where you can obtain this dish today). Perhaps just as interesting as the stuffed-ham recipes themselves is the explanation as to how the stuffed ham came about, starting from stuffed-smoked-hog jowls that slaves prepared, from which they moved on to whole hams (pages 23 – 24).
Of interest among the vegetable recipes might be:
- Hoppin’ John-for-New Year’s Eve, page 57,
- Poke Salad, page 58,
- and Sweet Potato Pone (two versions), page 63.
There are some recipes you may not find in many other cookbooks. These include:
- Hog Brains & Eggs, page 28,
- Hogs Maw, which uses the pig’s feet, tail, and ears, page 29,
- Muskrat, rabbit, or squirrel, page 35,
- and Possum, page 35.
Interestingly, there are more than just food recipes in the book. In the Miscellaneous section at the end of the book, the next-to-last item is instructions on how to make a rose-petal sachet. The last item in the book describes how to make a hair treatment by soaking the end of a grape vine in water for several days, and then combing the grape-vine water through your hair, and then setting it. It promises to make your hair silky and curly.
A different kind of book
This book is different from similar volumes in several ways:
- The book appears to have had at least three different titles
- the one on the cover, 300 Years of Black Cooking in St. Mary’s County Maryland;
- on the Title Page (page i) it is referred to as Come In, Sit Down, Make Yourself At Home: Citizens for Progress Cookbook, St. Mary’s County, Maryland (see below);
- and in the Foreword (page iii), written by Jonathan Nelson, Member, St. Mary’s Bicentennial Commission, it is called Three Centuries of Black Cooking In St. Mary’s County, Maryland.
- The book looks as if it may have been bound, or put together, in two different ways. It appears the original cover may have been what is now what I have called the title page, which uses the same paper as rest of the book. The interior pages are hole-punched to use with rings (or perhaps ribbons or string) instead of the comb-binding that now holds the book together (see the photo below). The punched holes serve no apparent purpose in the book’s current form.
Most such books are either typeset or composed on a typewriter. This book, though, appears to have used typesetting solely on the exterior cover (see the photo at right). The copyright page (page ii), the Foreword (pages iii and iv), and the Introduction (page 5) were composed with a typewriter. The rest of the book is hand-lettered, in much the same style as the Title page shown above.
- This version of the book appears to be a re-issued volume, put out in 1983 by the St. Mary’s County Community Affairs Committee (See Item 1, in the References section below). The Washington Post (see Item 2, in the References section below), noted that the illustrations were added at that time.
There are many ways to describe this book:
- Delightful — it’s simple line drawings and hand-lettered text set it apart from most other books in my library, or any modern library I’ve seen.
- Comprehensive — Not only does it cover just about every course imaginable, it also offers multiple versions of a number of recipes, including three crab cake recipes.
- Historical — as a time-capsule, it takes you back at least 40 years to when it was produced, and back another 300+ years to when the ancestors of its authors arrived on Maryland’s shores. From its description of the evolution of the stuffed ham, to its recipes for possum and muskrat, it brings the past to life.
300 Years of Black Cooking in St. Mary’s County Maryland is a great pleasure to both browse and study. Anyone with an interest in Maryland’s history, Black history, or who just enjoys a good cookbook, will find this volume well worth their time, and a worthy addition to their personal collection.
“Recipes and Community Blend Well in Book,” By Matt Zapotosky, Washington Post Staff Writer, Sunday, July 1, 2007.
A note about the black-and-white photographs
John Felix Vachon (click here to read about him on Wikipedia.org), a native of St. Paul Minnesota, took all of the black-and-white photographs included above. He was employed by the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Vachon (who lived from 1914 until 1975) started work as a clerk at the FSA (an organization founded as part of the New Deal to help combat rural poverty), but eventually got into photography, and as his skills progressed, so did his assignments for the government. After leaving the government, he became a world-travelling free-lance photographer, and later a visiting professor at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. ♦