Winifred’s Cookbook

The culinary history of Jackson, Mississippi is filled with colorful characters, including one who exemplifies the genteel aspects of the city in the early decades of this past century.

Winifred Green Cheney was born into a very old Jackson family; originally from Maryland, the Greens moved to Jackson in the early 19th century. Winifred was born in the second family home at 647 North State Street in 1913. She graduated magna cum laude from Millsaps with a bachelor of arts in Latin in 1933, and on October 25, 1934, after a 7-year engagement, she married Reynolds Cheney, who became one of the city’s most prominent attorneys. The couple had three children: Reverend Reynolds S. Cheney II, W. Garner Cheney and Mrs. Patrick (Winifred C.?) Barron.

While Winifred, in almost every respect, was a model for a well-to-do woman of social standing in the mid-century South (active in her church and in social charities, etc.), in another she was not: Winifred was a writer. In the course of her life, she wrote (about cooking, mainly) for such well-known publications as The National Observer, The Rotarian, Southern World and, of course, Southern Living. She published two cookbooks (both by Oxmoor House), Cooking for Company (1985), and the truly wonderful Southern Hospitality Cookbook (1976).

Winifred’s Southern Hospitality Cookbook is not only a treasure-trove of splendid recipes, but as a whole is a tutorial of upper-class cooking in the mid-20th century South. The recipes are rich and varied; the ingredients are often expensive, and the times for preparation are usually considerable. Indeed, one of the most frequent critiques of the book is how complicated, indeed “fussy” the recipes are, many often calling for minute amounts of several various ingredients and elaborate stage-by-stage instructions on their preparation. But this is the way Winifred and the women of her generation cooked; they had plenty of time on their hands, and more often than not enough money to spend on costly and hard-to-find ingredients.

Many of the recipes are heirlooms from Virginia and the Eastern Seaboard, as well as many from “my great-grandmother … from Lone Star Plantation in the Mississippi Delta, written in her fine Spencerian hand.” (“But there were no directions,” Winifred adds. “I found this to be true with most of the old ‘receipts’ in her walnut escritoire papeterie.”) She also includes recipes from dozens and dozens of friends and neighbors: Odel Herbert’s Carrot Casserole, Vivienne Wilson’s Asparagus and Carrot Escallop, Claudia Whitney’s Meat Spaghetti, Zollie Kimbrough’s Shrimp Casserole, Linda Lacefield’s Apricot Stuffing for Duck, Becky Voght’s Caramel Icing; and many, many more.

Winifred’s cookbook is a milestone in the culinary history of Jackson as well as the Middle South, but what takes it to a higher level is a short essay by her editor at The National Observer, David W. Hacker (“Savoring Miss Welty’s Wit at a Special Seafood Lunch”), and a preface by Eudora herself, “A Note on the Cook” in which she writes:

“The original Lady Bountiful was the invention of an Irish dramatist in 1707. Winifred exists as her own version. She makes her rounds with baskets and trays as a simple extension of her natural hospitality.In good weather, but especially in bad, splashing forth in raincoat and tennis shoes, carrying a warm cake straight from her oven, she sympathizes with you or celebrates with you by sharing her table with you.

When Jane Austen’s Miss Bates, attending Mr. Weston’s ball, is seated at the supper, she surveys the table with a cry, ‘How shall we ever recollect half these dishes?’ When I sit down to Sunday dinner at Winifred’s, I feel just like Miss Bates. What guest could not? But it now becomes possible for us to recollect the dishes we’ve dined on there. The cook herself has recollected the recipes for them in her own cookbook. It’s like another extension of Winifred Cheney’s gracious hospitality; she has added another leaf to her table.”

Squash Eudora

In the introduction to her splendid Southern Hospitality Cookbook, Jackson native Winifred Cheney states that a signature dish is “a tribute in the field of cookery”, intimating such dishes as oyster Rockefeller or Melba toast. Here Winifred misinforms. A signature dish is a recipe that identifies or is directly associated with an individual chef or a particular restaurant. For instance, one could say that blackened redfish is a signature dish of Paul Prudhomme’s, or shrimp and grits of Bill Neale’s, oysters Rockefeller of Antoine’s,  or barbecued shrimp of Pascale’s Manale.

Dishes named for people, either to honor them—as in the Rockefeller, purportedly because the dish is so rich—or because they were first made for them—as is the case with Melba toast, first made by opera aficionado Auguste Escoffier for his favorite diva Nellie Melba—don’t have a specific term of reference. They’re just recipes named for people, which are (predictably) created constantly. Winifred herself created two dishes for her neighbor Eudora Welty, apples Eudora and squash Eudora.

Winifred is notorious for recipes that are rich, with expensive, hard-to-find ingredients and take a long time to make; the most frequent critiques of The Southern Hospitality Cookbook center around how “fussy” the recipes are, many calling for minute amounts of several various ingredients and elaborate stage-by-stage instructions on their preparation. Such is the case with her apples Eudora, which she describes as “tart apples cooked in a delicious syrup, drained and baked in a rich custard, then filled with an apricot rum filling and topped with a dollop of whipped cream” and if that doesn’t wear you out just reading it, then preparing it is going to make you bedridden.

Then she gives us squash Eudora, which while lacking in the elegance of her apples Eudora, is certainly less tedious. The principle ingredients are yellow crookneck squash and chicken livers. Now, chicken livers, like any type of liver, aren’t for everyone; they’re one of those things you either hate or love, rather like any incumbent president. Still, you can’t make a foie gras without them, and I’ve found that liver enthusiasts tend to be among the more culinarily sophisticated. I myself like squash Eudora, and it is substantial enough to serve either as an entrée or as a heavy buffet dish. What follows is not Winifred’s recipe to the letter (for instance, she uses “dried green onions” by which she might mean chives, but I substitute with fresh green onions), but it is faithful in spirit.

Wash but do not peel two pounds tender yellow squash. Slice thinly and parboil with a pat of butter until tender. Drain and season with black pepper and salt to taste. Drain and wash a half pound (8 oz.) livers, cut into halves and sauté in butter with Worcestershire. Set aside to cool, then drain and mix with squash, about a cup of chopped green onions a teaspoon curry powder, a teaspoon celery seed, one egg lightly beaten and a half cup grated Parmesan. Put mixture in a shallow casserole and bake at 350 until mixture is firm, dust top with more Parmesan and brown. Serve with fresh summer vegetables such as tomatoes or green beans. Winifred says that you can substitute a pound of lump crab meat for the livers, and indeed you can if your pocketbook allows.

The Little Black Dress of Cakes

My friend John Wills, a fine cook who grew up in east Texas, went to high school in Chicago, attended college in Alaska and now lives in Maine, told me that of all the Southern recipes he brings to the table, the one that most of his guests remember and ask about is pound cake. To be honest,” he said, “I think a lot of people also believe it’s popular in the South because you didn’t have to be able to read to make it, all you had to remember was a pound each of butter, flour, eggs and sugar.”

These days you’ll rarely find a pound cake recipe that doesn’t include milk in some form; Egerton’s “half-pound” recipe in Southern Food (1987) has whole cream. A good pound cake recipe is essential to any cook’s repertoire, and the best to have is a good sour cream version. This recipe comes from Jackson native Winifred Green Cheney’s Southern Hospitality Cookbook (1976). “With no exceptions,” she writes, “this is the best pound cake I have ever tasted.” As with most of Winifred’s recipes, this one is ludicrously meticulous; an eighth of a teaspoon of salt? Resift three times? Honestly.

1/2 cups butter, room temperature
3 cups sugar
6 large eggs, room temperature
1 cup commercial sour cream
3 cups all-purpose flour, measured after sifting
1/2 teaspoon soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon flavoring (vanilla, lemon, or 1/2
teaspoon vanilla and 1/2 teaspoon almond)
Powdered sugar

Cream butter by hand or an electric mixer until it has reached the consistency of whipped cream. When you think you have creamed it enough, cream some more. Slowly dribble in sugar a tablespoon at a time; beat well. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Stir in sour cream. Put measured flour into sifter with soda and salt, and resift three times. Add flour cup at a time to creamed butter, blending well with mixer on lowest speed. Add flavoring. (I use vanilla and almond along with 2 tablespoons brandy.) Pour batter into one Bundt pan and one small loaf pan or two large (cake, see below: jly) pans, greased and lined with heavy waxed paper. Bake in a preheated 325° oven: Bundt cake for 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours. small loaf for about 55 minutes, large loaves for 65 minutes or until cake tests done. Cool on rack 15 minutes and sprinkle with powdered sugar. Remove from pan and allow to continue cooling to prevent sweating. Yield: 1 (10-inch) Bundt cake and 1 (7- x 3- x 2-inch) loaf cake or 2 (9- x 5- X 3-inch) cakes—40 to 44 servings.