The Vanquished Banquet: Fritters

Written by David Shields

Originally Published in The Rice Paper Newsletter, Fall 2009


The mid-19th century was the heyday of the fritter. A traditional dish of southern Europe and West Africa, the fritter was any ingredient incorporated into a batter of wheat, rice, or buckwheat flour, or corn meal, shaped into a roundish mass, and fried in lard or vegetable oil. A fritter could be savory or sweet, depending upon the chief ingredient incorporated into the batter. In Louisiana they were called beignets, in the Midwest, dodgers, in the south fritters. They were often dipped into a sauce, or melted butter, or gravy, or drizzled with syrup or molasses. Savory fritters were side dishes, sweet fritters, desserts. Both the cymling (pattipan squash) fritter and the okra fritter were standard dishes of the early southern table.

Cymling Fritters

Squashes came to the southern table from the native nations of the Southeast. Of the various indigenous varieties of C. pepo grown in the eastern half of the continent, northerners gravitated to the crookneck ‘winter’ squashes, southerners to the scalloped summer squashes which they called cymlings. The exterior shell of the cymling hardens as it matures.

A Virginian of the Reconstruction Era advised, “In selecting cymlings take none that the thumb-nail cannot easily penetrate, and the white ones are preferable. Cut them into pieces, and boil in just enough water to cover them for about three-quarters of an hour, or until soft enough to mash.”

Cymlings were invariably boiled or fried as the first step in any dish. One of the great debates of the latter 19th-century about cooking squashes concerned whether to add bacon to the pot. Some thought it too greasy, others a necessary flavor additive. Since it does not appear in any surviving cymling fritter recipe, we sidestep the controversy.

After boiling and running through a colander, mix with an egg, season with salt, pepper, and butter, make into cakes and fry a light brown.

Marion Cabell Tyree, Housekeeping in Old Virginia (Louis- ville: John P. Morton, 1879), p. 241. 

Okra Fritters


Cut the okra in very thin slices, almost as thin as a wafer, make a batter of flour, egg, and water, or a little milk; put the okra in with a little salt, and fry them in hot lard.

Mrs. Sarah A. Elliott, Mrs. Elliott’s Housewife (New York: Hurd & Houghton, 1870), p. 106


Strain a quart already boiled, mash it smooth, and season with salt and pepper; beat in one or two eggs and add flour enough to thicken into a paste; fried as fritters, and served upon a napkin hot, as fried.

Sarah Annie Frost, Godey’s Lady’s Book Receipts and Household Hints (Philadelphia: Evans, Stod- dard Co., 1870), p. 184. 

The Vanquished Banquet: Stewed Salsify Virginia Style

Written By David Shields

Originally Published in The Rice Paper Newsletter, Fall 2009


In America, the slender, pale salsify root became, curiously, a monument to the people’s insatiable desire for oysters, earning the vegetable the nickname, oyster-plant. Even boiled, mashed, rolled in cracker crumbs, and deep fried like fried oysters, Salsify does not possess the mouth feel, salinity, or unctuousness of a bivalve. So it suffers the fate of being a perpetual disappointment, a failed wish for those who take it up thinking it to be, somehow, the vegetable kingdoms phantom double for a blue point. (Repeatedly in cook books of the 19th century one finds suggestions on how to make salsify taste “more like an oyster,” such as “having a little cod- fish stirred among it” while stewing.)

Let us exorcise the phantom now. Only a 19th-century Midwesterner, haunted by elusive memory and residing far from the railroad depots where barrels of eastern oysters were dispatched, could possibly delude themselves into detecting the briny succulence of an oyster on his tongue when savoring salsify.

The root has its own virtues, whether boiled, stewed, fried, or shaved into a salad. It has a clean, slightly saline toothsomeness, free of the mintyness and occasional fibrousness of a parsnip, the rough sugar of a carrot, or the mealy blandness of a potato. It is wholesome, delicately nutty, and visually appealing when peeled, white, and firm. Salsify’s propensity to dissolve into mush when over-boiled has prompted 21st century cooks to steam rather than boil the root. In traditional European cookery salsify’s whiteness became a point of culinary elaboration. Care was taken to prevent the peeled roots from discoloring by soaking them immediately in vinegar water. Dishes often married the cooked roots with milk or cream.


Scrape and throw into water at once to prevent from turning dark. Boil till tender in a closely covered vessel. Drain off the water and cut the salsify in pieces half an inch long. Throw in a saucepan with 1 teacup vinegar

1 teacup water
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon butter salt and pepper to taste

Just before serving add the yolk of an egg beaten up and mixed with a little water. The seasoning above is give for one quart salsify.

Mrs. S. T. Marion Cabell Tyree, Housekeeping in Old Virginia (Louisville: J. P. Morton & o., 1879) p. 250. 

The Vanquished Banquet: Mutton Ham

Written By David Shields

Originally Published in The Rice Paper Newsletter, Fall 2009


In 1837 the editor of the Tennessee Farmer declared that mutton ham was superior to pork. While his opinion seems not to have been sustained by southern culinary history, the pleasures of a cured ram or sheep’s leg were widely known in 19th-century America. Mutton Ham was a traditional English meat, described and lauded in the most popular late 18th and early 19th-century English cookbooks.

The first recipe published in an American periodical, an 1825 receipt published in the New England Farmer, opted in favor of smoking the leg for ten days with green hickory wood. Another school of preparation eschewed smoking but recommended that the ham be soaked and boiled before eating. In the south mutton ham came to be a feature of up-country, rather than coastal cookery, in large measure because the heat and humidity of the coastal south made sheep miserable and thwarted large-scale sheep-breeding.

Once cured, a ham could be shipped anywhere, and hence came to the Lowcountry and Tidewater table. While numbers of recipes survive for the dish, the most extensive comes from Mrs. Washington of North Carolina. With the fall-off in demand for mutton on American meat markets in the twentieth century, the mutton ham languished and has become a forgotten mainstay of the banquet table.


Leg of mutton weighing twelve pounds; one ounce of black pepper; a quarter of a pound of brown sugar; one ounce of saltpeter; one and a quarter pounds of salt.

The day after the sheep is killed, mix the sugar, pepper, and saltpeter, and rub thoroughly into the meat for fifteen minutes, until the outer part is thoroughly impregnated with the seasoning. Put the ham into a large earthenware vessel and cover it with the salt; let it remain thus for three weeks, turning it daily and basting it with the brine, adding to this, after the first week, a teacupful of vinegar. When the ham is removed from the pickle, wash with cold water, then with vinegar, and hang it up in a cool cellar for a week, at least, before it is used. Soak an hour in fair water before boiling.

Or, if you choose to smoke it for several days after it is corned, it can be chipped and eaten raw like dried beef.

Mrs. Washington, Unrivalled Cook-Book (New York: Harpers and Brothers, 1886), pp. 116-17. 

The Vanished Banquet: Baked Sturgeon

Written by David Shields

Originally Published in The Rice Paper Newsletter, Fall 2009


Once Atlantic sturgeon dominated the coastal rives of the south, the largest fish in the food chain. Long-lived and slow-moving, they grew to enormous size, up to fourteen feet in length, cruising in the depths of the main stem rivers in South Carolina. Both meat and roe found ready buyers in the urban markets, so commercial fisherman began the systematic harvest of sturgeon early in the 19th century. Their improvidence caused a drastic reduction of the population in American waters over the course of the 19th centuries and early 20th century.

The collapse of the sturgeon population took place in northern rivers by the mid-20th century. South Carolina in the 1960s and 70s landed half of the nation’s total catch, but this intensive fishing replicated the problems in the north. By the early 1980s the fishery was in dire straits. South Carolina’s Department of Natural Resources prohibited sturgeon fishing in 1985 in a bid to rebuild the species. Unfortunately the damming of several of the sturgeon’s breeding rivers has thwarted its restoration. Only in undammed estuaries, such as the Edisto, has an increase in spawn been detected.

The riverine short-nosed sturgeon, which has never been pursued by commercial or recreational fisherman to any extent, is also an endangered species, primarily because of habitat degradation.

Farm raised sturgeon is available in certain parts of the United States, and the University of Georgia produces excellent caviar from farmed White Sturgeon. Most early southern cookbooks included recipes for sturgeon steaks, cutlets, baked and pickled sturgeon. This classic version, drawn from Mary Randolph’s Virginia Housewife, was prepared in a Dutch Oven.


Get a piece of sturgeon with the skin on, the piece next to the tail, scrape it well, cut out the gristle, and boil it about twenty minutes to take out the oil take it up, pull off the large scales, and when cold, stuff it with forcemeat, made of bread crumbs, butter, chopped parsley, pepper and salt, put it in a Dutch oven just large enough to hold it, with a pint and half of water, a gill of red wine; one of mushroom catsup, some salt and pepper, stew it gently till the gravy is reduced to the quantity necessary to pour over it; take up your sturgeon carefully, thicken the gravy with a spoonful of butter rubbed into a large one of brown flour; — see that it is perfectly smooth when you put it in the dish. p. 57. 

The Vanished Banquet: Boiled Rice Pea Pods in Vinaigrette

Written by David Shields

Originally Published in The Rice Paper Newsletter, Fall 2009


Until the 1920s, the rice pea stood highest of all the field peas in the regard of southern gourmets.

While the soul food cook might cherish the black-eyed pea, and the upcountry farmer loves his red iron and clay peas, those pulses lacked the delicacy for fine cuisine.

I. M., a writer for the Boston Cooking School Magazine in 1915, sang the rice pea’s virtues: “[T]here is a field pea called the rice pea, grown extensively in southern states, which is white, eye and all, with a slightly creamy tinge, and it is even more delicate of flavor than black-eyed peas; these are as delicate as early June peas, and they retain their natural color when cooked, and do not change the color of meat cooked with them. Perhaps the reason rice peas are not grown more generally is that they are not as hardy as black-eyed peas and other field peas. These delicately flavored rice peas, cooked with tender young pork, are far and away more appetizing than pork and beans, and almost or quite as nutritious. They are good, either cooked after they have become dry in the autumn and winter, or when young and tender in the late spring and early summer. Southern ladies often cook the tender young peas, pods and all, as snap beans are cooked.”

While rice peas proved difficult to grow and subject to insect attack, they appeared on the southern table at various points in the year, as the legumes were planted in rotation with corn and other crops. Supplanted by cow pea varieties easier to grow, the rice pea has become a rare variety available from three heirloom seed brokers. Its culinary qualities, however, promise that it will undergo a renovation in regard in the near future. 


Pick the pea pods when they are now fully mature. Wash them thoroughly, for they tend to be buggy. Have a big pot of salted water on a rolling boil. Deposit as many pods as your diners may eat. Do not cook overlong. Ten minutes at most. Drain water and rinse beans with cold water. Try to get them to room temperature. Put in a dressing of oil, vinegar, mustard, and salt. Some add mint to freshen the taste. I prefer it without. 

The Vanished Banquet: Terrapin Soup

Written By David Shields

Originally Published in The Rice Paper Newsletter, Fall 2009

Terrapin Soup ranked among the premier American dishes of the 19th century, found on the bills of fare of the finest restaurants and a fixture at the social dinners of blue book society. Prepared with Madeira or Sherry as a principal ingredient, the vogue for Terrapin soup died with Prohibition in 1919. Because the turtle had been harvested to near ex tinction in northern wetlands, the Volstead Act proved a boon to the species, enabling it to crawl back into healthy numbers in the 1960s. Then the boom in coastal real estate development began playing havoc with its nesting areas in the brackish waters off the Atlantic. While certain states, South Carolina included, do not identify the Diamondback Terrapin an endangered species and maintain laws that permit commercial harvesting, no license for commercial exploitation of the Terrapin have been issued in the 21st century. The turtle is being protected by administrative policy, because there is a widespread conviction that the population is declining. Ongoing studies of terrapin populations are maintained by several groups, reflecting a strong public resolve to bring this most famous of turtles back into a flourishing condition. While it is not illegal to have terrapin soup, no public restaurant in the United States now serves it, sensitive to the sustainability issues, but it still may be had in at least two private clubs in Baltimore and one in Washington, D.C. I include two recipes, representing two schools of thought about the soup. The first reflects the tradition in the Chesapeake region to render it as a thick stew. The second, from one of the earliest cookbooks by an African-American Chef and Housekeeper, The Unrivalled Cook-book (1886), treats in as a high-style soup with forcemeat balls of turtle.


In buying terrapins, select those only that are large, fat, and thick-bodied. Put them whole into water that is boiling hard at the time, and (adding a little salt) boil them till thoroughly done throughout. Then, taking off the shell, extract the meat, and remove carefully the sand-bag and gall; also all the entrails. They are disgusting, unfit to eat, and are no longer served up in cooking terrapin for the best tables. Cut the meat into pieces, and put it into a stew-pan with its eggs, and sufficient fresh butter to stew it well. Let it stew till quite hot throughout, keeping the pan carefully covered that none of the flavor may escape; but shake it over the fire while stewing in another pan, make a sauce of beaten yolk of egg, highly flavored with Madeira or sherry, and powdered nutmeg and mace, and enriched with a large lump of fresh butter. Stir this sauce well over the fire, and when it has almost come to a boil, take it off. Send the terrapin to table hot in a covered dish, and the sauce separately in sauce-tureen, to be used by those who like it, and omitted by those who prefer the genuine flavor of the terrapin when simply stewed with butter.

This is now the usual mode of dressing terrapins in Maryland and Virginia, and will be found superior to any other.

No dish of terrapins can be good unless the terrapins themselves are of the best quality. It is mis- taken economy to buy poor ones. Besides being insipid and tasteless, it takes more in number to fill a dish. The females are the best.

Saturday Evening Post 29, 1505 (June 1, 1850), 0_004. 


Clean and cut up a large terrapin with the entrails and bones; remove the gall carefully; put your terrapin in a soup pot with four quarts of water, a soup bunch, a head of celery, onions, thyme, parsley, salt and pepper; let it simmer four hours do not let it cease one moment to cook; strain your soup, thickened it with browned flour, return it to the soup pot; tie up in a muslin bag half a tablespoonful of cloves, allspice, and a cracked nutmeg; let it simmer an hour in the soup, then remove. If the turtle has eggs, boil them and throw in the yolks; if there are no eggs, use forcemeat balls; add a glass of Madeira and thin slices of lemon before serving. The force- meat balls are made by rubbing two hard-boiled yolks to a paste, with butter, and half a dozen spoonfuls of the turtle meat, chopped very fine, and seasoned with salt and pepper; bind with beaten eggs; make into balls; dip, first, into beaten egg, then into powdered cracker, and fry in butter.

Mrs. Washington, The Unrivalled Cook-Book and Housekeeper’s Guide (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1886), pp. 27-28.


The Vanished Banquet: Benne Soup on Carolina Gold Long Grain Rice

written by David Shields

Originally published in the Rice Paper newsletter, Fall 2009


Benne seed, or sesame seed, was one of the five most important foodstuffs brought by slaves from West Africa to North America. An entire African-American cuisine grew up around the plant of which only the benne wafer, a cookie associated with Charleston, and benne candy, a favorite confection of the West Indies, survive. 

White planters took up the plant in the early 18th century as a source for oil, when experiments in olive cultivation proved unsuitable for most of the south. By the early 19th century it was widely planted from Virginia to Missouri. Of the favorite slave dishes — benne and hominy, benne and greens, and benne soup — only the last entered into southern cuisine generally. 

Robert M. Goodwin of Skidaway Island, George, observed in 1824, that for “negroes in this part of the country . . . it [benne] is thought . . . to be much better in soup than okra, and it is used by them in the same manner.” Sarah Rutledge, author of the Carolina Housewife, included a “Bennie Soup” with oysters in her landmark cookbook. But the simpler, classic soup, was consumed more widely, often served over grits or rice, a new world approximation of the Mende treat, fou-fou.

Long grain Carolina Gold was the creation of Joshua John Ward of Brookgreen Plantation in South Carolina. The standard size of a grain of Gold Seed rice was 5/16ths of an inch. Ward, through careful cultivation of a sport of Carolina Gold, managed to grew grain nearly a half an inch long. Requiring extraordinary efforts of seedsmanship and cultivation, it existed on the market from 1840 to 1860, and commanded the highest prices of any world rice on the Paris market. The Civil War brought an end to its availability. The Carolina Gold Rice Foundation has an initiative to recreate the variety in the near future.

Benne Soup Recipe

1 cup benne seed, Enough sesame oil to cover the bottom of a cooking vessel, A handful of wheat flour, Salt & Pepper, onions, A quart of water.
Toast benne seed in a dry skillet stirring constantly 2 minutes until browned, but not burnt. Empty contents of the skillet into a mortar and mash the seed into powder.
In the same skillet cover the bottom with sesame oil (the African-American way of making it is detailed below in the section on oil) and mix in flour. Stir and cook this until you form a brown roux. Fry one large roughly chopped onion. Add finely crushed benne, and then hot water, steadily, stirring constantly. Cook at a constant medium until it is rich and thick and salt to taste.
This is a hearty and flavorful soup. Serve on top of steamed Carolina Gold Long Grain Rice. 

The Vanished Banquet: A Menu of Lost Southern Delicacies

written by david shields

originally published in The Rice paper newsletter, Fall 2009


In a comic character sketch by antebellum writer Johnson Jones Hooper, a quintessential southern bon vivant, “The Colonel,” attempts to persuade members of the Alabama legislature to move the state capital to Montgomery and not Wetumpka by circulating two bills of fare. That from the ‘Montgomery Hall’ read:

Boiled—Turkey, with oyster sauce.
Entrees—Oyster-Pie, &c.
Desert—Plumb-Pudding, Tarts, Pies, and Jellies.
Fruit—Oranges, Apples, Pineapples, Raisins, Al- monds, &c.
Wines—Champagne, Madeira, Sherry, &c., &c.

That from the ‘Wetumpka Hotel’ read:

Boiled—Bacon and Greens.
Entrees—Tripe and Cow-Heel.
Dessert—Fritters and Molasses.
Fruit—Persimmons, Chestnuts, Goobers.
Wines—Black Malaga.

Both the high style and common menus have their telling features. Montgomery Hall catered to southern gourmets’ obsession with oysters, inserting the bivalve in every dish before the dessert course, except roast pig. The Wetumpka Hotel offers a remarkable array of country fare. Neither bill features the glory of southern home cooking, the elaborate baked goods upon which hostesses and cooks staked their reputations. The wine lists betray the same penchant for fortified wines (except for the taste for champagne), not the clarets and white wines esteemed by later generations. Both menus contain items that have endured as staples of the southern table: turkey with oyster dressing, roast pig, bacon and greens, chitterlings, peanuts. Both feature dishes that have vanished from southern cuisine: oyster pie, fritters & molasses, dried persimmons. Why do dishes disappear from a community’s table? Why and how do pleasures vanish?

Sometimes the dishes cannot be made any longer because the ingredients have ceased to exist (the long grain version of Carolina Gold Rice), or are so endangered that they are protected by law (terrapins and rice birds). Other foods expire because of changes in the cost or availability of ingredients; rice bread, once a staple of Carolina tables ceased to be made when local rice was no longer commercially available, after 1912. Some dishes vanish because of changes of taste, as Black Malaga has done from the southern wine cellar, or pickled nasturtiums from the pantry. Other dishes no longer exist because they have transformed into something else. The benne and molasses candy treasured in the antebellum south became benne brittle, when cane sugar became cheaper toward the end of the 19th century. For whatever reason, a buffet table’s worth of southern dishes have passed away. Here I would like to image a banquet featuring the most evocative of these lost treasures, presenting a menu, and then discuss the particular merits of each course and dish in subsequent blog posts. 


Benne Soup on Long Grain Carolina Gold
Terrapin Soup

Boiled Rice Pea Pods In Vinaigrette

Baked Sturgeon

Broiled Rice Birds in Butter

Mutton Ham


Creole Fried Cucumbers and Stewed Salsify Virginia Style

Cymling Fritters and Okra Fritters

American Chestnut Pudding