Friday, October 25, 2013

Southern Food Memories

First, a disclaimer: As a Texan, I had never set foot in North Carolina or, for that matter, traveled east of the Mississippi River before I moved here for graduate school. While Texas may be geographically south, it is culturally foreign to “The South.” My first (and easiest) point of entry into Southern culture was its food - I have gradually started to replace breakfast tacos with biscuits, rice with grits, and beef brisket with pulled pork.

However, my grandparents are from Pearl, Mississippi and I eagerly look forward to any holiday or event that involves my grandmother’s cooking. I asked her to share a few of her memories:

“I suppose as in all regions of the country, southern cuisine originally was built using foods that were available… no Kroger.  Every southerner with even a small patch of land had a garden.  Vegetables were the basis of their menus and for the most part were plentiful.   The Mississippi County Cooperative Extension Service had agents available who met with church ladies and ladies clubs to teach safe methods of canning so summer vegetables were available all year round.  Of course, most women were taught this in the home growing up but just in case. Women took great pride in their canning as evidenced by the competition in all county fairs. In addition to canned vegetables, jams, jellies and preserves were also judged.  

Almost all early cookbooks were compiled by these ladies groups and were lovingly typed on an old typewriter and, of course, credit for the recipe was given to the one who submitted it.  These pages of recipes were held together with rings and obviously were a source of pride judging by the pen and ink drawings.  The first really big mass produced cookbook was the Betty Crocker Cookbook in the red and white checked cover.  If you couldn’t have Mama by your side to teach you to cook, you had Betty.  Many of my recipes are written on paper napkins and check book deposit slips as they were shared by friends around the table.

Delicious fruit and berry pies were also enjoyed by southern families.  Frugal homemakers saw that fruit trees were planted on the property and kids kept the blackberries picked. One of my favorite pies that called for purchased ingredients was a lemon icebox pie. I always felt very special when I was called in quietly to lick the condensed milk can and also the mixing bowl. When my mom made pie crust she always made a little extra, rolled it out, cut it in strips. Sprinkled it with cinnamon and sugar and cooked it on a cookie sheet.  A real treat.

Favorite foods that I remember and are now my “comfort” foods are oatmeal (no instant, please), chicken n dumplin’s, meat loaf and mashed potatoes, corn bread, and biscuits with gravy.”

Happy Archives Week!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

If it ain't North Carolina BBQ, it ain't BBQ!

Several years ago, I had a discussion with a friend originally from Florida. We were on our way to a convention, and I was raving about the meal for Sunday lunch -- Lexington-style BBQ.

"Barbecue?" she asked.

Confused, I replied in the affirmative.

"You mean that shredded, messy, vinegary stuff?"
Honeymonk's BBQ, also known as Lexington BBQ. This place is a tradition!
By now I was drooling.  Just the description tasted delicious in my mouth as I rolled the words around on my tongue.

"That stuff is disgusting! And it isn't barbecue!"

Hold the phone...I think our friendship might be over!  My mom was raised in Lexington, North Carolina, and as her daughter I am sworn to loyalty when it comes to Lexington Barbecue. (Yes, I capitalized Lexington Barbecue.)

Coarse Chopped with Slaw. YUM!
The truth that I learned from this conversation was that no one really understands barbecue the same way. In South Carolina it's a mustard base. In Texas, it's beef brisket.  In other places, barbecue is just an action. But in North Carolina, it's pulled pork in a vinegar sauce that goes beyond least for me.

Now, you might wonder how this connects to archives. In many programs, public history and archives are linked because archival work is seen as applied history. We saw this at the recent Tri-State Archivists Conference where Katherine Thompson Allen, Evan Kutzler, and Amanda Noll presented on the South Caroliniana Library and the Public History Program's efforts to reveal archival resources related to the role of slavery on their campus. See the website here:

Applied history can be important as a method of advocacy for the importance of archives. In the above case, applied history can help scholars re-imagine and re-interpret manuscripts and artifacts related to the history of the South Carolina College. Applied history may also act as an interactive tool.  Interactive tools do not only reach scholars and other archivists but also the general public.

It's only BBQ if it's over a pit!  The greats are called "Pit Masters."
One such interactive tool is the North Carolina Society's Historic Barbecue Trail. Most of the pictures used for this website stem from North Carolina newspapers. As far as the textual information for each stop on the map, most are from books written on North Carolina barbecue. While the Trail may not be the best example of applied history in action, but barbecue in North Carolina is a much loved, historic tradition. In fact, Lexington has a barbecue festival every year!  And if you search the Southern Historical Collection for "barbecue," "bbq," or "barbeque," there are plenty of hits!

Check out the North Carolina Barbecue Trail Map at:

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Mississippi pilgrimages for She-Crab Soup on the Outer Banks

Happy Archives Week, everyone!  

As a Mississippian living in North Carolina, while it is comforting to hear similarly southern accents, smell many of the same flowers and trees blooming in the spring, and taste familiar dishes and ingredients of southern cuisine, I am always curious to find the endless tiny (and not so tiny) distinctions that make these two corners of the South decidedly different from one another. 

Deviled eggs in Vicksburg, MS.

The accents are similar - but not that similar.  Our favorite foods are much alike - you say Bojangles, I say Church's Chicken.  I'm getting to know all the special qualities of landscape, history, and culture that make North Carolina so unique within the South, and reflect the diversity of this region.

My first introduction to North Carolina was through the Outer Banks.  My mother's parents met as performers in the outdoor drama "The Lost Colony," were married in the town of Manteo, NC, and made the trip from Oxford, MS, every summer with their three daughters for more than twenty years afterward.  To say my mother's family love Manteo, the Outer Banks, and generally everything about North Carolina is an understatement.  

My mother and her sisters warming up backstage at the Lost Colony, circa 1965.

My generation of cousins were introduced to the Outer Banks when we were in diapers, and while we were never stars of the stage in "The Lost Colony" like our mothers, we inherited a great fascination with and love of the area.  Throughout our lives we have returned for summer visits to see old family friends from my grandmother's and mother's generations, and one of the most highly anticipated elements of every trip is always She-Crab Soup.  

She-Crab Soup at Tale of the Whale, Nags Head, NC.

In my opinion, She-Crab Soup is the most delicious concoction of sweetness, tang, creaminess, a little spice, and a bite of she-crab (a female crab, simply put, but a mystical creature in my childhood mind), all thrown together in a beautiful steaming bowl.  This dish had been a favorite of my family's during their time in the Outer Banks every summer, and I have been raised with the special knowledge of this delicious and hard-to-find soup (typically savored at the Tale of the Whale Restaurant on Nags Head) that few Mississippians, or anyone outside of the Carolina coast, had ever heard of.   

This sumptuous cross between a bisque and a chowder originates from Charleston, SC.  I associate the taste so directly with North Carolina, but it can be found along the southeastern coast from Virginia through the Carolinas and down to Georgia.  It's a dish that connects me to my particular family history, and reminds me of the regional diversity of the South.  If you ever find yourself near the coast and see some She-Crab on the menu, do yourself a favor and start your own personal history with this coastal delicacy.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Food heritage: Cheerwine

image from DigitalNC
When I was a kid I used to come to Charlotte every summer to visit my aunt for a few weeks. This was a big deal. My aunt was the coolest person in the world. She had her own apartment, she didn’t have any kids, she worked in a skyscraper, and she talked to me like an adult. Best of all, I got to go see her by myself. No sisters to tag along and suck up all the attention. Just me and her.

I’m from Memphis. We had - still have - all kinds of good regional foods to choose from. Dry-rub barbecue. Jerry’s Sno Cones. Dyer’s burgers. Charlotte doesn’t have these things. As a kid I didn’t care too much; mainly I wanted to know why my aunt insisted on eating out at weirdo restaurants every night when we could just have some nice Kraft Mac and Cheese at home. My concerns were pretty limited to basic eight-year-old things like when Duck Tales was coming on and why I couldn’t get more than one giant paper flower at Carowinds. But one thing Charlotte did have over Memphis that I was very, very concerned with was Cheerwine.
image from ideal-Living
The first time I had Cheerwine was at a Food Court in a Charlotte mall. Probably South Park, but it’s been a long time, so the details are fuzzy. I do remember going to one of the food kiosks, getting some fast food, and spotting a bright red soft drink dispenser among all the usual favorites. I picked it because red was my favorite color at the time. I drank it because I was thirsty and I never ate without a drink. I kept drinking it because WOW IT WAS DELICIOUS.
I drank Cheerwine almost exclusively for the remaining duration of my visit. If it wasn't on the menu of the restaurant of the day I had Coke instead and got a Cheerwine on the way home (and stayed up all night,  overly-hyped on caffeine and cherry syrup). I'm sure my aunt was relieved to put me on my flight home when the time came.
As for me, I was excited to share my incredible discovery with my family when I got back. That, and to make my parents buy Cheerwine instead of Coke. Nearly the second I saw my Mom I asked her if we could go to the grocery store on the way back from the airport and get some.
My Mom looked puzzled for a moment. Then, she said something incredibly devastating.
"What's Cheerwine?"
Now, I live in North Carolina. I can get Cheerwine any time I want (I swear I didn't do it for the Cheerwine) (Maybe). Cheerwine has been around for much longer than I have; since 1917, and it's still going strong. Did you know that you can make a cake out of it? I didn't, but I intend to find out exactly what that's like later this week at the SCOSAA potluck and recipe exchange. Come on down and enjoy!

Monday, October 21, 2013

"The Queen of Puddings" and the Historical Record of Women

In honor of Archives Week, your SCOSAA board members will each be contributing a blog post this week on some topic related to NC food culture. If you're not familiar with archives week, want to know more about this year's theme, or want to check out all the cool events happening across the state, visit

Because I work in Research and Instructional Services for Wilson Library here at UNC, I thought it would be fun to find a 19th-century recipe from the Southern Historical Collection and attempt to recreate it. I chose a recipe for "The Queen of Puddings" from the Montford McGehee Papers, #1125, folder 3. A (somewhat blurry, I apologize!) reproduction of the recipe follows.

In preparing to make this recipe, I found I was unable to recreate it, mainly because of the fact that so many measurements were missing. The recipe calls, for example, for "a quart of hot sweet milk, ________ of sugar" and "adding a _________ of powdered sugar." I thought about adding my own estimated measurements, but because I had no idea how sweet this pudding was meant to be and I wanted to recreate it accurately, I ended up not attempting the recipe.

This recipe made me think a lot about the gaps we're leaving behind in the historical record, particularly for women. I'm currently hard at work on the lit review for my master's paper on the importance of women's collections, and in conducting my research, I have learned that women tend to be woefully underrepresented in the historical record (and where they are represented, they tend to be very difficult to find in description), particularly because the kinds of records women have historically left behind (including recipe books like this one, diaries, scrapbooks, etc.) are deemed less important than business, political, financial, and institutional records (traditionally male-dominated record groups), and so they are not called out in description or worse, not collected at all. The tragic irony is that these kinds of materials are the most valuable in documenting the female experience, because they show what women's daily lives were like, the kinds of activities in which they were involved, and how intricately they were involved in creating history.

I couldn't tell you how many times I've pulled a family recipe from my collection, gotten ready to make it, and ended up having to call my mother to demystify some vague or blank element. Carson women (my mother's family) in particular are famous for including things like "bake not too long in a cold oven" or "bake until it's done" in their recipes. I always wonder what will happen to these recipes once my mother is no longer around to clarify them. In fact, already there are many in my collection that are basically not reproducible, because she doesn't remember the necessary information to fill in the holes. Because of this, I continually try to fill them in as I can, and I make sure to copy down new recipes as completely as possible.

I'm very curious why the woman who wrote this recipe left out so many measurements. I would guess that she was either writing the recipe from memory, planning to fill in the gaps later. Knowing how important records like this are, and the apparent tendency of the women who created them to leave out details, I have to confess to being somewhat concerned about the future of accurate records. We will never know if "The Queen of Puddings" required 3/4 cups of sugar, 1 cup of sugar, more, or less. Consequently, this recipe can never be accurately recreated with any degree of assurance. It is obvious that this woman, understandably, never considered the fact that her recipe book would end up in an archival repository over 100 years after she compiled it, but now it could be a vital resource for a scholar in women's history, culinary history, Southern history, etc. I imagine we probably aren't thinking of that eventuality either, but I would encourage everyone, particularly women, to try and keep as complete and accurate a body of records as possible. You never know who might find them useful!

Sam Crisp
SCOSAA President

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Tomorrow! Tour of Ackland's Conservation Lab

If you don't have plans for tomorrow evening, be sure to check out this great event hosted by AMLISS!

Join us for a visit to the Ackland Conservation Lab this Thursday, September 19th at 5:00 PM. After the visit, we'll check out the museum and its new exhibit, The Sahmat Collective: Art and Activism in India since 1989.

Meet on the front steps of Manning at 4:45 to walk over or at the Ackland Museum at 5:00.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Archival Theft

Reading that an antiquarian dealer has been stealing from the archives is enough to reduce any good archivist to shivers.  It comes down to the sad but inevitable truth that archivists simply don't know everything that they have.  As a result, we may never know what was taken if it was not recovered immediately.  So, we shiver not only at the thought that someone (I won't deign to call a thief a patron) made it past our security measures.  The thief took advantage of what little trust we have and "researched" under our supposedly watchful eyes.  Then they left taking with them materials for trade.  To us, the materials are priceless.  To the thief, they represent dollar signs.

Above is Forbes Smiley.  In 2006 he was caught at Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University because the reading room monitor saw an X-Acto knife blade on the floor next to his table.  Mr. Smiley was videotaped while removing a map from a 17th Century atlas with the knife and when stopped by the police upon leaving the library was found with maps in his jacket and in his briefcase which totaled up to $850,000 in value.  While he was caught at Yale, he had hit many libraries and archives before then and we may never know the full extent of the damage he caused. 

It's an old story, but one of enduring alarm.  This week, the FBI and the National Archives, which cooperated in a massive theft investigation, are returning more than 10,000 stolen documents. Barry Landau and his associate Jason Savedoff were stealing materials related to presidential history from various historical societies; their last stop was the Maryland Historical Society.  In this case, unlike others like Smiley's, Landau and Savedoff pleaded guilty.  Because the men were collectors themselves and not dealers, it appears as though all of the materials were still in his apartment.  At least 24 victims of the theft have been identified, and the FBI and the National Archives are returning the historical documents.  

In this case, we can breathe a sigh of relief that the materials didn't scatter far and wide before discovery of theft.  However, the recurring theme of archival theft does leave us some rather troubling questions.  How will we combat this crime in the digital age?  And how could we better promote our services to receive better protection and greater backing from authorities proactively rather than reactively?