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Recipes From a Southern Duchess

January 27, 1994|MICHAEL ROBERTS

This past holiday I was offered a sweet little gift, a curious volume entitled "Some Favorite Southern Recipes of the Duchess of Windsor." The book of 140 recipes was published in 1942 by Charles Scribner's Sons, and the royalties were donated to the British War Relief Society.

In an intriguing introduction, Eleanor Roosevelt states that "one of the real improvements in American living and health has been the discarding of the elaborate and extravagant menus that marked our entertaining as recently as the General Grant period. And it has been done without any real loss in the enjoyment of fine foods."

She was happy to see simplification and balance in the food choices of Americans. Roosevelt was concerned about vitamins and minerals. She commended home economics departments for teaching students "not only the principles of nutrition but how to make food appealing in both appearance and taste."

Wallis Windsor, as the duchess signed her name, was a Baltimore girl, and she writes of the South as a region known for its fine foods: "It is the simple dishes of my homeland which are the most popular . . . and which are the ones most frequently served at my table."

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Good recipe books document a specific period, illuminating for us the customs and tastes of that era. The world was obviously much larger in 1942 than it is today, as evidenced by the lack of familiarity with so many dishes in our cooking vocabulary today. In the final, short chapter entitled "Some of My Favorite Foreign Recipes," there's a chicken madras recipe, one for haddock souffle and a risotto. These seem hardly foreign today.

The repertoire of flavorings is limited to salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper, sage, thyme, cloves, allspice, mace and nutmeg. There's file powder in two gumbo recipes. There's no garlic in the entire book. Tomatoes are used in only one recipe--ravioli with tomato sauce. When vinegar is called for in a recipe for pickled oysters, the only specification in the ingredient list is that it be hot.

There are two recipes using terrapin, one for fish roes and one for calf's tongue. There are six recipes each for crab and oysters. The bread chapter is as large as the meat and poultry chapter. Even in a book on Southern cooking, it's obvious that people's tastes were considerably different 50 years ago.

Perusing the duchess' effort, I found the recipes remarkably simple. Most recipes call for only four to eight ingredients. By comparison, the average recipe in cookbooks today has eight ingredients.

Rice is browned until golden before moistening with water, which gives a wonderful nutty flavor. The fried chicken is browned in fat, then cooked with fat and a little water until tender. It's a bit silly to give a recipe, as I do here, for peaches in January, but I couldn't resist this simple way of making brandied fruit. (It works just as well using firm pears.)

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Our cooking today is more complicated, but is it any better? There's no recipe in the book that goes on for more than one page. In fact, most are completed in only a few steps. The directions are not as precise as in many modern cookbooks, probably because more Americans knew their way around a kitchen 50 years ago. Still, nothing is beyond the realm of a novice cook today.

The duchess' assumption was clearly that most people cooked every day. There's no implied message that cooking is a hobby or a means of relaxation on the weekend. In a short beginning section, the duchess gives some typical Southern menus. It shows that an average meal--at least in the duchess' upper-class haunts--consisted of more dishes than we are accustomed to serving today, especially more vegetable and bread dishes.

It struck me that the classic American style of eating 50 years ago consisted of many dishes served together on the same plate, a sort of Thanksgiving feast every day of the week. In this typically American style of eating, no single dish is meant to be the star of the meal. That perhaps explains why each of these recipes seems a bit austere by today's style of cooking. In the book, no single dish is as robust as what we're used to, and in a sense, each dish is like an ingredient in a recipe. When put together into a meal, the total is greater than the sum of all the individual parts.

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The following recipes have been adapted from "Some Favorite Southern Recipes of the Duchess of Windsor."

MARYLAND FRIED CHICKEN

1 (3-pound) chicken

Salt

1 cup flour

3 tablespoons vegetable shortening

1 tablespoon butter

2 tablespoons water

1/2 cup whipping cream

1 cup broth

Pepper

Have chicken disjointed at market, with wings, breast cut in halves, back, second joints and drumsticks separated. Season chicken to taste with salt. Roll chicken in flour, shaking off excess. Reserve leftover flour.

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