Virginia writer Ellen Glasgow is recognized as the first woman writer from the South and for moving Southern literature away from nostalgia and sentimentality. Her first novel The Descendant was published in 1897 — anonymously. In total she wrote 19 books, 13 short stories, and a volume of poetry. Her last novel, In This Our Life, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1942 and was turned into a movie with Bette Davis and Olivia de Haviland. No wonder I can’t find a cookbook recipe by Ellen Glasgow. She was way too busy writing upstairs in her antebellum home in Richmond.
In Stirring the Pot: The Kitchen and Domesticity in the Fiction of Southern Women, Laura Sloan Patterson points out that even though Ellen Glasgow examines female overtones of isolation, she rarely “acted as a homemaker in her own life.” But there was no need. She had at least two cooks in her lifetime, Lizzie Jones and James Anderson. And they must have been exceptional. Alice B. Toklas described dinner at Glasgow’s home as “epicurean.”
Finding the right gumbo for Ellen Glasgow involved a historic journey for me as I read popular magazines of the early 1900s. While Harper’s, Scribner’s and Good Housekeeping published Ellen Glasgow’s stories, magazines like Farming carried advertisements selling her books right beside Studebakers and silos. The September 1906 issue of The Boston Cooking School Magazine of Culinary Science and Domestic Economics advertised Glasgow’s newest novel The Battleground. The issue also contained a review for a The Picayune’s Creole Cook Book, “the most interesting cookbook ever published under newspaper auspices.”
The New Orleans newspaper’s cookbook is out of print after 17 editions, more than 800 recipes and eight decades, from 1901 to 1985. Times Picayune Food Editor Judy Walker (now retired) offers the interesting history of the cookbook here. Of the seven gumbo recipes featured, I’ll choose Okra Gumbo for Ellen Glasgow. The farmer’s market bins are overflowing with okra this week.
And, I’m sure Ellen Glasgow would enjoy a dish from a popular cookbook of her day, just as long as someone else cooks it.
6 Large Fresh Tomatoes
2 Pints of Okra, or Fifty Counted.
1/2 Pod of Red Pepper, without the Seeds
2 Large Slices of Ham
1 Bay Leaf
1 Sprig of Thyme or Parsley
1 Tablespoonful of Lard or Two Level Spoons of Butter
Salt and Cayenne to Taste
Clean and cut up the chicken. Cut the ham into small squares or dice and chop the onions, parsley and thyme. Skin the tomatoes, and chop fine, saving the juice. Wash and stem the okra and slice into thin layers of one-half inch each. Put the lard or butter into the soup kettle, and when hot add the chicken and the ham.
Cover closely and let it simmer for about ten minutes. Then add the chopped onions, parsley, thyme and tomatoes, stirring frequently to prevent scorching. Then add the okra, and, when well browned, add the juice of the tomatoes, which imparts a superior flavor.
The okra is very delicate and is liable to scorch quickly if not stirred frequently. For this reason many Creole cooks fry the okra separately in a frying pan, seasoning with the pepper, cayenne and salt, and then add to the chicken. But equally good results may be obtained by simply adding the okra to the frying chicken, and watching constantly to prevent scorching.
The least taste of a “scorch” spoils the flavor of the gumbo. When well fried and browned, add the boiling water (about three quarts) and set on a very slow fire, letting it simmer gently for about an hour longer. Serve hot, with nicely boiled rice. The remains of turkey may be utilized in the gumbo, instead of using chicken.
In families where it is not possible to procure a fowl, use a round steak of beef or veal, instead of the chicken, and chop fine. But it must always be borne in mind that the Chicken Gumbo has the best flavor. Much, however, depends upon the seasoning, which is always high, and thus cooked, the Meat Gumbo makes a most nutritious and excellent dish.