It was a one of those hot, rainy June afternoons, the kind that makes Savannah’s ancient pavements steam and its air heavy and sticky. But the wide, double-drawing room of the Battersby-Hartridge House, with its generous windows, lofty ceilings, and tall mirrors, was airy and cool.
Sitting beside my hostess, Connie Hartridge, on a brocaded settee, surrounded by portraits and furnishings that had been in her family for at least four generations, time seemed to stand still, as if the past had overtaken us and pulled us backward.
A part of that feeling was no doubt due to the old books scattered across the table in front of us, their covers frayed and stained, their pages browned and crumbling with age, their bindings loose and often missing. Unlike the polished family silver and old mahogany furniture, they’d been taken for granted and neglected – used, and used hard.
And yet, these battered little books were treasures equal to the most carefully tended antique in the room. These were the family manuscript cookbooks, whose faded, tattered pages preserve a part of Savannah that has been almost forgotten: a cuisine that could only happen when Old World elegance collides with marshes and wilting humidity. It was a cuisine that had, unlike the parks and architecture of this old city, been nearly lost to the march of progress.
Connie took up a drab little notebook and held it out with both hands, “This was my grandmother’s.”
I took hold of it carefully and gently opened it on my lap. Its yellowed pages were covered with faded old-fashioned handwriting, a handwriting that spoke of another era, a time when penmanship was important and hearts were not considered proper punctuation.
The recipes were old-fashioned and simple, and yet there was a timelessness about them, a lovely simplicity that spoke, not of naïveté, but of a respect for subtlety and balance, and a rare understanding of flavor that is largely lost on us today.
“Oh, my, listen to this” we’d exclaim to one another, taking turns reading them aloud, until we came to a recipe that stopped us both.
It was exquisitely simple, just a handful of ingredients, so vivid and evocative that we could almost taste it: large fat creek shrimp, tossed in copious quantities of butter and a whisper of garlic until they were just curled and pink, then finished with sherry and a handful of freshly chopped parsley.
“Yes,” she said softly, touching the page. “I remember that . . .”
Her eyes got the far-away, hungry look of a young girl, and I knew she was back in another time, sitting at a table laid with crisp linen and glistening silver, her neck chafing from the starched collar of a Sunday frock and her feet, normally bare and sand-crusted, scrubbed and imprisoned in stockings and patent leather.
As the ice settled in our glasses, we sighed and turned the page.
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large clove garlic, lightly crushed and peeled, but left whole
48 large shrimp (about 1½ pounds), peeled
Salt and ground cayenne pepper
½ cup dry sherry
3 tablespoons chopped flat leaf parsley
3 cups Lowcountry Steamed Rice
Put the garlic and butter in a large sauté pan over medium heat and cook until the garlic is golden, about 2 minutes. Remove and discard the garlic. Add the shrimp and sauté, tossing frequently, until curled and pink, about 3 minutes. Season well with salt and cayenne, both to taste (Savannah’s inlet brown shrimp often don’t need added salt), and remove them with a slotted spoon to a warm platter.
Add the sherry and bring it to a boil, stirring and scraping the pan, and let it boil half a minute. Stir in the parsley and pour it over the shrimp. Serve at once, over rice or with plenty of crusty bread to sop up the sauce.
Damon Lee Fowler is a culinary historian and author of six cookbooks, including Classical Southern Cooking, Damon Lee Fowler’s New Southern Baking, and The Savannah Cookbook. His work has also appeared in Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, and Relish. He lives and eats in Savannah, Georgia.
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