Mary Boykin Chesnut's recipes get a new look

A research project likely to reveal new details about Mary Boykin Chesnut's dining habits literally fell into Josh Morrison's lap.

The rising Williams College junior was celebrating Thanksgiving with family friends in Boone, N.C., when the Civil War diarist came up in conversation. "I knew who she was, just because if you watch Ken Burns, she's quoted every five minutes," Morrison says of the wealthy South Carolinian who famously witnessed the attack on Fort Sumter.

The hosts, descendants of Chesnut's sister, showed Morrison a copy of her biography; as he leafed through the book, a letter written in 1874 fell from its pages.

"They were like, 'we forgot about that,' " Morrison recalls.

Morrison then learned the family hadn't just kept Chesnut's correspondence; another relative had her recipe book. The relative was in Mexico, and the book was tucked away in a Wyoming home only accessible by snowshoe, but the family arranged to have it delivered to Morrison. With the help of a Williams College grant, he's spending the summer deciphering and interpreting Chesnut's ledger of handwritten recipes and clippings from South Carolina newspapers. He spent a week this month in Charleston, consulting various archives and visiting significant sites.

By Morrison's count, there are 500 newspaper clippings and 70 handwritten recipes, including chicken fricassee, chicken fried in rice and about a dozen pudding preparations (similar to modern-day cake, pudding was a hugely popular holdover from British cuisine.)

The homemade housekeeping manual also covers animal husbandry and folk remedies, including a cure for drunkenness. Written in Chesnut's script, the formula calls for red pepper tea, bromide of potassium and cheerful society.

It appears the journal dates back to the late 1870s, when Chestnut and her husband, a former U.S. senator and aide to Jefferson Davis, were living in Camden. Although the couple was well-to-do by contemporary Southern standards, the Civil War devastated their fortune.

"All of their money was in land, slaves and Confederate money that was suddenly worthless," Morrison says. Still, they could afford to hire a cook; it's extremely unlikely that Chesnut ever made a meal for herself.

Although it's not clear how Chesnut compiled or used her recipe book, Morrison sees it as a fascinating artifact of the transition from enslaved to paid labor.

By 21st-century standards, the recipes are laconic. Measurements generally weren't specified, and electric ovens with controllable thermostats were still decades away. "The newspapers are better at including amounts," Morrison says of the difference between the printed and handwritten recipes. "She doesn't always do that."

Still, Morrison attempted one of Chesnut's recipes. "It was the first one in her handwriting that I deciphered every single word," he says of the ginger snaps. Morrison's guess at how much flour was required for a "paste" resulted in very floury cookies.

Morrison is continuing to index the recipes and analyze their ingredients. He hasn't yet decided whether to pursue publication of the recipe book. His current task list includes cross-checking the recipes with the food mentioned in her diary and figuring out the identities of the African-American women who prepared them.

"There's been a lot of people excited," he says.

Discounted food for F&B workers

If food-and-beverage professionals are able to get to Saturday brunch after working late on Friday night, Stars is offering them a 50 percent off food deal.

From 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m. on Saturdays, diners who present a restaurant pay stub can eat for half price. Brunch dishes at Stars, 495 King St., include pecan praline French toast and fried chicken benedict. Bloody Marys and mimosas are $4 and $3, respectively, no matter where you work.

And for food-and-beverage folks who are off on Tuesday nights, the same discount is available on the food menu at The Granary, 624 Long Point Road, Mount Pleasant. Don't forget your pay stub.

Commune supper club now underway

Commune, a new monthly roving supper club focusing on local producers, debuted this month with a coffee close-up.

The July 17 dinner at James Island's CUP Coffee Roasters, prepared by The Lot's Alex Lira and Commune co-founder Cory Burke of Roti Rolls, featured a welcome coffee cocktail followed by four courses cooked with coffee. The menu included coffee-smoked pig head croquettes paired with chickpea croquettes.

"Everything will be family-style, so served on large platters where everyone has to share," said Burke, who created Commune with Slow Food Charleston's Becky Burke and the Fork & Knife marketing agency.

Sharing is a core value of the Commune. Supper Cult, which describes its mission as "bring(ing) awareness to the amazing work that is being done here locally, while filling bellies with Charleston-grown ingredients, prepared by some of Charleston's best chefs."

Each site-specific dinner is a collaboration between two chefs, who together develop four courses showcasing the handiwork of one brewery, farmer, coffee roaster or fisherman.

Among this year's pairings are Jacques Larson (Wild Olive, The Obstinate Daughter) and Daniel Heinze (McCrady's), cooking at Westbrook Brewing on Aug. 20; Lauren Mitterer (Wild Flour Pastry) and Michelle Weaver (Charleston Grill), cooking on the Abundant Seafood fishing docks on Oct. 16; and Kevin Johnson (The Grocery) and Jason Stanhope (FIG), cooking at Palmetto Brewery on Dec. 11.

Dinners are priced at $75 apiece (or $125, including a T-shirt, alcohol and shuttle transportation.) The complete six-dinner package is available for $350. Proceeds benefit a charity of the chefs' choice.

All dinners are served family-style; each course includes at least one vegetarian dish. At the CUP Coffee Roasters dinner, there were also "family-style pickle plates spreading the length of the community table for sharing and topping," Burke says.

For the complete schedule, go to communecharleston.com.