The Fascinating Mrs. Dull
When I got married in Atlanta in 1980, someone gave us a copy of Southern Cooking by Mrs. S. R. Dull (Henrietta). The first edition was written in the 1920's, and, with the exception of a few years in the 1980's, it has never been out of print!
If you're from Georgia, you're probably way ahead of me on this article. Even though the estimable Mrs. S. R. Dull died in 1964 at the age of 100, she is still highly regarded by many Atlanta cooks.
You know you're reading a Southern cookbook when it is prefaced by three introductions, one of which traces her bloodline. I won't bore you with all of the names on her family tree. But, to give you an idea of the detail: Her great-grandfather, Thomas McCall, was at one time Surveyor General of Georgia. Colonel James McCall, of the Revolutionary War was her great-great-grandfather. And, Hugh McCall, a Brevet Major in the War of 1812, was her great-great uncle. He wrote the first history of Georgia. And, that's just a few of the mentions from her father's side of the family. We won't even delve into her mother's people! Don't laugh. We Southerners are a bit obsessed with discussing who's related to whom and how.
Mrs. Dull was born in Laurens County, Georgia shortly before the end of the War between the States. Georgians, like most Southerners, faced horrendous suffering due to the war's aftermath and the harsh punitive measures of the Reconstruction. Apparently, Mrs. Dull's family was no exception. According to her son, Mrs. Dull used to laugh and say that she was born "in the forks of Hunger and Hardship Creeks." (I appreciate the joke even more now that a Laurens County reader tells me that there really are two creeks there with these names.)
Mrs. Dull's mother became ill and died when she was very young. These events forced her to step into her mother's shoes as keeper of the home. Since she was reared in an atmosphere of people who had once been used to living well, she absorbed a lot of knowledge of the domestic arts. She also helped her father, who was a railway station master at one point, by acting as a telegraph operator.
Later, her family moved to Atlanta, where she met and married Virginia native, Samuel Rice Dull. The couple had six children. However, while the children were still young, Mr. Dull's health failed, and Mrs. Dull found herself with a family to support.
This is where her excellent domestic education and experience stood her in good stead. She knew she was a good cook, and she decided that she would supplement the family income through that means.
In her words, "I began by furnishing good things to eat from my own home to Atlanta people I took special orders for parties, dances, and receptions."
She started with baking, and Atlanta matrons soon began to prize her delicate angel food cakes. Then, she began to cater parties. It was considered a grand thing in Atlanta to have your party catered by Mrs. Dull.
Her son describes what their home was like before events. "On party days our home was a hubbub of action with my mother making gallons of chicken salad and cheese straws and beaten biscuits, or if it was to be an evening party, more gallons of creamed chicken or oysters and delicately browned timbales to go with them. The family stayed up on 'party nights' until she came home, bringing the left-overs for a midnight feast. On cake baking days our house was always a popular place, both for her children and the neighborhood children, with icing bowls to lick and enough cake crumbs to go around."
Mrs. Dull became a longtime writer for the Atlanta Journal's food page. Another notable journalist who wrote for the Atlanta Journal was Margaret Mitchell. She was still working at the AJ when Mrs. Dull started writing, and the two worked together for some time.
Readers of the AJ loved Mrs. Dull's articles and recipes. Many wrote in requesting favorite recipes that they had clipped out and later lost. So, Mrs. Dull decided to collect them all into a cookbook. The cookbook not only provides recipes, but information about table service, menu planning, cooking for invalids, how to stock a kitchen, all about measurements, how to pull a meal together so that it call comes out to the right state of doneness, etc.
Some modern cooks are surprised to find that Mrs. Dull's directions are not always as precise as modern recipes are. In Mrs. Dull's day, as now, many recipes contained exact measurements and step-by-step instructions. Other recipes read more like a general description of what to do. For example, the recipe for a souffle required exactness; the recipe for slowly roasting a pig on a spit did not.
Mrs. Dull's readers expected her to use some general terms, such as "make a brown sauce" or "mix flour and water to form a paste and use it to coat a ham" or "bake in a slow oven". Women of her day knew their way around a kitchen, and they easily understood Mrs. Dull's instructions.
Fortunately for more inexperienced cooks, Mrs. Dull's cookbook is thorough. Anyone can find the definitions of a cooking term somewhere within her pages. So, if a new bride puzzles over the direction "make a brown sauce", she can flip over to a recipe that will explain how to do that.
Mrs. Dull's cookbook is not for the faint of heart. Here is her list of the essential food groups:
1. Cereals, wheat flour, corn meal, rice, bread, and macaroni
2. Milk, eggs, cheese, meat, fish, peas, beans, nuts, and game.
3. Fats, butter, butter substitutes, drippings, cottonseed oil, olive oil, and bacon.
4. Sugar, syrups, honey, jelly, and preserves
5. Vegetables and fruits.
"Drippings?!", I can hear you exclaim.
When I was growing up, my mother had a special container for drippings, which she kept near the stove. It had a strainer in it, which caught the bits of bacon. The rest of the drippings fell down into a canister. It's strange to think about it now, but bacon drippings were an essential part of the Southern kitchen at one time.
And, where else but in the South would sugar, syrups, etc., be considered an essential food group -- one that was even listed ahead of veggies and fruits?
Also, it's a bit disconcerting to find among all of her dainty delicacies, entries such as "Alma's Recipe for 'Possum'" or, better yet, that old Southern favorite, "brains and eggs". (Despite the fact that my Dad's family used to serve the latter for breakfast on occasion, he has made it to the age of 87).
I'm emphasizing the things in Mrs. Dull's book that see seem quaint to our modern taste. Don't let that turn you off of this wonderful volume, however. Mrs. Dull's cookbook has many lovely recipes and a lot of great instruction that still applies today. I was just perusing her section on how to set up a kitchen and came away with a lot of ideas.
Here is one of the more old-fashioned recipes from her book:
"Mother's Wedding Cake Made in 1860
1 pound flour
1 pound sugar
Whites of 16 eggs
3/4 pound white butter
1 teaspoon soda
2 teaspoons cream of tarter"
Bake in a loaf pan in slow oven. No directions are given for mixing, but I think the directions given for the first cake were the general way of making cake then."
See what I mean about some of the recipes not being exact? When Mrs. Dull alludes to the instructions for the first cake, she is referring to her recipe for old-fashioned white pound cake. The directions for that recipe say, "Cream the butter and flour together, beat whites and sugar together until they look like icing, mix the two well and bake in slow oven (about 300 degrees until done." In the case of the wedding cake, you would naturally add the extra ingredients listed to the mixture.
I assume that the recipe for Mother's Wedding Cake really was used at her mother's wedding. 1860 would have been about right for her parents' marriage date.
Just a few of Mrs. Dull's other recipes are Esther's Salmon Salad, Mexican Salad, Virginia Spoon Bread, Cheese Straws (You knew she had to have a recipe for these, didn't you!), tea cakes, Tea Punch, Russian tea, catsup, Georgia Sweet Peach Pickle, baked chicken, fried chicken, squash souffle, Chicken Pie, roast duck, roast goose, and, of course, Brunswick stew.
After writing her cookbook, Mrs. Dull established the first Home Service Department for the Atlanta Gas Light Company. Whenever a woman bought one of those "new-fashioned" gas stoves, Mrs. Dull actually went to her home to teach her how to use it! She helped many women who had always cooked on wood-burning stoves get over their fear of using gas in their kitchen. Later on, she did the same for electric stoves. There are those who say that was a huge factor in helping the South change over to "modern" cooking equipment.
After that, Mrs. Dull conducted many cooking schools all around the South. These were attended by thousands of women. For two years, she headed the Home Economics Department at Tift College in Forsyth, Ga. At the request of the state's governor, she also made a trip to New York to introduce Georgia sweet potatoes to northern cooks. At the time, I'm sure that did much for Georgia farmers and, thus, for Georgia's economy in general.
Though Mrs. Dull wrote for the Journal, readers of the rival paper -- the Atlanta Constitution -- chose her as one of the South's ten most prominent women. (Today, these papers have combined into one.)
Mrs. Dull was apparently known both for charm and efficiency -- that combination of almost opposing traits that Southern women carry off so well. (I missed that gene somehow!)
In one of the many prefaces to her cookbook, Hal M. Stanley writes, "The charm of her personality and the sweetness of her disposition endear her to everyone with whom she comes in contact."
Paula Deen, one of today's most popular Southern cooks, lists one of her "Grandmomma's" favorite recipes on her site. She states that she thinks her grandmother learned it from Mrs. Dull, who was her one and only cooking mentor. Many other cooks and cookbooks cite her influence.
I was playing with words a bit when I called her the "Fascinating Mrs. Dull" Only Southern "foodies" would think of her in this way. But, despite her unfortunate last name, I really do think she's anything but dull!
She is an American lady who, like so many, triumphed over challenging circumstances. Instead of despairing when losses came, she took note of what she did possess -- cooking skills taught to her by her family. She made the most of this wonderful heritage. She turned her domestic talents into a career that helped many other women run their own kitchens well.
In looking back on his mother's life, her son took note of the contribution she made to the lives of other women. "...I think she would have been the most proud of having taught so many women to cook well for she always said that to be a good cook and homemaker was an essential part of making a happy home."