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Daufuskie island is a sea island, technically part of North Carolina but closer geographically to Georgia. It's one of the places where Gullah culture survives, linguistically and in other ways, but it's both out-of-the-way and not terribly populous; there are many more tourists than permanent residents and there hasn't been industry since pollution closed the oyster cannery in the 1950s.

The author grew up on Daufuskie in the 1960s, in a manner that would not have been unfamiliar a century previously: subsistence farming, hunting, gathering, and fishing, with hand-pumped and hand-hauled water, wood stoves, kerosene lamps, and a trip of several hours to the nearest store. There was no regular ferry and most people on the island did not own boats, so that store trip would involve calling in favors from fishermen and was consequently a significant production which didn't happen very often.

Her writings here are a mixture of nostalgia, moderate bitterness, and the particular confusion that a person gets when looking back on childhood and realizing that not everyone does things the way they were done by one's family; the bewilderment of noticing that, culturally, one is and was not in the mainstream, when previously it had not occurred to one that things could be different than they were, because that was how the world worked. It sounds like a hard-working life, which was varied and taught a great many practical skills, almost none of which could be transferred off the island. (She talks about her teachers in school trying to make the class speak English instead of their native language, talks about not knowing she was Gullah until a tourist asked her whether she was and she asked what that meant.)

The food is fascinating and very, very, very Southern; it's also the food you get when using few pots and pans on a wood stove, preparations designed to stretch calories, produce all the flavor possible from fat, and utilize the properties of fresh ingredients in an area where there wasn't much by way of indigenous spices and even garlic powder had to be hauled from that store.

The word salad, for example, means chopped things in mayonnaise, usually with hard-boiled eggs and sweet pickle involved somewhere. Nobody grew lettuce. Most main dishes are 'long pots', designed to cook at medium-to-low heat for five to seven hours at a time-- she talks about the way this tied her mother to the yard. Breakfast was at sunrise and dinner, the meal for which the long pots were destined, was somewhere between three and five p.m. so that her mother had a few hours of unhampered working time before the light faded. No lunches, but snacks of fruit and nuts between meals. Bread was always home-baked and always stretched with whatever fruit or vegetable was in season; plain white bread was a day-after-store treat.

Most of the long pots, whether vegetable-centered or based around game, start with five or six cuts of pork, some smoked and some not, to add depth and variety. The other staples are onion, red and green bell pepper, and shrimp; ninety percent of the meals involve some combination of these ingredients, either stewed entirely, made into a roast with gravy, or as a sort of stir-fry. They're always served over rice or grits and would probably feed an army in most kitchens I know-- if you can get the pork. I have no idea how I'd start trying to find a smoked pig neck-bone. Seafood can also go into long pots, but tends to be breaded and quick-fried because it had usually just been pulled out of the water. Game meant stew; there are recipes in here for stew featuring deer, squirrel, raccoon and opossum, with instructions for cleaning the meat before cooking. (This book will also tell you how to pick a crab, but assumes that any civilized person should be able to head and devein a shrimp, an assumption I find endearing although totally incorrect.)

The few quick meals in here are mostly things the kids came up with when they were left at home by themselves while their parents were working and wanted something to eat that wouldn't take six hours. It says something, I think, that both gumbo and red rice qualify as quick meals.

The desserts are a fairly spectacular array of Impressive Things To Do With Fruit, including a boiled blackberry dumpling that appears to have taken the best of English pudding ideas and run wild, and a pear preparation that creates pear preserves as a side effect. They are also the things in the book which one might be able to find ingredients for if not living in that general region, and I may try a couple of them.

If you are not an experienced cook, this book is not going to be helpful to you at all if you want to use the recipes. It is one of those books that cannot imagine a person not knowing various things about cooking. There is a recipe in here that begins 'cook a chicken in the way that seems best to you and then do x with the meat'. That said, the author has attempted valiantly to impose measurements and exact temperatures on a set of recipes which never had either; she describes three generations of women using a scoop of this, a dash of that, and knowing whether it should be on the front or the back of the stove. It is now in language an experienced cook should be able to follow and duplicate. (I myself do not think I know enough about pork products to attempt any of the meat dishes.)

If, however, you're interested in it principally as a portrait of a way of life and a set of foodways, it's quite good. There are some very nice black-and-white photos of the island, and the whole thing is sentimental around the edges but has the feel of a labor of love. I've certainly never seen another cookbook remotely resembling it-- it's a little like the sort of booklet you sometimes get from churches and small towns, where people contribute their everyday recipes, except that it's one family's stock of recipes and the food is not remotely prosaic or everyday to anyone who doesn't live there. Well worth reading, if a touch intimidating to a cook who feels moderately guilty about never having had to kill her own chickens.


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