If you were a Carolina lady in the 1850s, you would likely have a copy of the latest and most fashionable cookbook of the times -- The Carolina Housewife. The little book was written by “A Lady of Charleston” and published in 1847. The “Lady” was Sarah Rutledge, daughter of Edward Rutledge, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. The Camden Archives and Museum has an 1851 edition of the book in our collection. In preparation for the new exhibit, “Camden in the Civil War: The Home Front,” I pulled it for exhibit along with quotes from Harriet DuBose Kershaw Lang’s “Recollections of a Southern Girl.”
When we museum people use an old book for an exhibit, we are careful not to damage the spine by forcing the book to stay open to a certain place. If the page we want to exhibit won’t stay open by itself, we carefully loop the open book with a strap of clear Mylar to keep the pages in place without force. Our copy of The Carolina Housewife has been well used and loved. There were several pages that were easy to exhibit without the Mylar strap. But our book has its own preference -- the pages of the old volume open naturally to pages 108 and 109 -- to recipes for custards and puddings. You can see where the fold between the pages had actually been smoothed open by someone’s fingers for many years.
In Harriet Lang’s Recollections we read of the Kershaw family’s meager diet during long stretches of the war. “I will give you a bill-of-fare which we lived on for, it seems to me, weeks and months: corn bread, hominy and milk for breakfast; corn bread and cow peas, boiled without salt and bacon, for dinner; corn bread and milk for supper. Imagine if you can, a dish of peas with nothing to season them!” Harriet went on to explain that people who had plantations ate better because they could produce more food than people who had only a town house, as did the Kershaws. Their house was at 1305 Lyttleton St., and is now called the DeLoach House. Harriet’s father, Gen. Joseph Brevard Kershaw, was an attorney-at-law, not a planter. But they did have a cow and chickens in town and grew a small vegetable garden and fruit in the summers. They always had milk and eggs.
As I pondered the dietary hardships of Lucretia Kershaw and her five children who were born before the war, I wondered how they could be in the middle of others who probably had enough to share with them and still be so destitute for a variety of food. Harriet gave me the answer. She wrote, “Some of our neighbors lived very comfortably -- but what I write about is our own condition. Many others who had no plantation fared in the same way, although I think our condition was rather worse than any I knew about. We did not complain, therefore our friends could not know how we suffered. I am not afraid to confess how poor we were, for was not our support and stay fighting for his home and country?”
I picture the pitiful children as Harriet writes, “When we got unusually hungry for something good, we would get Mother’s receipt book, The Carolina Housewife, and read all the good receipts we could find. I must say this was rather tantalizing to a hungry set of children.” She went on to say that any time they got something as special as a white flour biscuit “these occasions were red letter days.” They always had milk and eggs. Custards and puddings are made of milk and eggs. Hmmm, wonder if The Carolina Housewife in the exhibit was once Lucretia Kershaw’s receipt book, and she made custard or pudding for the some of the “red letter days.”
“Camden in the Civil War: The Home Front” will be open to the public until Jan. 11, 2014. The Camden Archives and Museum is located at 1314 Broad St., Camden. There is no admission charge.