Charlie Headrick wasn’t yet born when, in 1887, a cookbook was published that, 121 years later, would serve as a rich source of childhood memories for him.
The “White House Cookbook” was owned by Alice Hatcher, Headrick’s grandmother on his mother’s side. It’s worn, thin pages are filled with recipes, household tips, table etiquette, home remedies, care for the sick and “helpful facts worth knowing” from the wives of former presidents. Some of the first ladies who contributed to the book include Helen Taft, Hannah Van Buren, Louisa Catherine Adams, Sarah Jackson, Letitia Tyler, Sarah Polk, Abigail Fillmore, Mary Todd Lincoln and Jane Pierce.
The cookbook worked its way through the family and now rests with Headrick, who enjoys browsing through its unusual remedies and recipes, many of which involve ingredients or items that just don’t exist anymore. However, not all of the recipes are impossible to recreate.
Headrick remembers his grandmother’s fried chicken. “I suspect she used the fried chicken recipe in the cookbook,” he said. And of all the things she cooked, “the fried chicken was what really impressed me more than anything. She always said ‘the fresher the chicken, the better it is.’”
Both sides of Headrick’s family lived in Wears Valley, and he remembers summer vacations there as a child. He and the other children in the family lived in town so they would have an especially great time doing “farm things.”
His grandmother was considered one of the best cooks in the Valley. “She always cooked Sunday dinner, and we’d all go to church, and she’d stay home and cook. Of course, the kids would always try to stay home to help her out.”
Headrick said he remembers his grandmother going out into the yard to look for the meal. “She’d go into the barn lot and have some grain she’d throw on the ground, and she’d pick up young fryers and twist their necks. She’d do three or four at a time, and she’d always have the hot water to dip them in and take the feathers off.
“While she was dressing them, she’d have ‘peck’ baskets -- baskets with a handle on them, and she’d tell us to go into the garden and get tomatoes, okra, green beans, new potatoes, onions, radishes. The lettuce was always a good thing because she’d pour bacon grease on it and wilt it,” he said.
By the time everybody got home from church, the meal was prepared. “She cooked on a wood stove. There was a big table in the kitchen where everyone stayed. Even us kids would sit in there.”
After the meal they would go to the porch and talk. “I asked my sister if she remembered what we all talked about and she said, ‘religion and politics.’ My mother’s brothers all played the guitar, and they’d sing church and country songs. I always enjoyed that. I can’t sing a lick but I enjoyed that,” Headrick said.
Following is Charlie Headrick’s favorite recipe from the “White House Cookbook.”
Wash and cut up young chicken. Wipe it dry. Season with salt and pepper. Dredge with flour then dip each piece in beaten egg and cracker crumbs. Have in a frying pan one ounce each of butter and sweet lard made boiling hot. Lay in chicken and fry brown on both sides.
Take up, drain it and set aside in a covered dish. Stir into the gravy left a large tablespoon of flour. Make it smooth. Add a cup of cream or milk. Season with salt and pepper. Boil up and pour over the chicken. Some like chopped parsley added to the gravy. Serve hot.
If the chicken is old put it in a stew pan with a little water and simmer gently till tender. Season with salt and pepper, dip in eggs and crackers. Fry it slowly. Use the broth the chicken was cooked in to make the gravy instead of cream and milk or use equal quantities of both.