August 10, 2012

Cookbook offers view of pre-1900 Southern Illinois

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A clue to the culture of a specific place is its cuisine.  "Cooking Plain: Illinois Country Style," published by Southern Illinois University Press as part of its regional book selection, presents an historical, and useful, window to pre-1900 Southern Illinois.

The cookbook is a reprint of a book first published in 1976, but the recipes are considerably older than that. Author Helen Walker Linsenmeyer, a Williamson County native and later a Grand Tower resident, called upon her mother's family heritage of Southern Illinois cooking for many of the recipes. Other influences include true Southern cuisine as well as recipes popular among new Germanic immigrants of the mid-19th century, and even "Yankee" recipes -- all brought to the region by families who moved to it.

Linsenmeyer editorialized throughout her book, commenting on the origin of many of the recipes, or sharing biographical stories about the families who contributed them. And the book is full of fun surprises. For example, the section on wild game includes recipes for rabbit, goose and wild turkey, as might be expected, but also for rattlesnake and raccoon.

In addition, since many of the recipes refer to cooking techniques not commonly known now, and already in need of explanation when Linsenmeyer gathered her collection, the author describes cooking techniques, making it possible for modern cooks to achieve some truly old-fashioned authenticity. Linsenmeyer describes the place of some of the more unusual foods in the diet of her immediate ancestors, reaching back into the memories of her older relatives who grew up cooking in the fireplace or in a day when a homemaker might be revered or reviled based on her skill with cake.

Bruce Kraig, the founding president of Culinary Historians of Chicago and a widely known culinary historian (as well as a consultant for past Pillsbury Bake-Offs), notes in the introduction to this reprint that it is truly an indigenous cookbook, relying solely on old family recipes, not at all on commercial recipes, however traditional.

Barb Martin, director of the SIU Press, noted that the press makes available resources of all types for those interested in the history and culture of the Southern Illinois region. This cookbook, she said, will be of interest to regional historians as well as those seeking a more authentic, traditional way to prepare food.

For more information about this and other books SIU Press offers, visit  The current catalog is available online and in print. Many of the books available through SIU Press are also available as e-books.