Christmas Delights In Aunt Priscilla's Cookbook

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Writer Alice Furlaud recently came across a book while preparing to do some holiday baking: Aunt Priscilla in the Kitchen, A Collection of Wintertime Recipes. Most of the recipes are for Christmas. The cookbook made Furlaud think about how far this country has come since her childhood.


Writer Alice Furlaud turned 79 this month. Over the course of her long life, much has changed. That's something she realized when she found an old cookbook given to her mother in Baltimore the year after Alice was born.

Ms. ALICE FURLAUD (Writer): This old cookbook, published in 1929, is called "Aunt Priscilla in the Kitchen," subtitled "A Collection of Wintertime Recipes." The recipes are mostly for Christmas, and the drawing on the cover is of a plump black woman in slave costume with a knotted bandana on her head and a huge full-length skirt and apron approaching a turkey with an axe in her hand.

Aunt Priscilla's recipes are all in dialect as, in this one for wild turkey. First, see that all the feathers am off the turkey and then clean it good. Her recipe for fricassee of squirrel tells you to skin and clean the squirrels, then cut 'em into pieces. Maybe that was a useful recipe for the Depression, which started that year. And the book's introduction begins, Christmas dese days ain't what it used to be when I was young. In dem days, it was a joyful time. Dem days sounds suspiciously like slavery days, and Aunt Priscilla's name as well as her dialect is very like Uncle Remus, the slave in a famous children's book.

But what really startles me is the origin of the Aunt Priscilla in the kitchen cookbook. During my childhood, Aunt Priscilla had a daily recipe column with her picture at the top in my hometown paper, The Baltimore Sun. In the 1930s and long afterwards, The Sun was one of the great American newspapers with brilliant writers including Henry Mencken and others who were revered, including my father. So I just can't think of The Sun as a racist newspaper.

I confess that the only black people I knew, we called them colored, were servants, but none of them talked at all the way Aunt Priscilla did. Our brilliant cook, Rachel Ford(ph), would never have quoted a fruitcake recipe by saying, beat the yolks of the eggs in sugar, as Aunt Priscilla does in one of her three fruitcake recipes, there at Miss Belle's(ph), Miss Liza's(ph) and Miss Mary's(ph). There's no escaping the fact that the Aunt Priscilla column and the "Aunt Priscilla In The Kitchen" book are full of nostalgia for the old slave-owning south.

After a few calls to Baltimore friends, I've learned that the so-called Aunt Priscilla was, of course, white. She was Eleanor Purcell, who was for years, the secretary of one of The Sun's most distinguished writers, Frank Kent. I remember him well. If Mr. Kent was a racist, I guess almost everybody was. Still, finding this book has been my personal revelation of the great distance this country has come since I was born. From "Aunt Priscilla In The Kitchen" to Barack Obama in the White House, a very happy Christmas thought.

COHEN: Alice Furlaud lives on Cape Cod.

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