LIKE MY DOG SOOLI—a Chinese Shar-Pei—I am a card-carrying member of the non-sporting group. I do not run (unless I am being chased). I do not jump. I have never assumed the half lord of the fishes pose. I don’t swing for fences and I have never stolen home. Showing up for gym class in suede shoes and knee socks sealed my fate in the unforgiving world of junior high athletics. In college, I enrolled in archery and hunter safety to meet my physical education requirements. Nope, I do not do sports.
But late one night—the house dark and the animals dreaming—I got a taste of the heat of competition, what it feels like to find oneself in mortal combat with a well-matched opponent.
It was well past midnight. I was in bed under the covers, the only light the glow from my iPad. I breathlessly watched the seconds tick away on an eBay listing, each one bringing me closer to victory—high bid on a Civil War era collection of handwritten recipes.
The tension could not have been higher had I been standing in the center of the Roman Coliseum, a gladiatrix wielding a shield and trident against an advancing lion. I was locked in a struggle for supremacy, every few minutes another bid coming from somewhere out there in the vast world we know as the Intarweb—a total of 35 volleys until sweet victory was mine.
The description on eBay read thusly (misspellings included): “Antique 1800’s handwritten cookbook by written in book…Mrs. M.B. Eason…71 pages full plus alot of loose earlier recipes stuffed in book…all with great script writting. Several blank pages also. Some of the pages would be great framed. 1871 south carolina letterhead loose inside book. Great old recipes.”
Old handwritten recipes, carefully documented in spidery script on yellowed paper, have long charmed me. My files are full of them: Myrt Burkes’ Cream Pie, Midge McDonald’s Lighthouse Wife Pickles, Maude Osborn’s Pepper Hash. Most lack cooking times and temperatures, but delightful (and delightfully odd) notes like “boil til it hairs” or “take the fluff from cattail flays” or an enthusiastic “oh boy!” make up for those vagaries.
If not for handwritten recipes passed down through the ages, dishes like White Monkey (a creamy, cheesy, eggy concoction for serving over cornbread) would have been lost to time. And so often tucked in amongst the recipes? Home treatments for conditions such as deafness, bed sores and eczema, the latter involving rotten apples.
In the week that passed from first discovering the collection of Civil War recipes to feverishly posting bids in the auction’s final moments, I had researched this Mrs. M.B. Eason and I wanted her recipe book badly…as badly as Tonya Harding wanted a gold medal in the 1994 Olympics.
Mrs. M.B. Eason was Margaret Thompson Banks of Charleston, S.C.—born on July 31, 1826, the daughter of a dry goods merchant. In 1847, Margaret married the owner of Charleston’s largest iron foundry, James Monroe Eason, named after our nation’s fifth president who visited Charleston in 1819—the year of James Eason’s birth. An ornate chintz appliqué quilt made by family members to commemorate the wedding of Margaret and James is part of the Charleston Museum’s permanent collection. υ
James Eason and his brother manufactured steam engines, boilers and other machinery at their foundry near the Cooper River. During the Civil War, the Eason brothers were called into service by the state of South Carolina to rifle smoothbore iron cannons to increase the range and power of the weapons. The Charleston Mercury reported on July 20, 1861, that “…it has been demonstrated that the Eason gun will throw solid shot or shell, with accuracy, further than any other cannon now in our possession.”
Eason also built the CSS Charleston and the CSS Chicora, Confederate ironclad gunboats that defended Fort Sumter and other Confederate positions off Charleston throughout 1863 and 1864. When Charleston was evacuated on February 18, 1865, the crews of the Charleston and the Chicora burned the gunboats to prevent capture by Union soldiers.
In 1860, the same year South Carolina seceded from the Union, Eason was elected to the state legislature as a representative, serving until 1866. He and Henry T. Peake, a colleague who supervised the South Carolina Railroad’s shop, introduced a bill that would bar free blacks from any trade or occupation except day laborer or domestic service. When the bill failed, Eason and Peake introduced legislation that would enslave all free blacks. That bill failed, as well, but nonetheless compelled hundreds of free blacks to flee South Carolina, leaving their lives and their livelihood behind.
While Eason was constructing Confederate gunboats and driving Charleston’s misguided re-enslavement movement, his wife—the fair Margaret Thompson Banks—was at home adding recipes for Birds Nest Pudding, Shrimp Pie and Confederate Cake in her lined journal that bears the inscription: For all of my Children from “Mother”
Before published cookbooks became commonplace, beloved recipes (or receipts as they were often referred to) were handed down through the generations, as indicated by Mrs. Eason’s inscription. These recipes, like the 200 collected in Mrs. Eason’s journal, give us a perspective of home life and of cooking heritage that the historical record often does not.
We know that the Civil War officially commenced on April 12, 1861, when Confederate forces fired on Union-held Fort Sumter in Charleston Bay. And from the information we have in Mrs. Eason’s collection of recipes, we also know that, just three months later, the wife of the Confederate shipbuilder was at their home at 15 Drake Street whipping up a batch of breakfast puffs. And we can speculate that perhaps when James Eason returned home from the launch of the CSS Chicora in 1862, he raised a celebratory glass of his Margaret’s blackberry wine and settled into a dinner of fowl and bacon pilau (or “paulau” as she wrote it) followed by a slice of sponge cake topped with sweetened vanilla cream because according to Mrs. Eason…“it is very good indeed.”
Eventually, the hostilities in Charleston drove Mrs. Eason—and so many other Charlestonians—to take refuge in other cities. In December 1863, when James Eason’s boiler and pattern shops where destroyed by Union fire, Mrs. Eason was miles away in tiny Talmadge, Ga., nibbling on a friend’s tomato pickles. March 1864 found her in Columbia, S.C., enjoying Molly Whilden’s yeast cakes and “very nice breakfast bread.”
Also in Mrs. Eason’s journal is a recipe for Mrs. Millar’s Strawberry Acid… a mixture of 12 pounds of strawberries, sugar and tartaric acid used to flavor ice water. The date of that entry is two years after Mrs. Eason passed, perhaps added to the collection by one of her daughters, Maggie or Lillian—whoever became Mrs. F.F. Whilden, a name scrawled on a slip of paper in the journal.
A search of South Carolina’s genealogy records reveals they both died: Maggie in 1882 and Lillian some time after her sister passed away in 1923. Frank Fleetwood Whilden, according to his obituary, “was in Charleston at the time the first shot in the War Between the States was fired and was in Columbia refugeeing with his family at the time of the burning of the city by General William T. Sherman.” He died in 1935 at the age of 80, two years after the passing of his second wife.
And here I sit, 80 years after Mr. Whilden was laid to rest with six uniformed firemen as his pallbearers, holding the handwritten recipes that belonged to both of his wives and, before them, their mother…a labor of love Margaret Thompson Banks Eason began in 1858 during a difficult chapter of American history with the first entry, her own mother’s recipe for plum pudding.
As you can see, dear reader, my quest to win Mrs. Eason’s cookbook has given me far more than recipes for slap jacks, Seymour bread and poor man’s pudding. It has taken me on a journey through Charleston’s Civil War history and has allowed me an intimate look at the family life of a Confederate shipbuilder and his bride.
Victory never tasted so sweet.
Deb Barshafsky earned the Le Cordon Bleu Master of Arts in Gastronomy from the University of Adelaide. But she’s not a food snob. Really, she’s not.
This article appears in the April 2015 issue of Augusta Magazine.