As the holidays approach, our thoughts turn to cooking and baking for family and friends. The archives of the South Carolina Historical Society contain a wonderful collection of family recipes, or "receipts" as they were frequently called. Some of these are bound versions of modern cookbooks, and others appear at random in letters and diaries. In case you're wondering why early cooks used the word "receipt," it has a similar meaning to the word "recipe," as both are derived from the Latin verb "recipere," which means "to receive or take." As late as 1922, people were questioning the use of the two words, and Emily Post sided with "receipt," as she felt that it was a word with "fashionable descent," while "recipe" was more "commercial."
One of the earliest cookbooks in our collection is one that belonged to Eliza Lucas Pinckney and is dated 1756. It's important to remember that, in Colonial times, most dishes were cooked on an open fire. Some baking was done on hearths, and there is no doubt the Pinckneys had a brick oven. But even if you owned one, you would only use an oven for desserts and bread.
Colonial baking was complicated and time consuming. As Eliza frequently instructs, flour had to be dried by the fire and then sifted before it could be weighed. Currants or raisins had to be rubbed between towels to remove the dirt and then de-seeded one at a time. Spices also had to be dried and then pounded and sifted. Butter, after it was churned by hand, would have to be washed, and Eliza instructs her cooks to rinse it in rose water to remove the salt that was used as a preservative.
In her recipe "To make a Cake," Eliza uses currants, butter, cream and a very small amount of sugar. Sugar was used sparingly because it was expensive. It was also sold in loaves, and the cook had to chisel off a piece in order to grind it up.
Eliza's recipes, like all from this period, are written out in longhand. When you read her very detailed, careful instructions, you feel as if she's writing them for Harriott Pinckney Horry, her daughter. The SCHS also houses a cookbook that belonged to Harriott, and it is interesting to note that many of her mother's recipes are just slightly altered to adjust to new methods of food preparation.
While Eliza's receipt book has instructions for preparing everything from pickled ham to anchovies, most recipes that appear in early cookbooks are for desserts. One leather-bound receipt book that belonged to Mrs. A. W. Barns of Charleston contains 41 varieties of sweet cakes. To give baked goods for the holidays truly represented a labor of love, and women took great pride in their offerings. You can see this in Eliza's notes where she mentions that a given recipe is prepared in "my own way" or that another is "extremely good." Enjoy your holiday baking and appreciate that you are carrying on a time-proven tradition.
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